Post by Hillary Kirby
*This post was produced as part of the UW Comm Department’s undergraduate Entrepreneurial Journalism course.
“I’m wide awake!” Katy Perry croons in dulcet repetition. “I’m wide awake!” Her song is like a proud shout echoing from every corner of the room. A celebration, if you will. A celebration for each individual staring doggedly at his or her computer screen in the room. A celebration because, quite literally, they are still wide awake.
It’s 4:40pm on Saturday February 16, 2012, and the individuals in question are on hour four of sitting in the room. The room, bathed in purple light and accommodating a mass of people at least 40 strong, is located in the Hub, an event center situated .2 miles from the Pioneer Square tunnel entrance.
These individuals, mostly students of high school or university age, are busying themselves with self-made coding projects as a part of Codeday Seattle, one event of many held across the country, put on by StudentRND, a student-made organization dedicated to providing enjoyable learning opportunities to persons interested in the computer science field in and around the Seattle area.
One of these students is Stanley Wang, a junior in the University of Washington Computer Science program. With schoolwork taking up most of his time, Wang doesn’t have the luxury of working on projects that he thinks up.“This comes along and its like I’ll just put aside 24 hours and then I’ll go on,” Wang said. “It’s a nice excuse to actually go have to build something.”
What Wang is referring to is a coding competition, or what those in the computer science field refer to as a hack-a-thon. During these competitions, teams of up to four, or individuals compete to build something using computer code, like websites, mobile applications, or computer games. The parameters vary depending on the competition. They are given exactly 24 hours to do so, with their finished products judged when time runs out.
“It’s quite a thrill to meet people that are interested in the same things and then be able to get together and make create something cool,” said Ryan Henning, an Ebay representative at the event, there to help students problem solve.
This competition has fewer rules than the typical coding competition, with its focus mainly on encouraging people to be creative, and less focused on winning.
“Other hack-a-thons are focused on prizes, recruiting,” said Edward Jiang, StudentRND founder. “This is about doing technology because you love it… Codeday has more of a party atmosphere.”
His words are epitomized in the event’s slogan, plastered on a pillar in the center of the room: ‘Move fast and make things.’
Participants set up shop at one of many tables and got down to business. That isn’t meant to mean they didn’t chat with their neighbors, for whether or not they were working in teams, sharing knowledge and laughs were the norm as a constant stream of quiet chatter blended seamlessly with Perry’s lyrics. One competitor, Peter Gan, drove from Olympia with his two monitors and hard drive just for the event.
“It’s a very low stress environment,” Gan said. “When I am stuck there are no catastrophic blow-ups because I can turn to the person next to me and ask for advice.”
Wang and his team of three other students chose to create a mobile app that would allow its user to control a light bulb that may already be controlled wirelessly.
“The idea was that the existing apps weren’t very good, or were unreliable,” Wang said. By the end of the event, Wang and his team had a working prototype. However, he still admits they have much left to do.
“One of the difficulties which comes with trying to pick up something and make something with it immediately is that there is a learning curve,” Wang said. “Besides having this idea we were also learning how to make IOS apps in general. None of us had any serious experience with development on the platform, so a lot of our time was spent just figuring it out.”
These kinds of events also allow university students to get a small glimpse into what it is like to be a computer programmer in the real world. While Tariq Yusuf, UW Computer Science sophomore, was interviewing with Facebook, he was told that the company does a form of these competitions internally.
“They have every month these hack-a-thons where they’ll sit down and they’re given a week to make something cool, whatever they want,” Yusuf said. “Doesn’t matter. Some interesting things will come out of it.”
Wang had his first taste of coding back in middle school, but his love affair with computer science really began while taking an introductory class in high school. Since then, he has competed in numerous hack-a-thons, but none quite like this one. Codeday was geared towards the less experienced coder, incorporating workshops on basic technique and even speakers.
Apart from preparing students for the real world, these competitions also take preparation. Deciding if or how long to sleep and even what skills to brush up on beforehand can be deciding factors.
Wang only slept for 20 minutes the entire competition, and it was at two pm the first day. It ended up costing him in the end, when sleep took over during the presentations.
“You manage to keep yourself up,” Wang said, “but once the wall starts cracking, you are screwed.”
The irony in the Katy Perry tune has materialized and competitors head home to their beds. They dream of the programming projects they fought sleep for, and of more Codedays yet to come. The next is only three months away.