My brother Ian, who studies computer science at Rutgers, constantly tries to share his life as a programmer with me. He wants me to learn to code, start building apps, and get a job at a start-up. I tell him I don’t want a job in technology, but he won’t hear it. “It’s not just a tech thing,” he says. “Coding is a life skill that everyone should have.”
When I saw the coding community firsthand, I started to see his point. With other students from his university’s computer science department, Ian attends, competes, and often wins prizes, in the form of money or new gadgets, at hackathons around the country. My mom called to tell me he had won something at HackNY, a 24-hour hackathon hosted by NYU and Columbia. I envisioned him and a roomful of skinny, pale nerds typing on their laptops in a dark room overnight, tirelessly competing to see who could hack into the most secure networks: someone gets into the White House’s online databases, for example, and can see the President’s top secret files; another kid hacks into Google and exposes famous people’s search histories. It’s probably obvious, but this is not how hackathons work.
Ian, his friend Eddie, and Eddie’s silent girlfriend arrived in Boston late on Friday night. They declined the HackMIT staff’s offer to sleep on air mattresses in frat houses and instead took a cab, paid for by HackMIT travel reimbursements, to stay with me at Wellesley. Despite getting to sleep long after midnight, the four of us would be a well-rested team compared to the rest. On the bus ride back to Cambridge in the morning, I asked how Eddie had met Ian. He told me stories about getting through challenging classes together, including one time when they and some others had shotgunned beers before a difficult final exam. “We’re programmers,” Eddie said and giggled. After thirty seconds of silence, he added, “I don’t think I said that right. We’re bro-grammers, I meant. Like bros who program together.” I laughed, mostly at the clarification. Their camaraderie surprised and inspired me. College didn’t seem to stress them out. Studying computer science was like joining a club.
He and Ian vaguely answered some of my questions about what we’d be doing throughout the day. The first step, they explained, was brainstorming. We had to think of a project, something to make, like an app. “It doesn’t have to be an app,” Ian said. “Just something useful. You remember those girls from that art school who made grandma robot?” Ian asked Eddie. They both laughed nostalgically. “It was this robot thing that played a song and knitted, and this smokey incense came out of it. It was pretty cool, actually. The point is to create something cool.”
Cut to go-time: in a hockey rink at MIT, rows of foldable tables fill the space. Over a thousand students flood the room to claim tables for their teams, dumping their duffle bags and backpacks, and plugging their laptops and other gear into outlets. Stiff extension cords spread across the floor, refusing to stay duct taped down. They run rampant from the walls, floors, and a few centrally located boxes that overflow with cables and wires. So that we don’t overcrowd the wifi network, the staff encourage some teams to use ethernet. Each table already looks alive, or at least on life support, strung to different sources of power. People trip on cords often.
In the stands around the rink, sponsors set up camp with boxes full of “swag,” or free stuff. From Google to Etsy to General Electric to Uber, representatives hand out branded apparel, headphones, snacks, water bottles, pillows, and reduced-price gadgets. Some sponsors also have equipment available for hackers’ free use in the competition. I’m sent immediately to get an AirView pack (3D-touch hover technology) from Synaptics. I memorize the phrase, run to spit it at one of the men at the Synaptics table, and exchange my driver’s license for a package.
Back in the rink, team members take turns holding down the table-fort while the others stock up on swag. One senior from Rutgers, a metal-band looking boy in baggy jeans with hair past his shoulders, returns to the table next to ours, his arms full, and says, “Well, looks like I just got a new wardrobe.” I point out that it’s comprised of branded t-shirts, a look that probably won’t work for him after college. He retorts, “I go to every interview dressed exactly like I am now. If they don’t like it, then I don’t want to work for them.” I wonder if he’ll run out of options with that mentality, but Ian tells me that he’s a talented programmer and has already turned down a handful of job offers.
We have thirty hours. We think about what to make, try to create it, encounter an obstacle too big, and start over. We go through several ideas: a lie detector test app that measures pulse, body heat, and eye movements; a Mad Libs style karaoke game for computers and mobile devices; an app that generates and plays raps based on a specific topic. My teammates don’t impress me with their work ethic—Eddie’s studying for a test and Ian is joking with his friends on other teams. Not having the skills to contribute to the project past the idea stage, I get frustrated with our lack of progress as the sun sets. Sponsor reps, fellow hackers, and curious MIT students float through the tables, asking to see what various teams are working on. I purposely give a vague answer so that no one steals our project, but Ian and Eddie clarify with details, always adding, “We’re just waiting for that pivot.” Everyone throws around the word “pivot” as the inevitable breakthrough each team will have at some point during the night.
At one point, we ask another Rutgers student to watch our table so that we can take a break outside as a team. We toss a frisbie with some company’s name on it and try to loosen up our bodies and brains. I’m not used to this type of collaborative, patient, wait-for-inspiration atmosphere, especially in a competitive setting. Except for the running to claim a table, the hackathon never feels like a competition. It’s more about making something to share with other people and hopefully having good ideas acknowledged.
Back inside, hours pass with no progress, and no one seems worried. Eddie’s girlfriend takes a nap on the air mattress under the table while he and Ian play games on the Internet, drink Red Bull from the heaping stash of snacks in the bleachers, and work on homework occasionally with Rutgers classmates on other teams. Some students aren’t on a team at all but have come to support. I try to catch up in The House of Mirth, but someone asks me about what I’m reading every time I get into it. Exhausted, bored, and unproductive, I don’t see any reason for me to be here. I fight the protests from Ian and his friends and take the bus back to my bed at Wellesley.
I return in the morning to the rink, which reminds me of a gymnasium after a natural disaster when it serves as a shelter and clinic, with tables and beds set up in neat lines, and half-dead looking people stumbling around sleepless. I find my team, just in time to see them present the final product to the judges making their rounds. It’s called “PinDB: your girlfriend’s database,” a nerdy, clever hack that misuses Pinterest’s image upload feature to store any file—photo, music, whatever—injected into a JPG with steganography. Basically, they’ve exploited Pinterest by using it as a file-sharing service. I barely understand and wonder how our lie detector app has gotten so lost.
“We worked on that assignment until we finished, and then finally pivoted at around three or four,” Eddie explains, remarkably cheerful for not having slept. “We thought no one would use Pinterest’s API, which increases our chances of winning their prize. When we realized Pinterest has a loophole where they don't sanitize the data their users upload, we came up with PinDB.” The judges smile and nod and finally ask why it’s “your girlfriend’s” database. Eddie says, “The only people we know using Pinterest are girls, specifically our girlfriends—Pinterest is really only female users.” The judges ask me if I use Pinterest. I don’t, and I tell them so, which feels like an awkward rejection. Two free agent hackers joined the team in the middle of the night. They all revel in their success with high fives and unbrushed smiles. I feel somewhat disappointed about being left out, but I can’t help my excitement when the PinDB team wins Pinterest’s prize: iPad minis.
Among some of the other winners are a better way to control PowerPoint presentations from your smartphone or pebble wristwatch, a Grand Theft Auto computer game built on Google Earth so that you can play in any geographical location with real-time traffic and weather, and 3-D drawing app.
A closing ceremony encourages students to ditch graduate school, avoid becoming a pawn in a big corporation, and, instead, join the start-up nation. The founder of Rap Genius calls us to become a part of the new frontier, the harnessing of a new resource we can’t possibly use up: cyberspace. The coding, hacking community is by no means underground, but it’s a still somewhat obscure club. It sees itself, paradoxically, as our generation’s version of a subculture sticking it to the man. Instead of going on tour with a rock band in hopes of getting rich, young twenty-something-year-olds take buses with their computer science departments. In both cases, developing the necessary skills might demand hard work, yet the climb to wealth and fame is as much about having fun as it is about meeting the goal.