To attend the opening ceremony of this year’s Hack@Brown and then sit in the same Salomon auditorium approximately 30 hours later for the presentation of finalists, closing remarks, and rewarding of prizes is a strange experience, mainly because of how paradoxically similar and different the ceremonies are to one another.
Different in that everyone there seems a little more tired than before, measurably more experienced than before, and substantially closer to those around them than before. Similar in that Katy Perry is once again blaring from the speakers (more than likely the first time “California Girls” has ever echoed through that hall). Not the most CS-oriented artist in the world–Kraftwerk might be a little more appropriate–but catchy nonetheless. More importantly, similar in that the sense of tired satisfaction filling the audience is a weird kind of twin to the overflowing energy and enthusiasm of the opening ceremony.
Hack@Brown, a nearly day-and-a-half long whirlwind of creativity, coding, and camaraderie, was kicked off on Saturday, February 7th with remarks by Paul Zuchowski ’87, chief engineer at Oracle. While at Brown, Zuchowski, who also helped found successful startups HeartLab and Greenbytes, majored in CS and music.
In his talk, he delved into the origins of the hacker ethic and noted how Brown’s early procurement of computers for students helped would-be undergrad hackers develop their skills. He spoke of disruptive innovation–a common theme throughout the hackathon–and encouraged participants to uphold the spirit of hacking in their projects.
Also present on the stage during Hack@Brown’s kickoff were Teespring co-founder Evan Stites-Clayton ’11 and a team from Two Sigma, an NYC-based hedge fund that employs a variety of CS-based technologies, including machine learning and Big Data, to invest.
Stites-Clayton spoke on the value of entrepreneurship, while the team from Two Sigma used a program in order to determine the “most normal person” at the hackathon–a dubious honor which was thankfully tempered by their later presenting the (un?)lucky winner with $250 American Express gift card (coincidentally, or not, the most normal gift card you could ever give someone).
These figures later took the stage alongside employees from Oracle, Google, Dropbox, Facebook, Uber and a variety of other tech companies to introduce themselves as mentors – experienced designers and coders who worked alongside and with the teams for the duration of the hackathon.
The mentor system was only one aspect of Hack@Brown’s incredible wraparound support for the hackers who attended. Mama Kim’s, midnight matcha, the Oracle Game Room–a hardware room complete with borrowable Oculus Rifts–and the general helpfulness and enthusiasm of the event organizers and staffers meant that the event maintained an an air of exceptionally positivity and energy throughout its duration.
One reason might have been the budget: Atty Eleti ’17, one of the co-organizers of the event along with Sharon Lo ’16, estimated that Hack@Brown spent roughly two and a half times more per attendee than most other hackathons. Another is the size: the Hack@Brown organizers made a conscious effort to scale up carefully–by no more than 25 percent. Other hackathons push quickly for growing numbers of attendees, often at the expense of quality.
The necessity of quality in the hackathon’s proceedings manifested in the winning projects, all of which demonstrated an incredible amount of care and innovation in their creation. Standout projects included -R (Dasher), a social matching network for those with similar interests; Capital Gain, a tool that converts equities into musical songs by converting rising and falling prices into high/low notes; Motemote, an island brawling game which audience members could join via their smartphones; Speakeasy, an app to translate sign language from movements to written text; Simple Health Records, an augmented health-records request tool; and many more. The announcement of winners was preceded by remarks by Rhode Island native Angus Davis, founder and CEO of Swipely.
The verdict? Hack@Brown seemed to be a tremendous success, at least to an outsider with zero previous knowledge of hackathons. On one hand, it’s difficult to be unenthusiastic about an event with so much emphasis on positivity and enthusiasm. But more than that, it’s the uniquely Brown aspects of Hack@Brown that make it so worthwhile. The event sought almost relentlessly for openness, creativity, and progress. A different kind of hackathon, indeed. Third time’s the charm, and next year’s iteration will undoubtedly be even more exciting than this year’s, but Hack@Brown has hit the mark the second time around, and hit it well.
It also doesn’t hurt that they were giving out little bags of tea in containers labeled things like ‘H-Tea-Ml’.
Images via and Liam Trotzuk.