What comes to mind when you think of a “hackathon?” If your imagination is anything like mine, the term conjures images of sweaty teenagers, immersed knee-deep in gadgetry and pizza remains, typing furiously at green-and-blue flickering terminals, hard at work on programs that will bring down satellites, financial markets, and governments. Truthfully, this is a pretty accurate description of what happened between the hours of 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. last Friday and Saturday at the third annual 5C Hackathon. Except for the satellites part. No satellites were harmed.
Yes, the 5C Hackathon is the subject of today’s ramblings. To properly glimpse into this fascinating subculture of programming prowess, however, I have to start off by correcting a much-held misconception. “Hacking” in this context does not necessarily refer to malicious coding. While the term definitely carries that darker definition, in this context, it is rather meant in the sense of “hacking something together.” The objective is simple: come up with something you’ve always wanted to do with a computer, get a team of likeminded individuals together, and make the computers dance to your tune over the course of 12 hours. While it’s unlikely that a hackathon team would be able to solve world hunger, it is rather amazing the things that can be assembled from blood, sweat, crêpes, and caffeine over the course of 12 hours.
Here’s the odd thing, though: The hackathon experience isn’t always the world’s most pleasant ride. A strict deadline of 12 hours isn’t a generous time frame in which to get anything done, much less create a functioning product in a discipline that is notorious for its cryptic errors, multiple breakages, and general frustration. Sure, infinite supplies of junk food, energy drinks, comfortable working quarters, a dedicated crêpe truck, and thousands of dollars in prizes all help soften the sting of a program’s caprice, but the fact of the matter remains: Unless you’re really lucky, half the night will be spent tearing large chunks of hair out of your head in frustration at the latest cryptic error message.
Why go through the effort of a hackathon, then? The answer is simple: The other half of the evening is spent screaming for joy when your frustrating problems are finally resolved. That’s the thing, moreover—they almost always do get solved, and the resulting products are all the sweeter. Not only is there the satisfaction of having a super-cool application that you’ve always wanted to use, but there’s also a real sense of accomplishment to be gained from the fact that you were the one who made it happen in the end. In that sense, far from the destructive connotation of its name, a hackathon is one of the most intensely constructive activities I can possibly imagine, as it often ends up having the nearly magical effect of making manifest the most abstract of ideas over the course of 12 hours.
Even though your program can be as free or rigid as you choose to make it, one of the main purposes of the hackathon is to submit your program for adjudication, and, of course, to compete for any of the following: a new iPad Mini, a Kindle Fire, iPod Nanos, flat screen monitors, noise-cancelling headphones, tickets to a StarCraft tournament … the list goes on. This year’s organizing committee managed to bring an astounding number of corporate sponsors in as celebrity judges for this year’s Hackathon, as representatives from Microsoft, Intuit, 10Gen, Amazon, Yelp, Google, and a whole host of others were on hand to assess the quality of each team’s finished products. Notable winning apps included an RSS feed visualizer to replace Google Reader, an app that allowed an iPhone to be used as a remote mouse/keyboard combo, an AI Mario Kart player, and the project I worked on: Room Full of Cats, a puzzle game for Game Boy that actually ran on the original Game Boy!
So, if you have even the slightest interest in bending a computer to your will, I would seriously encourage anyone reading this article to try the 5C Hackathon when it rolls around next year. Even if you know nothing about computers and coding, never fear, because the organizers teach a weeklong seminar on how to create web-based applications with the idea of opening the event to literally everyone in the 5C community. We all consume computers every day, hour, and minute of our lives. Maybe it’s time that we all started learning how to let others consume computers the way we want them to. Or else, you could always come and just consume some crêpes—that works too. Happy Hacking!