Q and A with PennApps Hackathon mentors
The Daily Pennsylvanian sits down with Facebook engineers Lu Chen and Ryan Menezes
January 19, 2013, 3:45 pm·
This weekend, Penn received an influx of great technological minds.
Included among these were 2011 Engineering graduates Lu Chen and Ryan Menezes, who are both software engineers at Facebook. They are visiting Penn this week to give students workshops on hacking, present an Application Programming Interface and act as mentors for this year’s hackers.
We took the time to sit down with them and chat about the hackathon.
The Daily Pennsylvanian: Can you tell me about your past experiences at PennApps?
Chen: We definitely competed in the spring 2011 PennApps [hackathon]. We were both seniors at that point. We ended up creating an app called the Decider … the idea was that in a lot of situations you’re not really sure what the right answer is. [It lets] someone random decide on your behalf. We got third place overall.
DP: What have you learned from your experience at PennApps? Did it help with your career at Facebook?
Menezes: I think for computer science students, it’s not so much that PennApps prepares you for a job as it is that you love to build stuff.
Chen: At school you rarely have this uninterrupted block of time with other people that you hack with and PennApps creates this event where you have… this uninterrupted time where you can actually build something.
A lot of these projects are what employers are looking for. They’re looking for outside initiatives.
DP: I know that some people don’t finish. How does the time constraint affect the competition?
Menezes: The time constraint means that you have to take your grand idea and figure out what is the smallest thing you can build that still shows that you made something of value.
Chen: It’s almost like the Iron Chef of programming, right? You have a limited amount of time, you’re given some building blocks like, here’s some APIs, here’s some frameworks to use and you have to get something out by the end.
DP: Do any of the projects built go on to become something bigger?
Chen: Yeah. I know of at least maybe two projects, which have gotten to continue and either be [a]… startup or I don’t know if any have been acquired.
Menezes: I think people come to hack for a variety of reasons. Some people come to hack just because it’s fun. You get free food, you hang out with your friends and you build something. Other people come to hack…because there is a lot of money and physical prizes…and some come to hack because they have a concrete business idea and they want some time to crank out a prototype.
DP: How do you think the mentors affect the experience of being at PennApps?
Chen: I think a lot of API’s can be difficult to use if you don’t understand the basics… it’s very easy to get stuck and miss an important detail or miss an important concept. PennApps is a very good outlet where you have people who understand API’s really well and you can get the help you need to move past that.
Menezes: Beyond that, the mentors are generally really good at coding and it’s always good to have a second pair of eyes on your code.
DP: What is the culture of the hackathon like?
Menezes: It’s actually surprisingly similar to what it is like at our Facebook headquarters. It’s like people getting together and just having a good time hacking stuff.
Chen: So at Facebook … we hold company hackathons every couple of months.
This is where a lot of great Facebook products come out of … Facebook video, Facebook chat, timeline and the atmosphere is similar.
There’s music, there’s drinks, there’s sometimes loud thumping music to get the beat going. But people are focused. They’re building stuff.
DP: Do you have anything else to add?
Menezes: Being at a hackathon…feels like being at Facebook for us. A hackathon is all about focusing [on] how you can make the most impact, which is exactly what we have to do in our profession.
It feels good to be here. It feels like home.