Last weekend, a group of seven Grinnell students went to the annual MHacks “hackathon” event, organized by the University of Michigan. This was the first time students from Grinnell participated in such an event as a group. With approximately 1200 participants from over 100 schools across the country, this was the biggest hackathon of the year.
The name “hackathon” could be a bit misleading. Students were not hacking, but coding consecutively for 36 hours to build useful apps and devices. It was a great opportunity for like-minded individuals to get together and build something innovative.
“We stayed up all night for 36 hours, and just worked on building our app,” said Spencer Liberto ’15, one of the participants. “I drank more hours [worth] of [5-Hour] energy drink than the 36 hours of the event. I learned so much from the experience and felt way more confident afterwards.”
The participants were provided with food and could take naps whenever they wanted. Moreover, since Apple, Google and Facebook were sponsors of the event, they had engineers stationed by a couple of tables there. So if teams hit a roadblock while working on a project, they could ask the engineers questions and solicit their help.
“We took naps at random hours,” said Maijid Moujaled ’14. “Whenever we felt like we needed a nap, we could grab a blanket and find a spot and sleep: on the chairs, on the floor, underneath the table, like wherever.”
Two teams from Grinnell participated in the event. One team of three people worked on an Android app while the other team of four created an iOS app.
“We were going to create an app that is a news aggregate platform from different sources, and ranked articles based on their biases,” said Patrick Triest ’15. “But unfortunately we couldn’t finish the app, since the third-party server that we were using didn’t really work out.”
The iOS team was working on a similarly interesting idea.
“We decided to make a storytelling app, where you could start a story, which would in turn send a push notification to everybody else that has the app and made an account,” said Nediyana Daskalova ’14. “They can continue the story or start their own story. Hence, you’ll have people from all over the world writing and adding to the story and the coolest part is that our app will put a dot on a map, when somebody from anywhere in the world adds to a story. So you can see where the story has been all over the world.”
This event was a great networking experience for the participants, as well. Since hackathons are great spots for finding engineers, it was also attended by a considerable number of recruiters, who were looking for students interested in internships and job positions.
“I really enjoyed being in a place with all these students who share the same personal view,” Moujaled said. “Like you, they are all working hard on whatever projects they have. Being in such an atmosphere is empowering and very motivating. Also, the fact that there are these engineers from Apple, et cetera, stationed there, and that you can just go up and speak to them, or show them what you are working on, is something you don’t get in many places.”
Apart from that, $40,000 worth of prizes was given out at the event. From the 280 hacks submitted, 10 won prizes—ranging from cash prizes to coffee with a venture capitalist. Even though the Grinnell teams did not win, participants found the experience extremely valuable and hope to get more Grinnellians involved with similar events in the future.
“We had fun, and I have learned so much,” Liberto said. “I feel like I am way more comfortable in making apps and dealing with servers and junk, now that I did that. It is a great confidence booster for building apps.”