Chrome Academy 2013

29 Jun 2013

A week ago, I was lucky enough to have graduated from the inaugural Chrome Academy Class of 2013. Chrome Academy is a new program by Google that offers college underclassmen the opportunity to spend a week at the Mountain View campus and learn about new web technology. It was an experience unlike any other: a challenge in itself, but perhaps even more challenging to describe in words. In any case, I’ll try my best to detail one of my most life-changing experiences so far.

On June 16, 2013, I was flown out to Mountain View, CA to meet with 28 other talented students from various schools around the world. Selected from a large pool of college-aged applicants, there was no doubt that these kids were brilliant. All the students came from top-tier computer science schools and I expected nothing but the best of the best. And my expectations were met on the very first night. Obviously, like any normal group of teenagers, we sat around the pool and talked about the latest web technologies that we were using in our own projects, and what we were expecting to get out of the program. Our conversations were congested with computer science terminology, and although it was a bit overwhelming at first, I knew that I would fit in just fine with everybody else.

The next day was our first day at Google. We woke up bright and early, and left the Grand Hotel in fashion (courtesy of the hotel limo), arriving at the GooglePlex at around 8 AM. We had breakfast at Charlie’s, which is one of the many cafés on campus that provides employees with quality free food. The waffles that morning were delicious! After breakfast, we were given a tour of the campus, an amazing opportunity to get an inside look at one of the most progressive work environments in the world. Google failed to disappoint me; the campus was littered with everything ranging from a ball pit to a large tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. It was the epitome of all Silicon Valley tech campuses.

After the tour, we were lead into a cozy meeting room/space where we were introduced to Peter Lubbers, one of the head coordinators of the program and an expert in HTML5 (in fact, he’s one of the authors of the book, Pro HTML5 Programming, and an instructor for the HTML5 Game Programming course on Udacity). He gave us an overview of what we would be learning for the next 4 days, and proceeded to talk to us about the new web frontier. Peter covered a handful of HTML5 technologies, including, but not limited to, web components, web RTC, and web sockets. It was a great introduction to the material and effectively segued into what would be the next four days of learning. Wesley Chun on Python and Google App Engine, Colt McAnlis on web performance, Paul Irish on Chrome DevTools, and Eric Bidelman on Web Components and the Polymer framework: these were just a few of the many talks we received from some of the industry’s most prominent figures. The expertise of these instructors was invaluable and it was awesome to see how passionate everybody was about new and upcoming web technology.

On the first night, the 29 of us were split into groups of 4-5 people. Each group was tasked to work together for the rest of the week to hack together an innovative web application. My team and I worked on a project called Notorious. Notorious is a collaborative note taking application that suggests users relevant notes that others are taking around them. Due to the educational nature of Chrome Academy, my group dedicated a lot of our time implementing stuff we learned into our application. In the backend, Notorious was built on Google’s App Engine using Python. We also tried using Polymer and Web Components as our frontend framework, but due to limitations of the Polymer framework, we could not utilize it to implement the core functionality of our app. After 3 days of hacking, we were able to come up with a minimum viable product to present to the class. Although our application wasn’t perfect, Notorious provided me with a very valuable experience – I worked with 4 other hackers from very different backgrounds to produce something we were all excited about. And although we had our differences and disagreed on certain aspects of the product, we were able to come together to push out a working application in just 3 days.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Google event without Google swag. At the welcoming dinner, we were each given a Patagonia backpack filled with all kinds of goodies. Before I talk about the goodies, can I reiterate that we were given a Patagonia backpack? These backpacks are usually given to the winners of hackathon events and interns of the company, and ever since I’ve spotted a few of them at UCLA, I’ve been dying to get my hands on one. Opening the backpack, we found an assortment of items, including a beautifully bound leather notebook and, of course, the main dish, a Nexus 7. And throughout the week, we were given t-shirt after t-shirt. I can safely say that I won’t have to worry about shopping for shirts for a while to come.

Looking back, there are a few things that I wish would have gone differently during the program. Personally, I felt that the division of the class into separate groups hindered intergroup interactions. There were a few people that I really got to know during the last few days that I wish I could have talked to earlier. Delaying the grouping of students would have improved the dynamics of the class as a whole and allowed us to socialize and network with each other more often. Additionally, I thought that the weeklong hack project detracted a bit from the main purpose of the program. Since the project assignment was introduced on the first day, I spent a lot of time during talks and lectures thinking about the project, instead of giving my full attention to the speaker and learning the material. I spoke with other students, and many of them felt the same way. Instead of a week-long ongoing “hackathon”, maybe a 24 hour hack session near the end of the week would have been better. That way, students can dedicate their full attention to class material without the project on their minds. That being said, I am really grateful to have had the chance to spend a week in Mountain View. I would like to give a shout-out to the awesome program coordinators, Allison Roarty, Janet Ikpa, and Desiree Caballero, as well as all of the awesome instructors and other Googlers who helped us out during the week. Looking back, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; very few people get the chance to spend a week at Google HQ with nothing to worry about except learning and hacking. Never before would I have thought that in the span of one week I would be able to get together with 28 brilliant students from all over the world to pursue something we were all passionate about.

After our application presentations on Friday, we were taken to downtown San Francisco to spend the rest of the day relaxing and socializing with each other. Our first destination was the California Academy of Sciences. Although it was a bit questionable at first, the “museum” turned out to be very cool. I sat in on this cool immersive presentation about the scale of the universe, which completely blew my mind. After we left The Academy, we headed towards the Golden Gate Bridge. Students from other states were extremely excited to see the bridge and take pictures, and I eventually absorbed their excitement as well. Although I’ve been to the Golden Gate Bridge before, I really enjoyed spending time with others taking pictures and talking about our plans for the future. Did I mention that it was also the most beautiful day in San Francisco ever? The skies were clear and the sun was out – it was just perfect. Afterwards, we headed to AT&T park to watch the Giants play the Marlins. I’m not a big fan of baseball and definitely not a huge fan of the Giants, but I really enjoyed socializing with the other students. By the time we got back to the hotel, we were all fairly tired. However, there were so many people that I only just got to know, so I spent the remainder of the night by the pool with other students who felt the same way. We played Cards against Humanity and talked the night away. By the time I went to bed, I felt as if we have been friends for years. It was hard to believe that only a week had passed, and even harder to believe that we would soon be heading our separate ways. I had made twenty-eight new friends from all over the world, all of whom have similar interests as I do. In the back of my mind, I knew that I would see these people again – if not at Google next summer, then sometime in the near future. There’s no doubt about it; these young men and women are the future faces of computer science.

(p.s. I make a cameo in this video)