It is a Saturday at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), and the mood is tense. All throughout the halls, heads are bent low over laptops. Hushed exchanges are made, eyes never leave the computer screens on which they are fixed. Music plays quietly. Here and there, people catch a few hours of sleep on the floor, or are curled up in a chair. There is only one thing this could be.
The 24-hour event is something of a playground for aspiring programmers. The objective is to use programming skills to make literally anything, so long as it is creative and not illegal. Categoeies for the RPI event were laid out ahead of time — projects could fall under the definition of “web app,” “mobile app,” “desktop app” or “something in between.”
The event marked the first time that Fordham has ever sent an official group to a hackathon. The Computing Sciences Society (CSS) coordinated the trip independently of OSLCD, by executive board members Kenny Durkin, Tausif Hasan, Samuel Joseph (the Ram’s Photo Editor), Aaron DeVera and Hannah Reiss, all FCRH ’16.
Durkin, the president of the CSS, said the students who participated were generally inexperienced, with 15 out of the 22 attendees never having been to a hackathon before.
One group, made up of Joseph, ’16, and Stephen Rubio, FCRH ’16, Oliver Belanger, FCRH ’15 and Jake Weissman, Columbia University ’16, made an Android app that analyzed phone usage statistics. Another group, made up of Ian Granger and Armend Pashtriku, both FCRH ’18, created a hardware project that sent tweets and made a light display at the push of a button. Several others, like Pauline Pan, GSB ’17, and Elana Tee and Nicole Kucik, both FCLC ’17, used the time and resources to learn basic coding to build their own personal websites (using a free domain that RPI supplied to all participants).
“We couldn’t have asked for a better result,” Durkin said. “Part of the reason hackathons are spreading so quickly is that they are a perfect environment to get over the learning curve to build some new idea[s].”
Durkin should know. He has been heavily involved in hackathons since he first discovered them by attending hackNY, a once-a-semester student hackathon hosted by various New York universities.
“[I] knew it was something we should bring to Fordham,” Durkin said. “At the time, I was just getting involved with the Computing Sciences Society and knew it would take a while for interest to spread, so I initially attended about a dozen solo throughout the year.”
Last spring, the CSS started spreading the word and was able to get around 10 students to attend the spring hackNY.
“We’ve come a long way since then,” said Durkin.
All hackathons differ, but most follow a similar format. They tend to last for either 12 or 24 hours. Within that time period, hackers can assemble teams, rent equipment, receive help from mentors, attend seminars, get meals and snacks, meet other hackers and create an original project.
At the end of the hackathon, teams and solo hackers present their ideas, and winners are chosen.
The RPI event’s sponsors included the likes of Bose, Google, Microsoft, Texas Instruments, IBM and several others.
TripAdvisor, CommerceHub, IBM, Tata Consultancy Services and Microsoft gave their own “Tech Talks,” and all the sponsors had representatives present for all 24 hours to offer advice and networking opportunities. There were also tech-themed games held periodically to give hackers a break from their computer screens.
The event was RPI’s first hackathon, and the event impressed the Fordham students in attendance
“Most newcomers walked away with a newly acquired primer in computer programming,” DeVera said. “And the exposure to new tech companies and fellow programmers is an experience that can only be gained by stepping outside Fordham’s gates and exploring.”He continued, “[The] best part…was CSS ability to leave home for a day and a half. [That is] hard to do.
In fact, Fordham CSS hopes to get in on the action soon and host its own hackathon at Fordham this December.
“[We] are proud to be throwing Local Hack Day on Dec. 6th, a 12-hour hackathon co-hosted by CSS, Digital Business Society and the Fordham Foundry, where it will be held,” Durkin said. “It’s powered by Major League Hacking, the NCAA of college hackathons, but all planning and organizing is left to us.”
The club recently secured the CEO of organization app Evernote as a sponsor, and is working to get even more people to back the event.
“We think it’s going to be a great event for promoting tech at Fordham and laying a foundation for even greater events in the future,” Durkin said.
The club also plans to “build on this momentum,” according to Durkin, and “organize even more hackathon trips in the spring.”
This time around, the Fordham delegation did not win any prizes. But, if the CSS’s plans come to fruition, they will have many more opportunities in the future.
As Durkin said, “it was never about the awards to begin with. Everyone in our room was building something interesting, and everyone said they had a great time.”
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