Why Hackathon?

BY. Chen Shen



At 1 p.m., Sri Krishnamurthy pushed open the glass door of the old Kendall Boiler and Tank Co. building on Third Street in Kendall Square. It was the 39-year-old Indian-born entrepreneur’s third visit to the place in the last three months.IMG_1086

Greeted throughout the buzzing room by “code big or go home” stickers on walls and clusters of people whose eyes and hands were glued to laptops, Krishnamurthy quickly found himself some pizza, a soda and a seat. He then spent the next four hours frantically coding his flight-booking ideas into an application.

IMG_1137As one of the three hackathons held in Boston last Saturday, the Emirates Travel Hackathon attracted some 40 web developers, students, web designers and business people to form teams and produce problem-solving applications during the 11-hour hack marathon in the big data center Hack-Reduce.

The only woman in the room was 26-year-old Adrienne Cochrane. She was the person in charge of the event. It’s the second year Cochrane has worked as the Executive Director at Hack-Reduce, and she has organized more than a hundred hackathons so far.

A non-profit organization based in Kendall Square, Hack Reduce has been holding hackathons every weekend since its opening in October 2012.

“To lots of people, I bet the word hacker still means a basement-dwelling, pudgy, pimply white geek who steals secret government files or bank accounts. That’s not what hack means here,” said Cochrane, dressed in suit pants and black cardigan, she defined hackathon as a weekend event where people with different backgrounds come together, form teams around a problem or idea, and collaboratively code a unique solution from scratch. The solutions generally take the form of websites, mobile apps, and robots. “Most hackathons last from 24 to 48 hours and are filled with food, caffeine, prizes. After time runs out, teams demo what they’ve built and compete for prizes,” said Cochrane.

Cochrane categorized the purpose of all the hackathons she organized as educational. “The immediate feedback people can have here allow them to learn at an unheard-of pace by testing their hypotheses right then and there,” said Cochrane. “There was this Pakathon, where techies and non-techies formed teams, paired up with mentors and over the course of 40 hours came up with a business, website, app, software or project,” said Cochrane. The mission was to connect entrepreneurs, researchers and technologists from Pakistan to those around the world to create projects and companies that can make an impact on the country.

A similar hackathon, targeting social changes, was held in the White House last year.IMG_1082

According to Cochrane, funding to support Hack-Reduce came from corporate sponsorships and the state of Massachusetts. The US government has shown great interest in holding hackathons in recent years. President Obama announced an initiative for big data after his team successfully rallied voters in his 2012 campaign with the help of big data analysis. At the opening ceremony of Hack-Reduce two years ago, Massachusetts Governer Deval Patrick gave a speech on the state government’s support of big data. “There’s chunks of data out there released by the government after that,” said Cochrane, “but the problem is people don’t really knew where to find the data, or what it means, necessarily.”

Krishnamurthy, whose startup focuses on the analysis and processing of big data, concurred. “I’ve heard about the recent hackathon held by the Department of Defense,” said Krishnamurthy as he poured Red Bull down his throat after two hours’ typing on his Thinkpad. “With hackathon held by the government, you can actually impact on the change of some policy,” said Krishnamurthy, who quickly returned to his seats with more pizza and a cup of coffee in hand. “I’ve made a lot of awesome friends at hackathons I attended,” he added.


Working from home, Krishnamurthy credited a lot of his business opportunities to the hackathons he attended. “Some people come to do interesting projects which they are not allowed to do in their daily jobs, others are probably coming to gain more skills and meet more people. It’s a win-win for everyone. I would not take some three or four hours from weekend to actually build something even though I know I can. It’s actually made me do it. So that’s why I came here. It’s like an assignment and I’m learning,” said Krishnamurthy.

IMG_1132“We are in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swaths of the economy,” multi-millionaire software engineer Marc Andreessen told the Wall Street Journal three years ago. Today, lots of people are thinking similarly, among them President Obama, who announced that he would be committing $3.1 billion for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, in his recent State of the Union Address.

“41 of the Fortune 500 companies are technology companies,” said Eve Li, a software engineer at Verizon. Li was among the few that were experiencing their first hackathon.

“Amazon is replacing retail stores, Netflix is replacing Blockbuster, Uber is replacing traditional taxi companies, and technical job growth is replacing non-technical job growth in just about every industry,” said Li who sent her 20-year-old son to study Computer Science at Boston University. While Li was coding in Cambridge on Saturday, her son was attending the BU hackathon at the same time across the Charles River. “You won’t find the next Mark Zuckerberg in a dorm room. You’ll find him at a hackathon,” said Li, who sees bright future and opportunities in hackathons.

“Some of my entrepreneur friends look back and say which hackathon they got their start at, not which university,” said Li, who also admitted that she has been encouraging her son to try to land a job offer or start his own business from hackathons.

For companies like Emirates, which had just held a similar hackathon with more than 300 attendees last year in San Francisco, the logic behind its involvement in hackathon is simple. “It’s a marketing scheme,” said Cochrane, who tried to explain why the company invested again in hackathon seven months later in Cambridge. “You can see it as a way of outsourcing, like a lot of firms did with their customer services in India. The corporations are looking for talents at a potential job fair. It is also a fantastic way to collaborate on innovative ideas.”

While big corporations set up the event, some startup entrepreneurs come to find new colleagues and ideas. Chandra Jacob is among one of those entrepreneurs. Finished her airport mobile application TripChi from the Startup Weekend in California Orange Country three years ago. Jacob said she came to recruit a user-experience designer for their product. “I’m a hackathon master. At least a couple of times a year I would spend my weekend going to hackathons,” said Jacob who used crutches to move around greeting her fellow hackers. Her ankles were broken from a soccer game two weeks ago.

“I asked my friend to come with me since I got injured and had some trouble moving freely,” said Jacob. “She said she don’t know how to code and didn’t come.” In the eyes of third-year business student at Northeastern University Nina Stepanov, that is a common misconception of hackathon. A marketing and business major, Stepanov said she started her first hackathon a year ago without knowing any programming language. “It is very hard to connect to developers. The second you meet with them, they were like, duh,” said Stepanov, crossed her arms over her chest and rolled her eyeballs, trying to mimicking programmers’ reaction to business people at hackathons.

“I don’t technically code. I pretend to, and I try very hard,” said Stepanov, who pitched a destabilizing flow detection application with her partner at the end of the day. “I don’t hack but I told my colleagues I can do something else for them which is also valuable,” said Stepanov enthusiastically. She said the most valuable asset she learnt from hackathons was the ability to think outside of the circle. “It’s really hard to understand other worlds, other people, other issues, which you don’t necessarily experience. And that is vital to problem solving skills in any field,” said Stepanov.

According to a survey commissioned by the Application Developers Alliance, App Developers are making more money than doctors and lawyers globally. They are at the helm of an industry we call the app market which was worth $3.5 billion in 2011, and is expected to grow tenfold to $30.5 billion by 2016. “The hackathon community has committed itself to being more inviting and inclusive to everyone. Our existence is the best example. I believe this will change the technology industry and our economy soon,” said Cochrane, looking at the Audis and Porches parked on streets in Kendall Square.


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