There are stereotypes of computer science majors being smelly, solitary creatures who spend their nights locked away in small rooms surrounded by Doritos bags and breaking into banks. While this may be rooted in truth, it no longer defines the discipline. Computer science is about collaboration, sharing ideas, building off each other’s code, creating new products from old ideas and inspiration from others. That image of interactive development is the picture that emerges from an event like the Tufts hackathon that happened last weekend.
The world of hackathons is one that most people outside of CS are never exposed to. Basically, it’s an event for code-y type people to get together and build cool things. It’s hacking in its purest form—not breaking into banks or trying to make a million dollar start-up, but just a bunch of people who want to build something cool.
In most cases, the team is what makes or breaks the hackathon. You need to get a group of people that is creative enough to develop a feasible hackathon idea, has complementary skill sets, and will be able to motivate each other when everyone is comp sci loopy and the sun is rising. Some people come in with an idea and a team already fleshed out. Others wander in with nothing, on the lookout for a cool project and a fun team, which is one of the best things about a hackathon. It’s about coming up with creative ideas, acquiring the skills needed to implement them, and making them happen. The Tufts hackathon was mainly Tufts students, with a handful of MassArt graphic designers to make everything look good, and a few stragglers from other universities and high schools.
Sponsors are a huge part of this kind of event. Basically, there are dozens of interesting startups and larger companies that want to promote their products. They have developer’s kits that provide a bunch of tools that people can use when they’re building things. For example, the Echo Nest has a huge music intelligence platform—a bunch of tools that can be used to write cool music apps. They have pre-built stuff for mixing songs together and for sorting through music to create playlists and select songs. This led to apps like Song Chef, “a tool for lazy djs,” and MoodJ, which lets users choose a color and will provide songs to match the mood. The companies, meanwhile, get to advertise their products and recruit the talented developers that spawn at hackathons.
After some presentations by the sponsors on how to use their tools (APIs), people head off and start coding. There’s usually food everywhere, because hungry programmers are bad programmers, and a dozen types of caffeine. Ideas are molded and developed further, teams break into separate projects or join together, laptops and power cords are scattered everywhere. Groups sneak off into side rooms, spread across tables and lounge on couches. Strange technical things start happening—computers are configured, the language spoken turns from English to a mix of CS and curse words, and goat videos start propagating.
The sun rises, breakfast is served, final touches are put on projects, and everybody heads off to the demos. This is the part where teams present what they’ve worked on, explain the technical details, show off the cool features, and are awarded prizes in a dozen different categories. Then everyone goes home and sleeps.
There’s an incredible amount of work that goes into this kind of event. All of the participants work incredibly hard for the duration of the hackathon. There are also countless hours of planning—getting sponsors, coordinating prizes, buying food, making sure the internet at the location can support the load. Check out Marshall’s blog about the t-shirt fiasco that was narrowly avoided thanks to the generosity of BlueCotton. He and Alden spent ages making sure the hackathon would be fantastic, and they did an excellent job.
Basically, hackathons are exactly as awesome as they sound. Comment if you’ve got a sick idea or if you think I’m crazy.