5C Students Learn to Hack

A club called Hack, an upcoming hackathon, a visit by the Hacker Tour: All are signs that hacking is becoming increasingly prevalent at the Claremont Colleges.

While for many this word may still conjure up images of the tech-savvy cracking into security systems, the focus at the 5Cs is not on hacking in the criminal sense.

“Over the last five or ten years, a new definition has kind of developed,” said Jesse Pollak PO ’15, who co-founded the 5C club Hack with Brennen Byrne PO ’12 and Kim Merrill PO ’14. “It’s more hacking on a project: working on something, building something.”

“It’s pretty synonymous with coding for fun,” he said.

Beyond fun, hacking as a hobby can help students appeal to potential employers.

“Increasingly, they’re interested in students who hack, because if you’re outside of class spending inordinate amounts of time coding, you’re far more likely to be a talented coder who can solve problems, because that means you build things by yourself without pressure from class,” Pollak said.

5C hackers and other students interested in computer science met representatives of technology companies at Harvey Mudd College's career fair Oct. 12. The fair included a booth run by the Hacker Tour, a program designed to connect engineering and science students with fast-growing technology companies.

The Hacker Tour brought a representative from Sonos, a consumer electronics company, and virtually represented companies such as Chegg, Etsy, Square and StubHub, said Anna Binder, Vice President of Client Services for ReadyForce, which puts on the tour.

“These are companies that are interested and hot and hungry to hire,” Binder said.

She said that the tour, which is visiting mainly research universities, was not originally going to visit HMC, but several sponsor organizations recommended it because of its reputation for computer science and engineering.

Judy Fisher, Director of Career Services at HMC, coordinated the Hacker Tour’s visit.

“I wanted to give our Harvey Mudd students another option,” she said. “A lot of them don’t want to work for these big mega software companies. They’re so used to doing clinic projects at Mudd where they’re on small teams making an impact that I thought for a number of our students, this might be a way to go.”

Other startups at the career fair included Pocket Gems, a mobile gaming company; Raytheon, a defense contractor; and BrightRoll, a video advertising network, Binden said.

The fair was open to students from all the schools in the consortium.

Alex Rhodes PO ’13 attended the fair and then interviewed with Pocket Gems, which conducted interviews at HMC Oct. 15. 

Rhodes, who has been an intern for Google, visited booths of both big companies and startups, but he said that overall he would prefer to work for a startup.

“I like to feel like I have influence,” he said. “I like to have a creative collaboration with my co-workers.”

Byrne, who has interned with both Adobe and H. Bloom, a startup in New York, said that startups are attractive because of their flexibility.

“At a startup, the role you’re assigned is much less fixed,” he said. “I totally see why the big company is a better option for consistency and comfort, but the startup is exciting, and there are frequent chances to surprise yourself with what you can do.”

After graduating this December, Byrne is launching a mobile application called Clef that he and several other Pomona students, including Pollak, have been developing.

Byrne, Pollak and Merrill started the club Hack to provide students with an opportunity to have practical coding experiences.

“I was learning theoretical stuff, which is useful," Byrne said of his computer science courses. "But I wasn’t building the stuff I wanted to be building.”

Byrne and Pollak were also disappointed by the lack of hackathons, where coders work in teams to build programs under a deadline. They organized a 12-hour hackathon last April. At the event, teams built programs such as a mobile game called 5C Word War and an aggregator of study-abroad options.

“Hackathons have sprung up in the past five years as a pillar of the tech community of flexing your building muscle,” Byrne said. “You don’t necessarily care about the product, you’re not committed to working on it after the night’s over, but for one night you get to see as much as you can possibly build.”

Hack is hosting its second hackathon Nov. 2 and 3.

Other projects Pollak has worked on include a 5C ride-sharing application, 5crideshare.com, and a dating website, likesecret.com. He and Byrne advanced to the finals of a worldwide hackathon this summer with a mentor-matching website they created.

Both Byrne and Pollak said they enjoy hacking because it requires few resources.

"For coding, if you’re good, and you put a lot of time into it, you can build whatever you want, and people will respect you simply because you build awesome things,” Pollak said.