Cracker Barrel and Hacker School

Last Friday I quit my job. A week from now I’ll be moving to New York City to participate in the sixth batch of Hacker School.

My decision to attend Hacker School was not an indictment of my job because I actually liked my job. I mean, it wasn’t perfect but no job is. But I was able to meet, work with and learn from people that I really enjoyed, both as colleagues and as friends. And I particularly liked working with the people on my project team.

To be honest, the impetus to apply for (and ultimately attend) Hacker School came from a really unexpected place – Cracker Barrel.

Cracker Barrel: Limited low calorie options
Cracker Barrel: limited low calorie options

For the unacquainted, Cracker Barrel is a restaurant/gift store that has a Southern country/Americana theme. You can buy stuff like rocking chairs, corn muffin mix and cast iron pans from the store after eating a massive, non-diet-friendly meal of “chicken-n-dumplins” or country fried steak and eggs in the restaurant. Last fall I stopped by a Cracker Barrel in suburban PA with my girlfriend and her family to eat a late lunch, at which point I was introduced to this:

The Peg Game, aka Peg Solitaire
The Peg Game, aka Peg Solitaire

The peg game.

The peg game is placed on every table throughout the restaurant to keep diners occupied as they wait for their food. It’s not super complicated – start with an empty spot, jump pegs to remove them, and end up with the least (ideally one) amount of pegs on the board when there are no remaining moves. There’s even a friendly taunt written on the wooden block that categorizes players based on their performance [1]:

  • Leave only one, you’re genius
  • Leave two and you’re purty smart
  • Leave three and you’re just plain dumb
  • Leave four or mor’n you’re just plain “eg-no-ra-moose”

But as I sat there playing this game (over and over and over again) I remember looking at my girlfriend and saying – “hey, I think I can code this.” I had just begun getting familiar with object-oriented JavaScript at work and I was pretty sure I could handle the CSS. I wasn’t 100% sure of the implementation details as I sat there, but I was confident that I knew enough that I could probably figure it out. And that sentiment turned out to be the turning point that day – I realized I knew enough to be dangerous. I knew enough to be self-guided. I knew enough to figure it out on my own.

So there I was, working on my laptop in my girlfriend’s living room as her and her sisters watched Grey’s Anatomy. Turning the $3 wooden triangle over again in my hands as I tried to figure out a sensible way to represent the pegs and moves with objects and functions. And while my eventual implementation was by no means the most sophisticated or clever [2], it freaking worked. It actually worked, I couldn’t believe it. I started something I didn’t know how to do and figured it out, and I was proud of my hastily-designed, inelegantly architected solution.

You can play it here.

I think for those of us who haven’t been programming since we were 3 months old on a Commodore 64 there can be a natural inclination to feel crappy in light of the massive display of tech talent on the Internet. [3] Everyone seems to be a 16-year-old MIT grad starting the next big venture-backed social-thing when you read too much TechCrunch. But I don’t think the majority of tech people operate this way in practice. Even the really good people. They start somewhere small. They experience small victories. They learn over an extended period of time, and those small victories snowball to create the confidence to take on bigger challenges.

For those who haven’t heard of it, Hacker School is a three month, collaborative, project-based coding program based in NYC. The website covers their general ethos, but one way of summing things up is that it’s a “writer’s retreat for programmers.” From a pool of hundreds of applicants they select ~50 people (half male/female) who treat HS like a full-time job. You go in M-Thurs for 8+ hours a day to engage in self-guided learning. Anyone who wants to help anyone else learn something does so. You explore topics that others have experience with and help others who are less experienced than you are. And at the end of three months, you get better.

Hacker School to me is that Peg Game experience drawn out to three months. Technically I’m nowhere near where I want to be, but I know enough to know what I don’t know. And I’ve experienced enough small victories to have the confidence to believe that what I don’t know I can figure out. I’m confident enough that three months of unpaid investment into my own skillset, even at the opportunity costs of leaving a company I liked, living in a new city and lost salary, is worth the risk.

I’m unbelievably excited to see what the summer has in store. I’m excited to meet/interact/collaborate with the other batch members, check out the NYC tech scene, and see where sitting in a room full of 50 self-motivated and smart individuals takes me intellectually.

Props to Cracker Barrel. [4]

[1] I learned that afternoon that my intelligence level consistently falls somewhere between "just plain dumb" and "eg-no-ra-moose."

[2] And at times down-right hacky. Representing the moves as a massive nested object was cheating, I know. Creating a more algorithmic/mathematical fix for that is a problem for a different Greys Anatomy marathon.


[4] I've gotten better technically since I wrote the Peg Game but I'm not any better at the actual Peg Game, which is just a sick twist of irony.

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