An Interview with Hack@Brown Co-Directors Sharon Lo ’16 and Atty Eleti ’17



This upcoming weekend, 350 would-be hackers — designers, coders, and those with nothing more than an idea — will descend on Sayles and Wilson Hall for over 30 hours of lectures, activities, meals, and of course, hacking. It’s the second annual Hack@Brown, and this year’s hackathon with a Brown flavor promises to be even more exciting than its predecessor. Blog sat down with the organizers — Sharon Lo ’16 and Athyuttam (Atty) Eleti ’17 — to ask some questions about what will make this year’s Hack@Brown particularly special.

First off, this is the second annual Hack@Brown. What are the ways we can expect this year’s Hack@Brown to differ from last year’s?

Sharon: “At Hack@Brown, a lot of people think of hackathons as super intense, but it’s about having the confidence to commit to your idea. For example, this year we have an ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ workshop. Overall, we’re expecting the hackathon to be 350 students from about 70 different schools across the US, Mexico and Canada – a 25% increase from last year. We also have about 50 mentors to help students. It’s a lot about making the unfamiliar familiar to students.”

Atty: “Hack@Brown can be pretty intimidating for people because they think of hacking as green screens, drinking Red Bull, and eating pizza. But learning is the core of the Hackathon. Maybe you’ve never coded before; Hack@Brown is the opportunity to step out of your comfort zone and build something new. Participant-wise, we’re expecting about 40% female attendance this year. 60% of all attendees are also first-time hackers. Plus it’s now a year-long thing; we’re also doing a workshop every two weeks.”

Having already gotten some experience with the first Hack@Brown, were there any unexpected challenges in organizing this year’s event?

Atty: “The biggest challenge is that Hack@Brown is now a year-long endeavor. Now we have the workshops – and what we’re really pushing for this year is use of things called APIs.”

Sharon: “What an API does is open up this data in machine-readable form. For example, this week we just finished an API for dining services; so for example if a student needs an app that uses Ratty data, it will be machine-readable. We’re also trying to make it a year-long event.”

Your (very nicely-designed) website mentions that the hacking sessions will feature mentors from Oracle, Dropbox, Google and a variety of other tech companies. What role do you expect these mentors to play in the hackathon?

Sharon: “What we really encourage mentors to do is to work alongside students in the open – a big, physically open – space of Hack@Brown.”

Atty: “Mentors have their own booths and give out stickers and swag, but our open layout means that they sit alongside students throughout the night, and we encourage them to join the teams and work on a team. We actually send out a mentor’s guide before the event to mentors, many of whom are alums, and when they help students learn something great like a new language, that validates mentorship.”

On the participant end of things, what sort of people do you think Hack@Brown attracts?

Sharon: “What a lot of hackathons do is accept based on merit; at Hack@Brown, we don’t look at any of that. This year we had 2250 applicants for 350 spots, and it was randomly selected.”

Atty: “I think within the hackathon community, the Hack@Brown is unanimously seen as the best design hackathon. A lot of that comes from RISD – we have industrial engineers coming in, professors from RISD, one of our judges is from RISD – but we also have a lot of beginners.'”

Your tagline is “a different kind of hackathon.” What are some uniquely Brown aspects to Hack@Brown, as opposed to other hackathons?

Sharon: “It’s the environment. We’re high-fiving people as they come in, friendly faces, and workshops that are designed to be fun. At the end of the day, Hack@Brown is a community.”

Atty: “In the end, I think Brown is very down-to-earth. At Hack@Brown, we have so many alums and students that it’s a friendly environment – as I said before, many hackathons are known for Pizza and Red Bull at meals. At Hack@Brown, we’re bringing in Mama Kim’s.”

Sharon: “At other hackathons, there many be a winner, but there are 80 other losers who might have had fun but don’t get much else out of it. At Hack@Brown, every team gets an interview and photos, which helps them feel like they accomplished something. We’re also trying to make and edit a one-minute video for each team that they can post on Facebook and say ‘hey, look what I made at Hack@Brown.’”

Atty: “We have a game room for students to relax as well — with ping pong, giant Jenga, and beanbag chairs. We’re stocking the bathrooms with toothbrushes and other things that the participants might need.”

Sharon: “Many hackathons have been scaling up in size – one 1000, two 2000 – but we’re doing the opposite.”

Atty: “We made the very deliberate choice to maintain quality over quantity.”

Where would you like to see Hack@Brown go in the future?

Sharon: “I think we want Hack@Brown to be a sustainable organization. Last year our Facebook page called it an ‘event.’ This year it calls it an ‘organization.’”

Atty: “To be honest, I feel like we’re doing our best to break the barriers, but we still have a long way to go. In the Brown community and beyond.”

Sharon: “I think the mission of Hack@Brown is very forward-looking – to continue to build the maker spirit and empower the student community. That’s what we’re trying to do with the workshops, and with the event itself.”

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