Earlier this summer, I received an invitation to attend two incredible student hackathons, PennApps and Hack the North, in the United States and Canada respectively.
These events happened within the last 10 days. I have only just caught up with my sanity to write about it all. I had the opportunity to attend other US hackathons and one in Croatia, but I turned them all down for these two. Why? They both stood out in very different ways - PennApps is the oldest student hackathon in the world and Hack the North is the newest student hackathon in the world. A bonus was they both offered to pay for my travel (out of few other British students) and thus my decision was then already made.
As I'm about to board my flight back to England, I thought it would be worth sharing my incredible short trip to North America.
When I arrived in Philadelphia for PennApps, I immediately felt this surreal sense of excitement for what seemed like an out-of-this-world weekend of hacking. PennApps was located in Central Philly and was unbelievably easy to access through Philly's awesome underground system.
The hackathon was spread through numerous buildings throughout the entire Penn campus. It really did give off a unique feel like PennApps had really took over Philadelphia. They had different buildings for food, hacking and presentations all of which were a five minute walk from each other.
Picture: Tomer Kagan keynoting PennApps X
Tomer Kagan, kicked off the tenth edition of PennApps with a talk about the company he founded, Quixey. We was then welcomed by ex-Penn students who were two-time past winners of PennApps and are on an adventure with their startup that was born right of the PennApps experience. I'll admit: the amount of APIs and hardware was insane and I'm still trying to catch up on what they all were.
There was a large emphasis on prizes and health; the grand prize was $5,000 and copious on copious amounts of hardware. I'll quickly note that I am not a fan of cash prizes whatsoever. I know a competitive hackathon when I see one, and PennApps was exactly that through the cash offerings. However, the exploration into making health an integral part of their hackathon culture was interesting and I'm excited to see where this goes in the future. And quite a few of the sponsors attending were actually Penn alumni.
I arrived to the event with a pre-made team (via their Facebook group) but it just didn't happen. We never found an idea we were all equally passionate about and the competitiveness of the hackathon quickly pushed us all away. Even as an experienced programmer, I was treated as a lone beginner (which was refreshing and provided an interesting perspective) and I felt essences of a culture which did not welcome fellow hackers. What about hackers at hackathons who don't come with friends or aren't female? There is no exceptions with making anyone feel uncomfortable, and I'll make sure I address this as an organiser myself. A reason for this was largely because everyone had already made teams, including myself, and it gave off almost a "transactional" feel with people already arriving and knowing what is expected of them in exchange for food, sleep, swag and the possibility to win or no prizes. Maybe the overwhelming popularity and overall strict selectiveness of PennApps got everyone topping the charts for what was a whole new spectrum of competitive. The point was, the environment at PennApps was not the best I've ever seen. The buildings and schedules were definitely confusing (though the text updates were somewhat of a life saver) and some sort of "small tours" prior would have been oh-so beneficial.
The food at the event was incredible. The pretzels, the Insomnia cookies and even the infamous cheesesteak - I was frequently reminded that I was in Philly. You can definitely see the PennApps organisers worked on the quality and content within the meals in detail.
The "science fair" demo format (everyone had a table and judges walked around) was something I was excited to see for the first time. Sponsors would walk around to hacks that implemented their challenges and judges would look at every hack in order to pick the top ten finalists. However, after speaking to a lot of fellow hackers, it was apparent that judges didn't even visit every table which would make it unfair. I didn't particularly attempt to win any prizes as I wanted to take the opportunity to learn Swift and build my first app alongside the support from incredible Apple engineers onsite. Overall, I loved PennApps but it taught me the problems of scaling hackathons.
Hack the North
This was the first large student hackathon in Canada at the University of Waterloo. The reason why I was equally as excited about this hackathon was because they wanted to take risks - and lots of them.
Having arrived in Toronto (where I was seriously minutes away from missing my flight, phew!), I took their shuttle to their university campus which was 1.5 hours. We left our coach in the freezing cold that is Canadian nights and checked in tents outside their phenomenal engineering building. It was something spectacular.
Picture: Chamath Palihapitiya being interviewed by Jason Calcanis
I arrived with no team. I found two hackathon newbies and we built an incredible hack with great contributions from everyone. The one thing I can applaud from both PennApps and Hack the North is the quality of attendees - everyone was incredibly passionate about hackathons!
Then the opening presentations. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Yes, it is worthy of that. And another one: Wow. No hackathon in the world will be able to beat the speaking lineup of the Hack the North. It included Jason Calcanis (famous Silicon Valley investor), Chamath Palihapitiya (billionaire largely by taking Facebook to a billion users), Sam Altman (President of Y-Combinator), Eric Migicovsky (founder of Pebble) and Evan Stites-Clayton (founder of Teespring) and I don't think I'm even halfway through. Their talks were really awesome, but nothing in the world could beat their sheer presence. They could have not said a word and I would have been just as impressed.
Now we had to get back to hacking. I think the Wi-Fi was that good at both PennApps and Hack the North that I forgot I had to mention it. The commitment from sponsors was unique and many of them wouldn't sponsor other hackathons. Also, again, an insane amount of sponsors!
Of course, I did see growing pains with Hack the North. The presentations were in a building really far from the hacking building which was really uncomfortable in the freezing Canadian cold. Even grabbing the food at the tents outside during the night was not particularly pleasurable. There wasn't enough food for everyone either. However, the obsession with Tim Horton's (Canada's answer to Starbucks) definitely made me feel like I was Canada and that I actually was!
Even after a phenomenal amount of hacking (which was put short considering it started at midnight and we decided to sleep!), I had little idea on how best part of the event was yet to come. The judging process was very risky (which was different) and I was impressed by the attempt to be unique. But when the top 10 teams were selected out of 200 teams, little did I know they didn't have a grand prize - all 10 teams won the same prize of one selection of a list of devices (including Apple Watch)!
Nobody seemed like they were left out, and the volunteers at the event was super phenomenal. They were all as passionate about other people to put Canada on the map and I'm super excited about having England do the same when we welcome North American students!
Tiresome but incredible
I don't think I've written so much code over the two weekends for a very long time. I'm already exhausted and don't know how students on the other side of the Atlantic can go to a hackathon of this scale every weekend. I still can't fathom the logistical insanity that must go into these as organisers.
I think it's worth to note I applied to the last two PennApps and was rejected from both (along with the many other hackathons in the US!) and all I did was contribute a lot more on GitHub which seemed to help me massively. Finally, I had the opportunity to see first hand what Mike Swift and MLH were doing for the US student hackathon scene and I couldn't be more excited to help them grow MLH in the UK.
Now back to sleep, only with even more excitement!