I wasn’t sure what to expect when I signed up as a mentor for the Education Foundation of Sarasota County’s #SRQHacks Hackathon. All I knew is that I was interested in providing whatever value I could to local students in the context of exposing them to the world of software development.

As a team lead, it would be my responsibility over the course of the weekend, to help the students hone in on a single idea for how we could use a piece of software (app) to tackle one of 7 topics that had been identified by students and the community at a town hall meeting a few weeks prior to the hackathon.

After breaking out into our small teams on day one, I found myself standing in front of an eager group of students and mentors, none of which I had ever met before. That’s when I met Trey DiBias.

He’s a 15 year old sophomore at Braden River High School. He’s also a self-taught programmer who started teaching himself how to code on YouTube back when he was 8. No big deal.

“Controlling technology has always been an immense interest of mine, and the fact that I am able to use my skills in coding as I volunteer my time is something I have a great passion for.” Said Trey in a short recap after event.

To be honest, I was blown away by stories like this from the students and mentors all weekend. Which is probably the most powerful take away from the event. Because no amount of words in an article could ever account for the type of real world connections that were made over the course of this 3 day hackathon.

As someone who hacked his way into the world of technology, and is now making a career out of it, I see tremendous value in exposing students to educational events like this. Exposing them to a weekend of immersive learning where real problems are solved through collaboration and creative exploration.

So that’s just what we did. With no real rules, or preconceived notions about how things are supposed to work, Trey and I, along with the rest of the team, spent the better part of the next two days creatively exploring ways to open up access and opportunity in education for other high school students around the world.

“In just the first three hours of brainstorming, I was completely hooked on the whole concept of the Hackathon. I could immediately sense the synergy between the students and the mentors…” Trey continued in his recap of the event. “Of the twenty-four total hours the teams spent working on their projects, every minute was spent in its fullest capacity. This was the time in which the true hacking occurred; this is the time the mentors divulged the secrets of their craft; this is the time the students became fully engaged interns at their newest occupation; and this is time that I knew I was here for the right cause. As the deadline approached, these impactful qualities only grew stronger. I had not known what was to be expected of such an event, however the sheer adrenaline-rush that I had felt is one that I will never be able to live down.”

There were moments throughout the weekend when I feared that we wouldn’t be able to pull it all together. That as a team lead, I was not going to be able to help the team pull it all together in time to make the final presentation, but somehow we did. And after a long weekend, matchED was born, an app focused on matching high school students to personalized streams of hand curated content from pre-screened educators.

Through the process of designing matchED, the students were exposed to every part of the software development cycle and business planning process. They were even somewhat exposed to processes of sales and marketing, as members of the different groups ran around on Saturday advertising their startups to the other teams to try and influence the student vote. Which was kind of a fun moment. A moment when I realized that this hackathon actually created a small economy inside of this weekend long social experiment. And in this economy, there were no political distractions, and the possibilities were endless.

But more important than the learning process itself, was the opportunity to show off parts of the real world to students who are trying to figure out how to make a path in their own lives. To show students that the world of software development is wide open and right at their fingertips.

Because in my mind, this weekend was about more than just a hackathon. It was the beginning of something bigger here in Sarasota. It was about showing the youth in this town possibilities for their future, but more importantly, it was about showing them that there is opportunity to innovate right here in their home town. To show them that there is a thriving technology community right here in Sarasota, and to show them that anyone of them is welcome to enter that space and make it their own.

Because the future is bright here on the Gulf Coast, and this weekend showed me, as well as the students, that with a little hard work and dedication, anything is possible.

I'm just here for the show