Project Spotlight


What We Built at General Assembly’s Social Impact Hackathon: Serenity

By Jess Feldman
Last Updated August 27, 2021

General Assembly Immersive graduates Jess, Shane, and Scott learned everything they needed to know about prototyping, user interface design, and how to build applications during the bootcamp. In General Assembly’s Social Impact Hackathon, they put all of those new skills to the test, and reinforced their soft skills of collaboration and communication. Learn more about Jess, Shane, and Scott’s experience building their winning app, Serenity, in just three days during the hackathon event. These grads share their advice on how to make the most of your online bootcamp experience! But first, General Assembly’s Outcomes Manager, Jason Schoch illuminates what makes the Social Impact Hackathon so unique and how it benefits bootcamp graduates.

What makes General Assembly’s Social Impact Hackathon unique?

Jason (General Assembly): The Social Impact Hackathon provides an opportunity for all of our Immersive grads (Data Science, Software Engineering, and UX Design) to come together in a truly collaborative moment. While in the bootcamp, students are singularly focused on perfecting their individual craft; the hackathon allows students the chance to experience a balanced team approach with different disciplines in order to build a product. 

My colleague, Bradford Smith, the Live Online Outcomes Manager, was my collaborative partner in developing this Social Impact Hackathon initiative for General Assembly. We started it in Los Angeles, but a number of our campuses have since adopted it and made it their own.

How does the Social Impact Hackathon benefit recent General Assembly graduates?

Jason (General Assembly): There are a few benefits for those who participate in the Social Impact Hackathon:

  • The Immersive grads learn to build a fully functional product as a team. As a team, they experience the struggles and the rewards of building a product together. The hackathon is all about teamwork and that's something employers focus on during the interview stage.
  • Since the hackathon happens after the cohorts are done, it provides the opportunity for grads to extend the momentum they had built during the course and create a new piece for their portfolios. Just because class concludes, that doesn't mean the learning and growth ceases!
  • When we launched this hackathon, we decided that the themes for the challenges would have a social impact ingredient to them. Our students leave the program with highly valued skills that land them jobs at the top tech names out there, and that's fantastic! But we want them to reflect on what they can offer in a broader sense and we want them to get a feel for what "doing something good" means. This goes beyond any one political or social ideology — We just want our bootcamp grads to be cognizant and empathetic of the various ways they can use their new skills in making a difference.

Scott, why did you choose to enroll in General Assembly’s UX Design Immersive?

Scott: Before enrolling in General Assembly's UX Design Immersive Bootcamp, I worked in the fashion industry as a designer. After I began to see how unsustainable the fashion industry was, not only in an environmental way but also from a business standpoint, I wanted to better understand the customer and the user to advocate design strategy and impact businesses. By attending General Assembly and participating in the Social Impact Hackathon, I leveled up in my design career. I learned how to think about problems differently, consider changes to help benefit businesses, and how to advocate for better design to stakeholders.

General Assembly’s courses are very organized and thorough, and I liked how General Assembly gives students pre-work to help them understand the Immersive before enrolling. I learned more than I had ever known just from the pre-course – that’s why I chose General Assembly.

Jess, why did you want to make a career-switch from arts administration to UX design? 

Jess: I was in fundraising in arts administration, and I realized that the end goal for my position would be a Director of Fundraising role – that didn’t interest me. Instead, I felt like I could grow professionally and financially into a lifestyle that I wanted for myself within UX design. I'm excited about the possibilities for leadership positions with UX design — the community is generous with their time and resources, and it's a welcoming place to learn!

What was the application process like to get into the Software Engineering Immersive? Did you have to know how to code to apply?

Shane: You don't have to know how to code to apply! There were three steps to the interview process: 

  1. The first step involved speaking to the admissions team about your goals and interests.
  2. If you aligned with the program, then the second step was to complete a task that the admissions team assigned to you to create an HTML web page.
  3. The third part was to complete pre-work to get prepared for the course. The pre-work filled in many gaps for me and got me on the right foot to learn the course material.

Where there any design-specific challenges in the UX Design Immersive application process?

Scott: As far as I know, there isn't a specific design challenge, but rather a phone interview and the pre-course that students take. General Assembly tries to understand whether the student is dedicated to making a shift into UX design. They want to know why you want to make a career change and whether you are a good fit for UX. 

What did the UX Design Immersive curriculum cover?

Jess: The course covers everything from creating practical research guides to usability testing and sharing design solutions with stakeholders. It touches on everything, from beginning to end, very thoroughly. Everyone has questions as they're going through the process, of course, and all of our questions were answered, not only in the class but also within shared resources we could follow up with later.

What kinds of technologies and skills did you learn in the Software Engineering Immersive?

Shane: We covered a lot of modern technologies, starting with JavaScript, the language that browsers use. We went into jQuery, NodeJS, and Express. We went into databases such as SQL, MongoDB, and Mongoose, along with JavaScript frameworks such as React. We also went into Python, Django, and PostgreSQL. 

As far as soft skills and learning how to problem-solve, everything about the course was designed to put us in a growth mindset. I wondered what “Immersive” meant before starting the course, and I soon learned that at General Assembly, we were very much immersed in a culture of learning. It was a nine-to-five experience, and afterwards there was homework. Even after the course ended, General Assembly provided many resources to continue our education.

When did you start working on projects in the UX/UI Design bootcamp curriculum? 

Scott: The whole curriculum focused on projects. By the end of week two, we started to schedule a project into our coursework. As Shane said, we were very immersed in each lesson, and we gained so much knowledge. Because we got into project work early, we could use our skills and what we learned in the UX course for the project.

What was the problem you were asked to solve in the Social Impact Hackathon? 

Jess: We were tasked with answering the question: What can you create to help a caregiver’s peace of mind? The question was intentionally broad. 

We had our kickoff meeting on Monday morning with our four team members, and then presented our project by Wednesday night. This meant that we had about three business days plus all the late nights in between to complete our project!

So, what did your team decide to build for the hackathon?

Scott: Shane shared a great story about how to help caregivers when they're going through a loss. In response to that, we built an app called Serenity with a chat function for users to anonymously speak with other caregivers who understand what they’re going through. 

The designers (Jess and myself) on our team built the prototype, and then the engineers (Colton and Shane) on the team took over. The biggest strength we had on our team was communication between the software developers and the UX designers. We had many different perspectives looking at the product and how to solve problems. The designers were able to understand what the software developers' MVP was and meet in the middle while making this product. 

What are the main features of Serenity?

Scott: Users sign up for Serenity with their name but within the platform, they remain anonymous. We ask users what kind of caregiver they are and what type of caregiving they're looking to receive. We also ask if they're able to be supportive of other users in the app. Users can filter through the people and topics they want to explore. Once they use that filter, they could chat with someone and get the support they needed. We also offer a resources section where users could find relevant resources and easily read their articles or listen to podcasts as a form of support.

Shane: One of the main features is the survey component, which we wanted to make as simple as possible for grieving caregivers. The chats tailor to what the user feels on a given day and the nature of support they're seeking. The resources feature is optional for users and is a place to store their blog articles, podcasts, SoundCloud links, and so on. 

On the developer side, what did it take to build Serenity? Did you use everything you learned at General Assembly or did your team have to learn any new technologies to build it?

Shane: When we came together as engineers, we went straight to our toolkit of everything that we learned at General Assembly. Everything we learned in the curriculum helped us decide what technologies we would use to build the project. As developers, we tried to come as close as possible to our design team’s prototype, given the amount of time we had. 

Because of its performance implications, we decided that the best JavaScript framework to use was React. React has a flux design pattern, which means the data flows in a specific manner. We used Ruby on Rails for the back end, along with a PostgreSQL database. We use GitHub to collaborate for the project — all of the code is hosted there. We were able to make pull requests and integrate everyone's code that they were working on locally. For the design aspects, we deployed our project to Netlify and used Material-UI, which is maintained by Google. For the account feature, we integrated Google Firebases so users can sign up using their Gmail accounts. 

Since this was an online hackathon, how did you all collaborate remotely?

Jess: My entire UX experience so far has been remote, and I feel like everyone on the team has a similar experience. We were able to jump right into using Zoom and Slack as much as possible to stay in touch. Similar to how Millennials and Gen Z grew up with the evolution of technology, our cohort came up in and around software engineering, so we hit the ground running. 

One of my General Assembly instructors pointed out that we are getting ahead of the game by learning remotely. We have a bunch of tools that others in the field are using remotely, so I feel like we're one step ahead. 

What was your team’s biggest challenge?

Jess: Since I was a recent UX Design Immersive grad, the biggest challenge was learning how to work with the other tech team, but General Assembly kicked off the Social Impact Hackathon as an open and welcoming learning environment, so we were all open to asking questions, clarifying things, and keeping each other up to date on every single change. Another challenge was understanding what the engineering team could accomplish in such a short amount of time. 

Shane, how did this hackathon experience improve your own career development as a new software engineer? 

Shane: The hackathon improved my career development in three ways:

  • It sharpened my problem-solving skills. Whenever you're building something from scratch, as we did here, there will be unique problems that come up. This project allowed me to develop custom solutions to problems to get the application working in the way we wanted it to. 
  • This hackathon reinforced the skill of compromise. Nine people were working on the Serenity app, and all nine of us had personal preferences on how we wanted it to look and function.
  • The hackathon sharpened my collaborative skills. Not only did I work with other software engineers, but also with designers. It was a great lesson for both groups, as it taught us how to communicate with others outside of our respective disciplines and scope. 

I will definitely be putting this hackathon project in my portfolio, and if given the opportunity, I'll be discussing it in future job interviews!

Was General Assembly worth it for you? 

Shane: It was worth it. Before attending General Assembly, I saw tech as a hobby. General Assembly allowed me to transform tech from a hobby to a potential career. The Software Engineering Immersive bootcamp answered every question I faced throughout the process. Personally, General Assembly gave me the confidence that I could use tech to work through real-world problems.

What is your advice for someone who wants to change careers through an online bootcamp?

Jess: I would recommend networking from the beginning because when you're in the Immersive, you're working nine-to-five and usually late at night. Reach out to folks that are in the field that you're interested in. It doesn't matter if you haven't started the class yet. The UX community is very generous; we're excited to share our experience and knowledge with anybody interested in UX! Reach out to people before, during, and after the Immersive to learn about different UX practices and organizations.

Shane: I advise going through General Assembly’s pre-work thoroughly. If you have a strong foundation, you will be more adaptable to learning new skills. General Assembly does a great job with its pre-course foundation work.

Find out more and read General Assembly reviews on Course Report. This article was produced by the Course Report team in partnership with General Assembly.

About The Author

Jess is the Content Manager for Course Report as well as a writer and poet. As a lifelong learner, Jess is passionate about education, and loves learning and sharing content about tech bootcamps. Jess received a M.F.A. in Writing from the University of New Hampshire, and now lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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