From Java with Love: Students Compete in 5C Hackathon

In the eyes of Alex Melville HM ’15, the 5C Hackathon is possibly the ultimate computer science experience. It is an opportunity that “lines up with what computer science people do normally,” Melville said. In the case of the Hackathon, this meant a single night of endless coding.

The 5C Hackathon, which took place last weekend from 8 p.m. Nov. 2 to 8 a.m. Nov. 3, is a competition in which teams of up to four students design and write a computer program from start to finish. There is no specific task or theme for the competition, only that programs be created within the 12 hours of competition.

On Friday night, teams assembled to receive their final instructions. Most teams were pre-formed, but some people had shown up on their own or in pairs and were then matched up with others. There were over 100 people in attendance and over 70 stayed through the entire night. Groups worked independently of each other, but hackers came together for many of the Hackathon’s scheduled events, including midnight pizza donated by Amazon, a 2 a.m. fun run and 4 a.m. Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, courtesy of Originate.

Participants ranged from first-years to seniors, novices to experts. In the week leading up to the Hackathon, called Hack Week, the contest organizers put on programming tutorials for those interested. Kim Merrill PO ’14 said that the tutorials gave participants a basic familiarization with several different programming languages and introduced them to some concepts that “aren’t covered in CS classes on campus,” she said.

This contest, however, is not a simple coding competition.

“The goal is not to create the most perfectly efficient, clean, well-documented piece of software possible, but rather to throw something together that has some great interesting functionality, regardless of how you got there,” Merrill said.

The best coders are not always the ones who win. Winners have to make something more exciting than everyone else.

The teams left the main area and went to separate locations to begin work. The first step was to find a project without any guidance. 

Melville’s group went through several ideas before fixing on a plan. They considered making a Claremont Colleges speed dating website or a 5C Chatroulette site. In the end, they decided to tackle Reddit, a website where users post questions, jokes, memes or anything else.

Melville and his teammates wrote a script to make thousands of fake Reddit accounts in order to vote up their own posts. To do so, they had to write a script that would break CAPTCHAs, the poorly written numbers and letters that you have to decipher when registering for an account, supposedly ensuring that the user is a person.

The coders worked through the night. For Melville, the low point of the night came at around 3 a.m. At this point, they had been working for seven straight hours, but the team rallied and finished at around 5 a.m.

They had successfully created a CAPTCHA beater that worked 20 percent of the time. The best CAPTCHA beaters only work 70 percent of the time, and this one was created in an extremely short amount of time. The group submitted their code with a brief description of its purpose and went home to get some sleep.

Melville’s main suggestion to anyone planning to do the Hackathon is to do something that interests you, so that the experience can teach you a lot. The contest forces you to “give yourself a goal and then teach yourself to accomplish it,” Melville said.

The winners of the Best Expert award, Dominick Reinhold PO ’13 and Luke Sedney PO ’14, created 8trhacker, a Google Chrome plugin that merges playlists with Spotify. The Best Beginner award went to Sean McQueen CM ’13 and Sean Adler CM ’13, who created a course search program modeled after Pinterest. Winners of the Crowd Favorite award, Jesse Pollak PO ’15 and Remy Guercio CM ’16, created GitBattle, a website for comparing the activity of accounts on GitHub, a web service for software version control.

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