For 36 hours straight, teams worked on programming new mobile apps, websites or hardware that they hoped would impress their peers and, perhaps more importantly, the judges who awarded cash and gadget prizes.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. PennApps has been hosting biannual hackathons (think marathon + hacking) since 2009. However, this was my first hackathon and I was excited to experience what many of my peers have spoken so highly about.
PennApps kicked off Friday. From noon until the evening, hackers steadily trickled into the Penn Engineering Quad where check-in was held. Most hackers came in groups of three or four — old friends who had signed up together or new friends who had met on flights to Philadelphia and discovered their shared destination. After check-in, many teams rushed to drop off their gear and claim workspaces. I asked around about what made a good workspace and received a wide variety of answers. While a few cited quiet nooks where they wouldn’t be distracted, others told me they preferred hallways where everyone could see each other’s projects and help out. One veteran hacker told me he needed a large classroom where his team could fit multiple air mattresses for their occasional naps.
I didn’t fully grasp how large the event was until the evening’s opening ceremony where the group poured into a massive auditorium and filled every seat. Guest speakers from Y Combinator and Make School welcomed the audience before the PennApps sponsors presented their APIs — unique company-specific back-end interfaces that allow developers to build other software applications.
That ceremony would be the last I would see of the full group for a while as everyone quickly scattered after its conclusion.
The Next 36 Hours By The Numbers
- organized snowball fight: 1
- disorganized snowball fights: 4
- most Red Bulls I saw consumed by one person: 7
- snack or meal breaks catered by PennApps: 13
- times I saw someone sleeping in a hallway: countless
I, admittedly, did see many instances of the stereotypical “brogrammer,” but I also met many people who broke the stereotype. It was clear that PennApps really made an effort to invite those from a variety of backgrounds and experience levels. Ages ranged from 15-year-old high school students to graduate students who were at the age where it would be rude to ask. There was also an apparent geographic diversity. Many people were shocked to hear that PennApps had flown me in from California. They were even more shocked to meet the hackers from Bangladesh and Berlin.
The Winning Hack
The team that took home the grand prize of Oculus Rifts, smart watches and the latest video game consoles were the creators of RAMEAR, a combination transmitter and receiver, that wirelessly “listens” to RAM to transmit messages. RAMEAR was built by a group that joined forces after meeting through the PennApps Facebook group and consisted of one Penn physics Ph.D. candidate, one college senior from Turkey and two friends from Imperial College London.
Attending PennApps was way outside my comfort zone and I’m glad I went, but I think it’ll be a while until I attend another hackathon. Many compare attending a hackathon to being at a “technological Woodstock” and I found that somewhat true, hygiene included. Showers were canceled the first night which may have spurred an early meltdown had I not, luckily, been staying with a friend who attends Penn. Despite the organizers’ genuine efforts for inclusivity, I did feel uncomfortable with my non-technical background when I had brushes with “programmer elitism.” However, throughout the weekend, I attended multiple workshops and learned concepts more quickly than I would have in a classroom setting. Seeing what other hackers were building was inspiring, to say the least.
“Come join us to learn something new, build something novel and start something from scratch,” said the PennApps website. PennApps, like many of the products built this weekend, had its fair share of glitches, but ultimately delivered.
Caitlin Tran is a sophomore majoring in arts, technology and the business of innovation. Her blog tech column, Captcha, runs every Tuesday.