Students use hackathons for summer networking
Although summer internships just wrapped up, it’s never too early to look for the next one (or the first one, or a job). And while job fairs and family members can offer valuable feet-in-doors, some students find that providing a demonstration of their skills at hackathons can cast a much wider net.
Hackathons are competitions in which hundreds of participants team up to develop and pitch applications or devices they create over the course of a weekend. But like scouts at a baseball game, recruiters flock to hackathons in order to get a direct look at what a candidate might offer. Hackathons typically are sponsored by a variety of tech companies, and the entrance ticket for these events typically is a resume.
These hackathons have been a boon for prospective students, too. Because of experience gained and contacts made at hackathons, computer science major Sam Kreter was only a week into his sophomore year before he finalized his summer 2015 plans. It’s been a wild first year for someone who by his own admission could barely program at the start of last year.
“Back then, the only programming that I knew was in a little black box that I could make say, ‘Hello’ over and over,” Kreter said.
But after getting involved with Mizzou’s chapter of Association for Computer Machinery (ACM), particularly the Special Interest Groups (SIGs), Kreter decided to participate in last year’s Hack Mizzou and was hooked. Though he focused on winning each competition he went to, he also struck up conversations with anybody he could.
“Over four different hackathons, when I met these people, I didn’t realize that they were connected at all,” Kreter explained. “I was just a little programmer with no experience that walked up and said, ‘Hey, I want to make friends,’ or ‘I just want to learn.’”
As it turned out, the people Kreter spoke with were connected, ultimately landing him an internship at Development Town, a programming consulting startup, with funding from Indy X, a tech internship group, both based in Indianapolis. Right up into the final interview, Kreter’s experience with hackathons played a central role.
“A few weeks ago I flew out to Indianapolis, and it wasn’t like any interview I’ve ever had.” Kreter said. “We went to a Cajun place, and we talked and ate, but basically the only experience he asked about was hackathons and all the products I worked on in hackathons.”
Kreter’s first hackathon was Hack Mizzou, which last year hosted around 100 participants. This year, Hack Mizzou, scheduled for Oct. 3-5, will host upward of 400 students and will have more than a tenfold increase in budget. The exponential growth of interest in hackathons is nothing new to MU ACM president Dan Silver. Silver went to his first hackathon as a senior in high school; however, when he came to Mizzou as a freshman, there was nary a mention of hackathons. Undeterred, Silver kept attending hackathons such as PennApps, part of the Major League Hacking circuit, bringing a friend or two along each time.
“We’ve seen an explosion of interest in hackathons at Mizzou … When I went back [to PennApps], I brought five Mizzou students with me. And then at Hack Illinois, we brought twenty more.” Silver said. “We had so many people go to Hack Illinois [last year] that they sent a bus here to pick us up.”
Silver and Kreter both have been successful winning these competitions, with two wins each. At Hack Midwest in Kansas City this summer, Kreter, Silver and fellow student Joe Loser’s facial recognition application for drones won first place, yielding a 3-D printer as first prize. But while the prizes are certainly attractive, what drives many students to participate is the ability to experiment with languages and tech that is often far afield from what’s found in the classroom. Anything from websites to applications for Raspberry Pis is fair game.
“Every hack that I go to, every hack that I make, I work with a different product,” Silver said. “I might try to make a mobile app when I haven’t worked with mobile apps in weeks or months. I might try to build a facial recognition drone app when I’ve never worked with drones or facial recognition.”
Kreter agreed that the experience he gained wasn’t readily available in a classroom setting.
“The biggest thing [hackathons] offered me at first was it allowed me to get with other experienced programmers and see how an app is built and see how to actually program, whereas you don’t really learn that in school,” Kreter said. “But then, once we started doing better, actually winning a few hackathons, we started getting noticed by the sponsors and other people to talk to. And there are tons of people to talk to. I mean, Google, Facebook, Amazon, all these huge companies that if you go to the career fair, you don’t get a chance to meet.”
Of course, the companies that sponsor and provide prizes do it because they want to establish a fertile recruiting ground. Hack Mizzou this year is partnered with Tradebot, a high-frequency, computer trading firm in Kansas City. Junior business management major Gabrielle Perdieu, has been coordinating sponsors for this year’s Hack Mizzou,
“We got our co-host, Tradebot, through Jennifer Tomlinson [Tradebot’s director of human resources and treasurer] because she interviews on campus a lot,” Perdieu said. “And they’re our co-hosts because they were the first ones I emailed, and they immediately said yes.”
Perdieu got involved with hackathons last year, when as a business management member of ACM, she volunteered to work at Hack Mizzou. Ultimately Perdieu wants to find a job in the tech recruiting field, and like Kreter, she only needed one weekend to discover just how crucial these hackathons were.
“[Silver] was asking everyone in ACM if they wanted to get involved with [Hack Mizzou],” Perideu said. “Well, everyone else was working on these SIGs where they code and program for fun and I was like, ‘I’m gonna do [Hack Mizzou],’ and it just took off from there.”
With only a month to go, there still is a lot of work to be done before Hack Mizzou. Silver and Perdieu are working currently to secure the sponsorships for the event, having raised $35,000 of the $50,000 needed. Kreter and other volunteers now will begin addressing the logistical problems associated with feeding and housing students from around the U.S. and Canada. Normally, an event of similar size and prestige would need some faculty guidance, but associate teaching professor Dale Musser, director of MU Engineering’s IT program said that he and other professors only provided the occasional introduction when needed.
“It’s definitely student-driven … Everything that has happened happened because [student organizers] made it happen,” Musser said. “It’s almost always hard for a student to reach into the executive level or the organizational level without some sort of introduction.”
Although the faculty has taken a hands-off approach towards the preparation, they are excited at the prospect of hosting a hack.
“I see the hackathon as a really great opportunity for our students, the visibility of our program, the marketing aspects. It elevates us overall in the tech community,” Musser said. “So, I really want it to happen.”