Industrious and inspiring student-led groups like Michigan Hackers have established themselves at top universities around the U.S. and gone on to host campus-wide and intercollegiate hack-a-thons. What is prompting these grassroot organizations to congregate, innovate, explore and create? What are they looking to accomplish? Readyforce recently sponsored Michigan Hackers’ 2nd hack-a-thon and caught up with Adam Williams to talk about it.
Adam Williams and 5 close friends at the University of Michigan started bouncing around the idea for a student-run hacker organization in February of 2011. At the center of their discussions was the void they felt their current theoretical and research based computer science coursework left them in terms of real-world guidance and application. The friends concluded that the appetite to learn real-life skills, in addition to theory, was actionable. This was further reinforced when the university denied a proposed class that would address technology issues in today’s programming careers.
So starting with their Thursday ‘HackNights’, Michigan Hackers set out to create a community where programmers could enjoy socializing around the technologies that they like to work with. It wasn’t a reason to just get together, the HackNights provided students with a place where they could discuss perceived issues and apply the theory they were studying to come up with solutions. As Williams stated: “As computer scientists, we really enjoy building things, and this ability to create things from scratch not having to have moving parts, just being able to program something and accomplish a task was very intriguing to us.”
A seasoned group of hack-a-thon participants themselves (Williams was one of 20 Michigan students that traveled to this year’s PennApps hack-a-thon), the group took their lessons learned from those events and upped the hack night into full-blown hack-a-thons: twenty-four hours of uninterrupted idea generation and problem solving using real time tools and technologies. In November, the group secured sponsorships from Readyforce, Microsoft, Yelp and others to hold MHACKS: IMPACT. Touted as being one of the largest student-run hack-a-thons in the mid-west, the event was open to Wolverines that wanted to come together “to build something that has an impact on real people” and try to win one of five cash prizes totaling $5,000.
It was the first time the group had suggested a theme for their event and they did not know what to expect.
The results were terrific. Over 120 Michigan students participated and more than 60 finished across 13 teams. Even the larger than expected drop-out rate resulted in one of the greater unforeseen successes for the event. While the organizers attempted to schedule the hack-a-thon as far away as possible from mid-terms, a grad-level project due Friday caused several upperclassmen to drop-out, leaving open the door for some of the younger teams. Williams sees that unplanned twist of events actually as having a fantastic outcome. Having an event with a higher than usual percentage of freshman and sophomore students participating helped solidify the hacker mentality on campus as well as bolster the younger teams chances for victory.
In fact, the top winners in the IMPACT hack-a-thon indeed went mostly to teams comprised of freshmen and sophomore students. Top honors went to the Chargii team and second place went to Button Finder. Other prizes included most technical hack which also went to Chargii, best underclassmen hack was awarded to UM Maps, best grad hack went to Buddy System, People’s Choice award went to Morse Touch and the Readyforce sponsored hack for best environment impact was Eco-Tracker.
In keeping true to Michigan Hackers’ ethos, the best part of their most recent hack-a-thon was, according to Williams, that anyone who simply came to the event benefitted. By working on a team for 20 hours, batting around ideas for something that could potentially impact another person is, as he says: ‘an invaluable experience’. Williams also believes that even those that may have failed during implementation walked away with a greater understanding of how to collaborate and communicate with their peers. Most importantly for Michigan Hackers, with the IMPACT event, they successfully created an environment where students could come together to collaborate and apply their theories to real-world problems in real-time. Having fun in the process and eating pizza were just added perks.
The group continues to network with other schools and participate in neighboring hack-a-thons which consequently continues to foster a vibe and community around innovation on campus. For their next hack-a-thon, Michigan Hackers is looking to expand their event and invite students from across the mid-west to participate. The goal will be the same, to create a community where computer science theory is applied to solve the world’s problems in real-time, students learn and friends get to hang out doing what they love.
-Adam Williams is co-founder for Michigan Hackers and Head of External Relations check out his Readyforce profile here. Michigan Hackers will next host an intercollegiate hack-a-thon in February 2013, details coming soon. Follow Michigan Hackers on Facebook and Twitter.