Up to code - Students gather for 36 hour "hackathon"
Words and photos by Kelly Bracha for The Washtenaw Voice
With his laptop ready and energy drinks at hand, Ahmed Saleh began setting up his work area at the end of a row of tables. Saleh and his four teammates gathered inside the University of Michigan’s Palmer Commons for what would be a grueling 36 hours of brainstorming, coding and very little sleep.
“We already have an idea,” Saleh said as he was unpacking his things, among which included three iPhones and various power cords.
Saleh’s team was joined by more than 500 students from across North America.
Earlier that evening, a brigade of buses lined North University Street, shuttling eager hackers from various universities, all ready to code apps and programs for the inaugural U-M MHack hackathon.
Walking around the six floors of Palmer Commons were sponsors from various companies such as Facebook and Google.
While other students were still setting up, Saleh and his team had already begun writing down their plan on a whiteboard.
“We’re creating a social app,” said Saleh, a 20-year-old U-M student from Ann Arbor.
The idea, called Social Beacon, is an app for sending a message to any number of friends within a close proximity to come join you if you’re out for dinner or coffee.
“It’s to help encourage socializing. People are more inclined to meet-up if they’re already close to each other,” Saleh said.
Two floors above Saleh, Andrew Copp and his team had begun setting up their work area.
Last fall, Copp and Saleh worked together during the U-M Mobile Apps Challenge. They created an app that allows iPhone users to self-administer an eye-exam using the front-facing camera to measure the distance from your face to your phone.
“Saleh and I aren’t working together this event,” Copp said. “I like the idea of working with different people every time. I like working on different challenges.”
Copp and his team began developing an app that required hardware work as well. The app would allow users to “bump” their phone on gym equipment and it would begin recording all workout data and log it so users can keep track of their workouts without manual input.
Will Barnett, a university recruiter for Facebook, flew in from California for the event.
“I love coming to Ann Arbor; there’s a great hacker culture growing here,” Barnett said. “We have people here from the New York office and California.”
The Facebook team had set-up a room filled with goody-bags and items to give away to hackers attending the event.
“Facebook sponsors these types of events all around the country and the world,” Barnett said. “Hacking is really critical to our culture.”
Facebook sponsors its own corporate hackathons five to six times a year in order to inspire new product ideas.
“At these events, we don’t have an agenda. We’re here supporting something we feel passionately about,” Barnett said. “We want people to work on what they’re excited about.”
Baris Yuksel, a software engineer at Google’s New York office, shares that sentiment.
“It’s not about scouting, it’s about the creative energy,” Yuksel said. “This is an amazing scene. You can walk around and see some of the projects here are so big, you can’t do them in two days. They are dreaming big and that’s wonderful. Everybody is so proud and I can see their excitement on their faces.”
Organizing the event was no easy task, according to David Fontenot, a U-M student from South Florida and the director of MHack.
“I have been having nightmares for a week imagining those buses turning up empty,” Fontenot said. “A few months ago I went to PennApps with 25 Michigan hackers. It was so amazing I thought we should have one here, at Michigan.”
PennApps is another hackathon held bi-annually at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Two months ago we got the backing of two organizations on campus, Michigan Hackers and the Center for Entrepreneurship,” Fontenot said. “There are only five of us organizers, and when we finally got the venue, we started trying to decide what direction to take this hackathon.”
Fontenot visited various universities on his weekends to gauge interest of students from other schools and hacker groups to see if they would attend a Michigan-hosted hackathon.
“The enthusiasm was overwhelming, and more sponsors gave their support,” Fontenot said. “These last few weeks we have been booking buses and finally on Friday night, more than 550 hackers came through the door.”
Sunday morning, all teams had to present their projects with little to no sleep.
“We got our system up and running, but a problem came up right as we were demo-ing,” Copp said. “My laptop couldn’t connect to the same router as our prototyping software. We couldn’t demo all of our hard work.”
For Copp’s team, it was an unfortunate end to the tiring weekend.
“It would have been great to show off all of our work, but we were ultimately OK with it because we know what we accomplished and how hard we worked,” Copp said.
Saleh’s team succeeded in demo-ing its app, but didn’t place in top 10. Then it was bedtime.
“I just plan to sleep a lot after this. We’re all exhausted but glad we got to work on this project together,” Saleh said. “Hackers define themselves as people who know how things work and get around barriers.
“I think it’s more about taking every-day things and turning them into something completely different. That’s what we do.”