Amid the silent taps of laptop keys, they sip coffee and fork goat cheese salads. With a relaxed posture that contrasts with the importance of their ideas, they nonchalantly bounce concepts for new applications and ventures off of each other.
At first glance they are just average college students on laptops hanging around a coffee shop, but they are the next generation of students who may change the world.
A community of coders and innovators have set up shop at Lovers and Madmen, a coffee shop on 40th and Ludlow streets.
The idea for the Lovers and Madmen group began on a bus back from an entrepreneurship conference last September. Today, a small, close-knit group of hackers gather daily at the coffee shop to talk about their technology endeavors. It is not a grand affair, but, like the hacker culture at Penn, it is a growing microcosm. They code and chat over cups of Counter Culture Coffee, whose name aptly describes the group’s mentality — unafraid of going against the grain of society and striving to make a difference in the world.
College sophomore Dan Shipper and Wharton junior Patrick Leahy are two of the group’s original members and make daily appearances at the coffee shop.
They are coders, entrepreneurs and innovators, and both have been coding since the fifth grade. For them, innovation is a way of life. Shipper has been involved in more web businesses than people have fingers, and a number of them have gained prominent feature in the news and within the online technology community. Currently, they are doing AirTime for Email, a service that allows individuals to market themselves using email banners.
They want to make a change in the world. Their weapon of choice? Hacks.
A hack is an innovative way of solving an old problem, a eureka moment in which a solution appears.
“You could strip me of everything I have and throw me out into the wilderness with nothing but a Macbook,” Leahy said, “and at the end of the day I’d end up coding and doing entrepreneurship.”
At Penn, Leahy and Shipper are a part of a growing hacker culture, fueled by computer innovations.
The cost of starting a web business has significantly decreased in the recent years. In the 1990s, starting a web business would cost a lot of money and require a team of skilled developers working around the clock. Today, starting a web business can cost as low as $5, Leahy said.
He stressed how much the landscape of computer innovation has changed — “if you have coding skills and a laptop, you can do anything.”
“Coding allows you to build businesses for the rest of your life for no cost except for your time,” he added, and emphasized that with computer code, “people can really be free and do what they want.”
Startups “are no longer the exception to the rule, rather it is the new rule,” Leahy said.
The Leahy and Shipper duo encourages students and self-starters to use web resources to teach themselves. “All the resources you’ll ever need are on the web,” Shipper said, but warned this lifestyle is not for everyone.
Other factors have also contributed to the growing hacker ecosystem at Penn.
The PennApps Hackathon, which began in 2009, has grown to become one of the largest hackathons in the nation, according to Engineering senior Alexey Komissarouk, a former Daily Pennsylvanian columnist.
This semester, Penn’s Computer and Information Science department began offering half-credit courses for students to keep in touch with the latest in computer programming and web development.
At Penn, Mat Schaffer, a freelance programmer in Philadelphia, teaches a course on the latest in Rails, a web development language. He helps bridge the “disconnect between university curriculum and professional skills.”
The hacker ecosystem has also been thriving in Philadelphia, which in Leahy’s eyes has the potential to become a great technology and business hub.
Dreamit Ventures, a startup incubator, provides funding, mentors and a network to Philadelphia startups and is one of the factors that feed the growing technology scene. William Crowder, a managing director at Dreamit, said Philadelphia “has a special ecosystem,” and that “startups are deciding that they want to be in Philadelphia, and that didn’t happen last year.”
Business incubators are only part of the startup picture as they fund small businesses who then also contribute to the system.
CloudMine, incubated by Dreamit last summer, was founded by Brendan Mccorkle, an Executive Master’s in Technology Management Penn graduate. He sees Philadelphia as fostering a certain “scrappiness” in local startups that make them “do more with less resources.”
Despite the growing culture in Lovers and Madmen and the city, Leahy and Shipper believe that Penn could be doing more to support the hacker culture.
Shipper said Penn has a highly driven student body, but “the school needs to do more to keep great students here.” He gave the examples of the founders of Coursekit — an education management company and Blackboard rival. Former Wharton sophomore Joseph Cohen left Penn last summer to work on Coursekit full time. Shipper said Cohen could have mentored the “next generation” of hackers, had he stayed at Penn.
According to Leahy, hacks are an “organic process.” He added, “There’s no formula to produce a hack.”
Since it is a natural process, “you just need to give people a canvas, and they will start painting,” Leahy said, adding that the University should recognize the hacker subculture and let them do what they want, instead of restraining them with rigid curricula.
Shipper said he often thinks about dropping out and pursuing his passion to build applications full-time, but has decided to stay in order to add to the community and satisfy his “intellectual curiosity” with Penn courses.
The duo wants more recognition from the administration for their community and take steps to allow hackers to what they do best — develop new ideas.
Leahy said “no university does this” right now, but if Penn does, then it would be “an unequal opportunity to change things.”
“There needs to be a dialogue between hackers and the University administration,” the duo emphasized, as it is the first step towards the University recognizing and taking advantage of the hacker culture at Penn.
Rob Nelson, the director for Education in the Provost’s Office, said Penn “puts a lot of resources into support in the curriculum and co-curriculum,” citing the Weiss Technology House and the Wharton Venture Initiation Program as examples of administration-supported technology and entrepreneurship programs.
“If you’re a student, then you have the expectation to study the curriculum,” Nelson said. “There’s a difference between being a student and an entrepreneur.”
Leahy feels society is at the verge of a new technological revolution. “And sometime, there’s going to be an explosion,” he said, draining his cup of black coffee.
This revolution will be an opportunity for Penn to become the new Stanford University and Philadelphia the next Silicon Valley, he added. “It’s going to happen so fast that you’ll blink and miss it.”
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