Hackers Descend on a Campus Near You

Joseph Xu, U. of Michigan

College hackathons are growing in number—and getting more organized—but they’re not quite what you think they are. Here two participants in last year’s 36-hour MHacks event, at the U. of Michigan at Ann Arbor, work on their project.
January 16, 2015

Nick Quinlan’s parents didn’t quite understand the concept of a hackathon. No, he told them, being a hacker doesn’t mean breaking into things. It means building them.

In the early days of computing, Mr. Quinlan said, hackers were people who built things "elegantly." But the word eventually took on the negative connotation we know today.

Hackathons are events that bring together groups of people—many of them computer scientists, others just independently tech-savvy—to collaborate in building original software or improving existing technology, among other things.

As the commissioner of Major League Hacking, the official student-hackathon league, Mr. Quinlan is helping people to understand the true meaning of hacking.

This weekend marks a first for the league. Two major hackathons—PennApps, at the University of Pennsylvania, and MHacks, at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor—will be held on the same weekend to create what Major League Hacking is calling the busiest student-hackathon weekend on record. On Sunday the Major League Hacking website plans to livestream the finals and give everyone a chance to see what the more than 2,000 participants have created.

These days, hacking is almost a sport. College students (players) travel from all over the country, and even the world, to attend hackathons (tournaments) overseen by Major League Hacking (an official league).

The biggest difference is that hackathons aren’t nearly as competitive as, say, college basketball. Sure, some people focus on winning prizes, Mr. Quinlan said, but they’re in the minority.

"I’d say we’re most similar to a marathon," he said, in that the events are more about personal growth than winning or losing.

A Whirlwind of Hacking

Major League Hacking was created about a year and a half ago, as hacking culture was growing and hackathons were popping up on more and more college campuses. Each league-affiliated hackathon is independently organized, with the league providing mentorship, hardware to supplement student projects, and introductions to sponsors, said Mr. Quinlan, who graduated from Western Washington University in 2013.

The league has livestreamed events before, Mr. Quinlan said, but this will be on a much larger scale, with commentators (think ESPN) discussing the various hacks.

This weekend will be a whirlwind for the students participating in PennApps and MHacks. They’ll spend about 36 hours working almost constantly—maybe taking the occasional break for a nap, a round of Super Smash Bros., or a spontaneous yoga session—to build something unique.

At PennApps, every available space in the engineering quad will be occupied by hackers, said Pranav Vishnu Ramabhadran, a student organizer and a hacker himself.

At past PennApps events, the halls were filled with people just waiting to "explain to you what hack they’re making that’s going to change the world," said Mr. Ramabhadran, a sophomore in Penn’s management-and-technology program.

Mr. Ramabhadran has seen hacks that could be useful, like one that helps people quit smoking and other bad habits, and hacks that are cool but not entirely practical, like one that will complete your homework and answer it in your own handwriting.

PennApps is open to all Penn students—there will be workshops for those new to hacking—but students from outside the university must apply to participate, Mr. Ramabhadran said.

Acceptance isn’t based on having won, or even attended, other competitions, he said. What the organizers want to know is: "Are you a hacker at heart?"

Coders Screaming in Happiness

MHacks participants, including Michigan students, must also go through an application process. MHacks specifically tries to provide opportunities for first-timers, non-computer-science majors, and people in a variety of academic disciplines, said Vikram Rajagopalan, who got his job as a student organizer through a campus entrepreneurship program.

Mr. Rajagopalan, a sophomore majoring in information and computer science, is amazed at participants’ commitment. For the better part of a weekend, they do almost nothing but work on their hacks.

Mr. Rajagopalan has never participated in a hackathon. But after working to organize MHacks, he has been inspired and may decide to experience it from the hacker side next time.

Canzhi Ye, a freshman computer-science major at the University of California at Berkeley, will return to MHacks this weekend. During high school, Mr. Ye saw a friend’s photographs of projects made at MHacks and decided to attend the next one. At the time, the hackathon provided Mr. Ye with something he hadn’t encountered before: a group of people who, like him, loved coding.

"Just watching people code through the night, scream in happiness when they figured things out, it was exciting to see firsthand," he said.

Since then, Mr. Ye has attended about 10 hackathons. But he’s excited to return to MHacks, where it all began for him. He and his team plan an ambitious project—a lie-detector app—that they’re hoping to build at MHacks, though Mr. Ye admitted he’s not sure it will work.

PennApps and MHacks were two of the earliest, large-scale collegiate hackathons, said Mr. Quinlan, the league commissioner.

Just a few years ago, he said, there were only two major collegiate hackathons: HackNY, a joint effort of Columbia and New York Universities, and PennApps. "I remember going to school in Washington State and watching as somebody live-tweeted these hackathons happening, and being so jealous I didn’t live on the East Coast because I couldn’t go," he said.

But then the number of events started to increase—from those two to three to five to 15 to 36 and more. This "season," the spring academic semester, there will be about 70 collegiate hackathons affiliated with the league, Mr. Quinlan said.

The hacking community is "growing like crazy," he said. The league has found that, each season, about half of the participants are first-timers.

One of the league’s primary goals is to get more people involved in hacking while increasing diversity among hackers, Mr. Quinlan said. He hopes that the livestream will help demonstrate that hackathons are an opportunity to learn, make new friends, and even network with potential employers.

And they’re a chance to reclaim the term "hacker" and show the world—or, at least, parents—what it really means.