I’m LOLing during my phone interview with Mark Adams, the UCSC senior responsible for creating the university’s first ever hackathon—a 30-hour sprint of coding and developing in which 150 students will team up to create new mobile apps and web programs from scratch. UCSC’s Hackathon, called HACK UCSC, is unique in that it will bring in several local tech professionals to collaborate with the students on their projects. It’s at this point where our hilarious madcap misunderstanding happens. You see, I got the situation backwards.
HACK UCSC, taking place April 5 and 6, is not geared towards helping student programmers land jobs.
“I think a lot of the people participating don’t need any help finding a job,” Adams says plainly. The event, he explains, is more a chance for employers to find programming talent.
Quite honestly, it takes a moment for all this to sink in for me. I try to plead to Adams, a Business Management Economics major, about how I graduated in the year 2009 with a degree in journalism, and the crippling anxiety that entailed, but I’m not sure if he gets it.
“Yeah, I don’t know about that. My roommate, he’s a tech guy. He’s graduating soon. He’s just completely relaxed. He’s already gotten job offers from two or three companies already. He’s like, ‘Yeah, money’s not going to be a problem for me,’” Adams says.
That’s when I start laughing. I probably do it so I don’t have to look too closely at my life decisions and cry instead, but it’s no matter. If all goes according to plan, hackathons like UCSC’s are going to eliminate the need for crippling anxiety of any kind. Hackathons are going to save us. They’re going to save us all.
Hackathons work like this: a few hundred computer programmers, designers and business-minded techies come together to form teams that develop new projects from scratch. They work toward a deadline—sometimes several days and sometimes just 24 hours—and at the end there are usually cash prizes awarded for the most innovative projects. While working, energy drinks and pizza consumption are rampant, and sleep is very optional. HACK UCSC organizers insist that, food-wise, there will at least be sandwich wraps at their event, and expect students won’t work all night or camp out at the event, though they are welcome to bring their sleeping bags into the workspace if they feel so compelled.
These types of events have been put on by tech companies since the mid- to late-2000s. They’re meant to quickly develop new technologies and encourage innovation. (“Hacking” in the context of these events has nothing to do with the word’s alternate meaning, a reference to computer crime.) But according to Jon Gottfried, the co-founder of Major League Hacking, an NCAA-like network of collegiate hackathons, the events have only taken off on college campuses in the last year and a half. “There typically used to be six or seven events a year, and now we’re seeing 60 or 70,” he says.
Collegiate hackathons are both a fun challenge for tech-minded students, and a way to get the word out to companies in need of talent—a need for which there is seemingly no end. Says Lila Tretikov, chief product officer at Silicon Valley software company SugarCRM, in an email to the Weekly, “We are importing about 85,000 technical people on H-1B visas a year because we cannot fill the needs with local talent. Finding and hiring good programmers is about the hardest thing a startup must do. Startups must compete with Google, Facebook, Apple and other technology giants when it comes to talent. And it is not easy.”
Tretikov will kick off HACK UCSC by giving a talk to the participants about the latest trends in tech.
Whereas most collegiate hackathons have only student participants, the structure of HACK UCSC is unique in that it will be a chance for college students and local tech professionals to work together. Each student team will work in collaboration with one mentor, a member of the Santa Cruz tech community. Doug Erickson, founder of the Santa Cruz New Tech MeetUp (see story, page 6) and one of HACK UCSC’s organizers, says the reason for this is that the main objective of the hackathon is to connect the existing tech community in town with the one at UCSC. “There are fresh new ideas that start at the school and we just want to keep them here. We want to make sure they don’t leave Santa Cruz,” he says. “Continue to grow our economy and community rather than have that constant brain trust leakage.”
To go along with the event’s mission to keep tech talent in town, the projects will be themed “Santa Cruz.” The apps and programs designed are expected to tackle problems with a local focus. “What would you build for Dominican or Sutter hospital? For the surfers, kitesurfers, mountain bike riders or runners?” reads the event’s prompt. Projects will also be judged on the technical skill they demonstrate, as well as their novelty and creativity. Teams will have a total of 30 hours to create something.
Tretikov says it takes a certain type of techie to opt to stay in Santa Cruz. Because there are so few large tech companies, a tech job here often means working for a startup, and working from home or communal spaces. “It takes a certain kind of dedication that is not for everyone. That’s why we see those who really love nature and the culture of Santa Cruz make the commitment. They tend to be the ones who like to experiment and to bring their personality to the technologies they build,” she says.
In the office of Civinomics, a local civic participation startup that is one of HACK UCSC’s sponsors, Manu Koenig leans back casually in a desk chair. He has sandy brown hair and wears a flannel. A Stanford graduate, he co-founded Civinomics with then-UCSC junior Robert Singleton in 2011. Just as Tretikov indicated, Civinomics’ offices are in the downtown Santa Cruz coworking space Cruzioworks.
Koenig is upfront about the limitations of a hackathon event. When I ask him what I think is a neutral question about what kinds of cool projects can be created at one, he responds, “If you’re asking me why Civinomics wasn’t built in a weekend, that’s not quite the way it works. Not by any means.” He says any true-to-life tech company needs constant maintenance and de-bugging, likening it to a wind-up toy that falls over if no one is there to keep winding it.
But what a hackathon can do, he says, is help its participants understand what’s possible when they put their minds to it. “It shows you how much you can accomplish just by creating some focused time.”
And they’re not just for tech whizzes. Singleton, who has a social science background, says hackathons are “really about problem-solving in a classical sense.” The initial step is typically to design something that can address a real-world problem. From there, “it’s like a blitzkrieg of trying to figure out if your idea is going to work,” he says. “Testing hypotheses—can we actually build what we expect to build; if not, what are the barriers what are the bottlenecks? What’s it going to take to overcome those bottlenecks? And understanding all this conceptually through rapid-fire testing. In one weekend.”
While it’s true the world isn’t going to be saved in one weekend, the frenetic structure of hackathons is not without purpose. There is magic in this hard push towards creation.
“You either move fast or you die,” says Adams, who went to San Francisco’s Launch Hackathon in 2013 and got hooked on the experience. “It was one of those crazy like, ‘Did we just do that?’ sort of experiences. Did we really just stay up all night working on this thing and run into all these crazy problems that we solved last minute?”
Adams and his team didn’t win at Launch (there were over 800 participants), but he says it doesn’t matter. He came away inspired. “I was actually fine with [losing],” he says. “The people who were up on stage to get the prizes, their ideas were just very cool. One team created a program called Watch Tower. It’s a website that tracks changes to competitor sites. Like, ‘I want to look at the changes on Facebook’s website but only the upper left hand corner’ or, ‘only in the Terms of Service in one specific paragraph.’ That idea, you look at it and think, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’”
He says that at a hackathon, you’re very likely to end up in a room with people who might be smarter than you. “Up until that, I never really encountered a situation where I was in a room full of people who could build something amazing in less than a weekend,” he says. “Not to put down the people I hang out with.”
Similarly, Erickson remembers a hackathon he went to in Sydney, Australia, where by the end of it a team had created “this very cool skeleton app” that links up restaurants that have surplus food to the food organizations working to feed hungry people. “It was brilliant. It was beautiful,” he says. “Instead of wasting just unbelievable tons of food every year—every single year, every city—it goes to somebody who actually appreciates it.”
Thinking about this app, I remember my first job in high school—at a catering company that provided buffets of chicken and roasted potatoes for weddings. At the end of the night, we would sit on overturned milk-crates and cram as much as we could into our mouths before heading home, shaking our heads about how much food was left, which would no doubt be thrown away. We all thought of this—that there should be a way to get this food to charity organizations. But we didn’t do anything about it. At a hackathon, people do.
“Any asshole can have a good idea. Having a good idea is zero percent of creating a company,” says Singleton. “Execution is everything. And a hackathon is execution.”
Interested students can sign up for the Hackathon here. Registration closes on Thursday at Noon.