October 15, 2013

SHU | My first hackathon: a call to all computer science majors at Cornell

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By JESSICA SHU

A few weeks ago, I attended MHacks, a three-day hackathon hosted at University of Michigan, with two other computer science students from Cornell. We shared a bus with some SUNY kids on the way.

“No way,” the SUNY students said. “Are these all the Cornell kids?”

To be honest I was wondering the same thing. It was my first hackathon and I didn’t know at all what to expect, but I definitely thought Cornell would have a bigger presence, as we are ranked one of the top five schools to study computer science in the United States.

We started with a short reception and then everyone went straight to coding. No beds are provided — attendees are expected to code for most of the 36 hours. Most of them formed teams of three or four people. I teamed up with the two other students from Cornell, but we were all very inexperienced. The only framework I knew was Ruby on Rails, and I definitely didn’t know it well enough to make anything valuable in just one weekend. I decided to learn iOS and create a basic lipstick-on-API app, since it was something I had wanted to do for a long time.

I did end up creating a working app over the weekend, but needless to say it didn’t end up winning any awards. I didn’t even enter it in the competition — it would have been too insulting to the other competitors. I was blown away by the quality of work that was produced. One kid on my bus created a new programming language over the weekend (It is called Lark, and you can check it out here). Someone else created a potentially game-changing cuffless blood pressure monitor. I could go on for days talking about the hacks — it was hard to believe that such incredible full scale projects could be developed so quickly. If I didn’t have the tech bug before, I definitely do now after my weekend at MHacks.

Although I built a very simple application, I learned more those two days then I had in weeks. I also got to meet extremely talented people, as well as get to see some cool new ideas come to fruition. Overall it was an amazing weekend, although I do wish we had more students representing Cornell.

One complaint many people have about computer science is that  “you need experience to get experience,” and it’s kind of true. If I were an employer, I wouldn’t want to hire someone who hadn’t done anything outside of class. High test scores don’t always translate to being a good developer.  However, hackathons are a great way to gain some real world experience while networking with incredible talent.

Cornell kids definitely need to step it up — we are an embarrassing number 39 right now on the Major League Hackers leaderboard. I’ll see you all at Y-Hacks and HackPrinceton.

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