Inside the largest college hackathon in the world.
-Graphic design by Michele Ozer, sidebar content by Patrick Ford–Matz and Kiley Bense
Alex Rattray wants “males and adventurous females” to discover the musical potential of their urine.
He’s brought a toilet—tank and all—from the basement of Hamilton Court to the third floor of the Towne Building in the Engineering Quad. In a classroom filled with chattering students, Alex hooks up a webcam to the uppermost part of the elevated toilet seat lid and turns it on. Tonight, he and his friend Kyle Hardgrave will work together to write a computer program that will allow the webcam to detect urine, then triggering the computer that it’s hooked up to to play music.
Alex W’14 and Kyle SEAS’14 are giving up their weekend to do this. It’s Friday night and the sixth PennApps 40–hour “hackathon” for programmers and designers has just begun.
PennApps is a technical competition and an inspirational call to create innovative hardware and software hacks. All hacks require software—some computer program that can interpret data and then do something cool with it. The difference is that hardware hacks also involve a physical user interface other than a computer, like a robot or toilet. This semester’s PennApps is the largest in its history and the second to eschew a theme. There’s only one objective: build something. Hope that it works.
That is the spirit of hacking. “To hack” means to create something, to hack away at it until it’s done. The final product may work or it may not—but when you only have one chance to impress the judges, your app had better work the first time. The code has to be perfect. And you only have 40 hours to get it right.
Outside the classroom, the hallways of the first, second and third floors of Towne are filled with an assembly line of Indian food, free of charge to all participants. Fed and happy, students crowd around their tables talking ideas and strategy at. Laptop chargers, extension cords and power strips link teams to outlets, while kids keep their eyes glued to their screens. Over the course of the weekend, hundreds of students will essentially live in the same building. There are no beds, but PennApps organizers advised everyone to bring blankets, pillows and sleeping bags. The decision to sleep (or to forgo sleep and continue coding) is up to the students, but they will need to maintain a certain level of coherence in order to turn their cool ideas into cool products.
That’s the goal for Adi Dahiya, a M&T ’14, and his teammate Ankit Shah, W’13. They ran into another team of two with a similar app idea—a collaborative music player (think upvoting your favorite song to the first in the queue)—and joined forces to produce the best version of that idea. At midnight on Friday, they have spent the majority of the past four hours fleshing out their idea: What problem does the playlist solve? How will users interact with it? This all will affect the app’s code, which in turn gives the app its visual look.
The process is inherently collaborative. The front end of the application depends on the back end as much as the other way around. If Ankit wants the design to look a certain way, Adi has to code it. If Adi and the other programmers on the team want to add a new feature, Ankit has to change the design. The race toward a finished product doesn’t just depend on a good idea—it also mandates a team that works well together.
On Friday night, those who can go home and sleep will. On Saturday, it’s all–nighters for everyone. As M&T sophomore Max Scheiber puts it, “You can do the midnight ice–skating thing [on Saturday night], or you can push through and win. I’m here to win.”
Today, PennApps is the largest college hackathon in the world. Nearly 500 students and programmers registered for this semester’s competition. Just two and a half years ago, the first PennApps competition only had 17 teams.
When you consider the sponsors, prizes and perks, the allure of this celebrated competition seems obvious. Its success and popularity is due partially to the organizers’ focus on creating a memorable two–day experience for the student competitors. PennApps isn’t just a hackathon; it’s a hackathon organized by students, and specifically by Penn students, meaning no need goes unconsidered. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and copious amounts of caffeine are available for all the teams, and there is a midnight run to Powelton Pizza for fresh air and more carbohydrates. There’s a photo booth, quizzo, an ice–skating expedition and free gourmet popsicles. Each contestant receives a swag bag filled with pins, shirts and stickers. And of course, there are the final prizes: $4,000 for the first place app, plus a trip to Google NYC, a meet–and–greet with a Philadelphia start-up collective and a chance to compete in another hackathon hosted by Greylock University.
Those are only the prizes offered by PennApps itself. Add the corporate sponsors into the picture and the stakes get a little higher. SoundCloud will pay for the best music hack to visit its headquarters in Berlin. In a surprise announcement on Friday night, eBay said it would extend an internship offer to the competitors behind the hack they deem the best.
But for most students, the pressure to do well within the PennApps competition isn’t pre–professional—it’s creative. Among the hacks at this semester’s event were robots that could shoot each other, a web browser that looks like a vintage television set, a game that allows you to “Marry, Friend, Kill” your Facebook friends and a controversial app called “Playbook” that allows users to share their sexual experiences (“I got to third base with Angelina last night!”). One of the participants who worked on “Skye,” a decision–making app for the overscheduled, describes the hackathon as a time “to do what you love the most for 48 hours straight.”
Student organizer Pulak Mittal explains that the hackathon places no special emphasis on creating sellable products. “It’s not like everyone here wants to make a start–up. We don’t ask that hacks focus on monetization or room for growth,” says Pulak. Instead, student hacks are judged based on four, perhaps more noble criteria: novelty, polish, usefulness and technical difficulty.
By midday Saturday, Alex is squirting fake pee (water with “Lemon Yellow” food coloring for appearance and CoffeeMate for consistency) out of a CamelBack. They got a new toilet (Why? “Pee is yellow. The old toilet was yellow. The webcam can’t detect yellow on yellow.”) but have made little progress otherwise. Kyle tells me that last night the two of them went home around 4 a.m. with essentially nothing done. They came back this morning at 10 a.m. to work.
Adi’s team is in a similar position. Made of four Penn students, they also all went home from 4 to 10 a.m. (Out–of–towners weren’t as lucky). Today, Adi tells me that they don’t have much to show, although they have achieved their goal of setting up the architecture of the program itself. For now, Ankit is designing the user interface for the web app in grayscale, a safe move for an app that hasn’t been fully coded yet.
For these two Penn teams, and so many others at the hackathon, the bulk of the work will happen tonight beginning at 8 p.m. and ending at 11 a.m. on Sunday. Ideas have been developed, logos have been made and programs may have been partially written. From here on out, the only thing that’s left is to keep coding and fix as many bugs as possible.
“We always had the basic idea of how we were going to hack it. Now, it’s a question of whether or not this”—a toilet that plays music as you pee and can tweet the duration of your bathroom visit—“can happen,” says Kyle.
He and Alex do everything to ensure it can. While one of them writes lines of code, the other stands over his shoulder and proofreads it for mistakes. They test it countless times, filling the baby blue basin with yellow liquid and then shoveling it out with a scoop they made by cutting a corner off a gallon of milk. They work nonstop until around 7 a.m. In the morning, Alex’s fingers are stained bright yellow from the makeshift urine. Around 10 a.m., he curls up against the classroom wall and naps before the first round of app demos. There, they will see if they “did well,” as Kyle puts it. The fact that they’ve written a program, engineered a toilet that tweets and done it all on no sleep doesn’t seem to count.
Downstairs, Ankit tests the team’s work on his phone. As he upvotes a song, the code written on Adi’s computer changes accordingly and the song slides to the top of the playlist. This is good news. But there are still bugs to be fixed before demos and the team hasn’t slept either.
Before presenting in front of a smaller panel of judges, Alex is worried he hacked the wrong thing. He originally had plans to build a schedule planner that incorporated PennCourseReview’s API to select the best classes and optimize one’s educational experience. There’s no time to wonder, though, as he and Kyle wheel their toilet (complete with shaggy floor mat and a lamp for ambience) into the Berger Auditorium downstairs. They, like every other team, have two minutes to demo their hack—that means to run their program once onstage and show that it works. If it doesn’t, they have no chance of continuing on to the second round of demos, where the top 20 apps will be presented.
Demos in the Berger Auditorium are off to a rough start. One contestant, who worked alone, gave a lengthy explanation of his web app, and was rudely forced off–stage by incessant clapping. When another team tries to run the software for their app “CodeAlong,” a pop–up window appears on-screen and says “Program unresponsive .” When Kyle and Alex get on stage, no one is sure what will happen. There’s a point in the competition when Friday’s lofty expectations hit a wall of reality. One of the contestants jokes, “48 hours ago we were young and naive.”
Kyle mans the actual computer program that he and Alex wrote, while Alex mock–pees into the toilet with fake urine. He is full of bravado, the only contestant who has given their presentation any theatrical flourish (“Ladies and gentleman, I give you… The Musical Toilet!”), but when he first shoots liquid into the basin, the program fails and no music is played. The team keeps calm and runs through it again—this time, a house beat comes on and the audience cheers. However, when Alex tries to shuffle to the next song, another feature they included, the toilet remains uncooperative. Instead, he accidentally tweets to @pennapps many, many times.
When the first round is over, “The Musical Toilet” is not among the 20 apps that will appear in the next demo. However, “ZeitPlanner,” a scheduling app built by Penn computer science freshmen that is similar to Alex’s initial idea, does make it.
Second–round demos in a filled–to–capacity Irvine Auditorium go well, with all 20 apps working onstage and eliciting cheers and “oohs” from the audience and judges. “Inventory,” an app that monitors what goes in and out of your backpack and sends you a mobile notification if you leave something at home, takes home first place. Afterwards, the sponsors announce their favorite apps and reward those teams with their own prizes.
Before announcing the winner of his company’s prize, PennApps mentor and Venmo founder Andrew Kortina takes the stage. He talks about his college experience at Penn: how he switched his major from computer science to philosophy, how he graduated without any job prospects. On the day of graduation, his mom asked him what he would do. He said he had two weeks before his lease was up and he would “figure it out” by then. He found a place in West Philly for $400 a month and started designing websites for restaurants in the neighborhood for $500 a pop. If they offered $100, he would take it, no haggling. Over the next few years, friends and family asked continually when Kortina would get a “real” job. Now on the stage at PennApps, he encourages students not to listen to those questions, to renounce the myth that the pre-professional path is the only way to success.
He explains that PennApps teaches the joy of creating and that the rewards of that desire to innovate accelerate and deepen the experience of learning. The instinct and desire to build, Kortina says, are good for the world. He reminds students to keep this in mind as they leave the hackathon and return to the real world.
As sponsors continue to hand out their awards, Alex sits atop an unfolded auditorium chair in the back of Irvine. He says that he is upset about ZeitPlanner making the top 20, since his similar vision would have included more features and a cleaner design. He adds, however, that he is happy he did the toilet hack, because “once you have the toilet and the idea, you can’t not do it.”
He shrugs off the thought of developing his own schedule planner outside of the competition. He already has other plans. “I’m pretty busy with EssaySafe,” he says of an online exam app he’s been working on last June. He hopes to have it used in more classrooms this year.
In his speech, Kortina talked about how “the worst part of PennApps is coming back to the real world.” Outside of this space, it’s a pre–professional beeline toward a desk job.
Alex doesn’t seem too worried. He’s going back into the real world swinging.
Frida Garza is a junior from El Paso, Texas, studying creative writing. She is the current backpage editor and former design and music editor for 34th Street Magazine.