On November 8, over 800 people from across the continent flooded to Yale’s West Campus for YHack, Yale’s own hackathon. Though the competition didn’t start until 5:30 p.m., the scramble to secure a good spot began immediately. Competitors knew they would be there until 5 p.m. the next day—programming for 20 hours straight. Office spaces and chairs became rare commodities as teams set up their working spaces and discussed strategies for their projects.
Computer programmers like the ones at YHack have saved “hacking” from its old, sinister connotations. Once associated with dark rooms and illicit activities, the word has undergone a rebranding. Now, it signifies witty problem solving and playful cleverness. The focus isn’t just on the act of programming itself; hackers aim to achieve excellence and explore the limits of what’s possible. At hackathons, teams of coders must take an idea from concept to reality in less than a day.
The bottom floor of the hackathon space was filled with booths from the competition’s main sponsors. Team members could take breaks from coding in order to learn more about companies they were interested in working for. Many of the booths gave out free items with the hope that students would integrate them into their software programs. Teams received a number of computer controlled LED light and promised to program apps that would control their color patterns.
The variety of programming languages and combinations with application programming interfaces (APIs) allowed for an infinite number of possibilities. (APIs specify how software components interact with each other, enabling apps to be connected to popular websites like Facebook). I heard a large range of ideas from a file sharing system that linked multiple Dropbox accounts to a multiplayer video game, but the program that really caught my eye aimed to solve a problem felt by college students across the nation—the removal and replacement of red solo cups.
I shadowed Yale Students Apurv Suman, Jason Brooks, Kevin Abbot, and Pranav Maddi in the beginning five hours of their coding process. A seemingly silly idea quickly became a serious endeavor. After they downloaded OpenCV, a library of programming functions that processes images, they began tackling the issue of how the cups would be recognized in the program. Once color became the method of recognition, the team had to wrangle with differentiating between the red of a solo cup, and the red in other parts of the image. Then came the task of replacing the image with their agreed substitute—a Coca Cola can—and integrating overlapping items in the final picture. It was fascinating to watch as the team switched their approach in response to problems that arose. Much of it involved specialization of labor. All of it involved innovation.
I met the directors of HackNY, PennApps, HackPSU, and HackMIT, all of whom had become friends through hacking. First, they attended each other’s hackathons as competitors, and then eventually became directors after being recognized for their successes. The HackMIT directors, Zain Shah and Ishaan Gulrajani, were the winners of PennApps in 2012, created an app called Mosaic that allowed pictures to be viewed panoramically across the screens of several Apple products.
Despite their diversity of backgrounds and experiences, these leaders all seemed to think along the same lines. They learned everything they knew about programming from learning on their own and going to hackathons. Not all of them were computer science majors. They told me that they felt they were adapting to a rapidly evolving field by learning as they created. They didn’t just learn in the classroom, but used their own interests to fuel their creations. It was invigorating, as a student who is usually shunned out from these types of events, to be invited— even persuaded—to take part in the next hackathon.
I was surprised to learn that YHack is just in its second year. Charles Jin, the Director of YHack, described to me the process of coordinating such a large event. The biggest challenge, he explained, was getting sponsors to take the hackathon seriously since Yale isn’t yet recognized as having such a strong presence in the computer science community. Thanks to YHack and the innovators that participated in it, that image is evolving.
Photo credit: Yale University