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‘Hackathon’ Events Proliferate for Student Programmers

Many computer-science majors dream of creating start-up companies in California or New York, taking a brilliant idea from their undergraduate days and transforming it into a successful source of profit. This year, “hackathon” events for student programmers—where teams guzzle caffeine as they code for daylong competitions—are proliferating as technology companies look to find top talent and students seek hands-on experience.

Although the term “hacking” often refers to breaching private information or disrupting systems, college hacking competitions ask students to do just the opposite. Programmers have a short span of time to quickly build a usable application from scratch, usually around a theme.

Web sites with hackathon listings show an uptick in events this year, particularly in California and New York. The API Evangelist Web site lists about a hundred events around the world in October alone. Kin Lane, the owner of the site, said he had tracked 24 university-based hackathons in 2012 so far. Of these competitions, seven were held in California.

Hackathons hosted at colleges and universities have become much more mainstream, said Brett Cooley, a senior math and computer-science double major at the College of William & Mary. The college held its first hackathon last spring in a small setting with about 10 people and hopes to expand with a larger event this spring.

Several factors drive students’ increased interest, Mr. Cooley said. Students have the chance to build something tangible within a short time period and network with other programmers. “The computer-science program has a fair amount of majors and minors, but no other outlet for community building outside of coursework,” said Mr. Cooley. “It’s helpful to have extra support for newer coders who enjoy it but don’t know what to do next besides take more classes.”

Hackathons also complement skills learned in traditional computer-science courses, said Momchil Tomov, a junior majoring in computer science at Princeton University who heads the campus entrepreneur club. The club sponsored Princeton’s first hackathon last fall and is gearing up for more events this year, including a “Hack Week” that involves workshops and guest speakers.

“Universities don’t necessarily provide the right skill set for the workplace,” Mr. Tomov said. “Even at the top schools, we’re not taught the latest technologies or how to work in a team—companies are looking for that.”

The computer-science curriculum focuses chiefly on understanding algorithms, hardware, and software rather than the “language du jour” popular in the programming community at the moment, said Chris Wiggins, an associate professor of applied physics and applied mathematics at Columbia University. Mr. Wiggins co-founded a nonprofit organization in 2010 called HackNY with the goal of complementing traditional computer-science education with student hackathons and connecting students with start-ups in New York.

The organization hosts two hackathons per year and drew in between 200 and 400 participants at its September event. HackNY has influenced local universities’ burgeoning programming culture—student programmers at Columbia University and other colleges host “pre-hackathons” in advance of the group’s events.

“Coding events give students an opportunity to engage their sense of technical mastery and social purpose,” Mr. Wiggins said. “They’re solving problems they like, which engages their autonomy.”

A ‘Contagious’ Culture

University-organized hackathons have also tapped into college rivalries to pique interest. The Hackers@Berkeley student group began last fall as a way to “bridge the gap” between computer-science theory and practical programming skills, said Ajay Tripathy, a founder of the group. Hackers@Berkeley grew exponentially over the course of the year and challenged Stanford University to a “Big Hack” event in April, which will take place again this spring.

Ayush Sood, a junior computer-science major and officer in Stanford’s branch of the  Association for Computing Machinery, described increasing interest in programming and hackathons as a “chain reaction.” “The hacker culture is fairly young at Stanford, and it’s very contagious,” he said in an e-mail interview.

More formalized coding competitions hosted by the Association for Computing Machinery have been available for years, but this year a one-unit course at the University of Wisconsin at Madison on preparing for those competitions filled up within two hours, said Dieter van Melkebeek, a computer-science professor there. “I’ve been coaching ACM competitions for 12 years now—this is a recent phenomenon,” he said.

The association has added more competitions to encourage North American participation as teams from Russia and China dominate the international finals, said Deborah S. Noonan, a computer-science instructor and coach for the programming team at William & Mary.

Technology companies looking for top talent often sponsor the events, furnishing student programmers with Red Bulls to keep them going and offering rewards to the teams that present the best ideas. But companies recruiting at hackathons may face disappointment—many student programmers want to start their own companies instead.

The programming start-up culture holds appeal for many students aiming to become the next Mark Zuckerberg, though an idea generated through a 24-hour programming session is only a first step toward starting a company.

“It’s a good way to dip your toe in this whole culture and see if it’s a right fit for you,” Mr. Tomov said. “The Ivy League’s mentality is that Wall Street is the main place where people go to work—we want people to think more, and to have a broader view of the opportunities that are out there.”

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