What does a 48-hour programming binge — where people routinely pass out on their keyboards — have anything to do with the real world?
Unless you’re an analyst at Goldman Sachs who regularly pulls all-nighters — not much.
However, for two straight days last weekend, I worked for Goldman Hacks. But rather than running an Excel spreadsheet, I competed in the PennApps hackathon, the largest student-run hackathon in the world.
A hackathon is a programming marathon where competitors build a product from scratch. Whether they make a website, mobile app or physical device, anything involving computer science is fair game.
For two days, I was fixated on my computer, pounding out lines of Ruby and making queries to our database. Three hundred other budding entrepreneurs around me did the same, while throwing the occasional expletive into conversations when something went wrong or pumping a jubilant fist when a new feature worked.
From an outsider’s perspective, it was unclear whether we were computer scientists or avid sports fans watching the big game on our screens.
The chips, pizza and soda strewn all over McClelland certainly didn’t help.
Yeah, I destroyed my health on my birthday weekend — not by killing my liver, but by eating junk food, staring at a laptop screen and not sleeping.
While the real world doesn’t usually require this much stamina, I still gained some valuable insights.
First of all, PennApps reminded me that I have the freedom to fail.
Let’s face it: we live in the coddled world of school, where failure is receiving a B in a class or getting rejected from a club. We always have review sessions, information sessions and study break sessions to fall back on. Hell, we even have great job security in the workforce thanks to the Penn pedigree.
However, the freedom to fail is what motivates human existence. This freedom lights a fire under our species’ collective evolutionary ass.
What I learned while programming a hackathon project is that there is no safety net. You don’t have a professor to guide you through your code. All you have is yourself and your team.
There’s a constant fear in the back of your mind. You must move rapidly and diligently, because the slightest mistake could mean you don’t have a product to present.
PennApps also reminded me that it’s important to continuously learn.
As we prepare to enter the workforce, it’s easy to stick to a specific field or ability. The specialization of labor has been the backbone of Western economies for the last 200 years, and for good reason — it makes companies more efficient.
However, specialization makes it easy for us to stagnate, to get caught in the same way of thinking. As such, we must remember to keep our minds sharp by learning new things.
A company whose employees are stuck in antiquated modes of thinking will never innovate. Likewise, a hackathon team whose members do not learn new subsets of computer science is a team destined to lose.
Last weekend, my team taught ourselves data scraping, MongoDB and JSON APIs. In non-technical speak, we built a script to comb the internet for politicians’ platforms, stored them in a database and allowed anyone to ask our web server for that information.
Without the desire to learn new computer science concepts, my team would not have offered a solution to the problem of misinformation surrounding political candidates’ platforms.
Last, but not least, I witnessed the power of the human mind at PennApps.
In just two days, teams built projects as diverse as an LP turntable that controls Spotify, a mobile application to let you track the battery life of friends’ cell phones and a music transcriber. One team’s application, which allows you to hack an unsuspecting friend’s Facebook, even made it to Time.com.
PennApps reminded me that we’re all brilliant — a fact that’s easy to forget when we’re struggling over problem sets or worrying about our next a capella rehearsal.
Our ability to create what we want empowers us to enact change. And to me, there’s no greater feeling of freedom than the freedom to change the world.
Max Scheiber is a College and Wharton sophomore from Boca Raton, Fla. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @MaxScheiber. “Maximal Freedom” appears every other Monday.