Hackers at PennApps this weekend will take home much more than $30,000 in prize money.
For past winners, the hackathon’s 48 hours have gone a long way in defining their current careers. They claim that PennApps is more about the process than the result.
For 2011 Wharton graduate Matt Newberg , PennApps was the “single best entrepreneurial opportunity” he had in college. He and his team produced MeepMe , which won the Student Choice Award that year . The app enabled Penn students to text anonymously for the playful pursuit of friendships or romance.
Newberg was able to “use the momentum” from that experience to found his app-based startup, which he now operates in New York.
For 2012 Engineering graduate Kevin Conley , the hackathon is “more about having fun.” Conley’s team won the the fall 2011 grand prize for ?Wave, a microwave enabled with Youtube-playing, phone-texting and Twitter-posting capacity. Hackers “get sucked into the energy of the event,” Conley said.
Varun Sampath, a 2012 Engineering graduate and Conley’s team member, noted that the final destination for his team’s winning app - like most apps - “was the trash.”
Nonetheless, the rush of sheer joy and practical experience acquired in those 48 hours makes it worthwhile, the hackers said.
PennApps participants are “really smart people driven to build things,” said Newberg. “In that dynamic, anything can happen.”
Pulak Mittal , a two-year director of the contest and 2013 Engineering and Wharton graduate, agreed fully. PennApps attracts students from a wealth of backgrounds, he said, from those who study computer science to those who dabble in programming on the side.
Despite outreach efforts for female programmers, the gender ratio for previous competitions has been 70-30 in favor of men, Mittal estimated. That disparity is a function of a gender gap in enrollment for relevant courses.
Regardless, the hackers agreed that their craft has become more mainstream than ever in 2014. Sampath attributed the trend to the commercial success of technologies such as smartphones and tablets. “Many phones come bundled with development tools now,” Conley said. And many experienced members of the hacking community dedicate their hacking hours to making tools that facilitate entry for newcomers, he added.
As Sampath put it, hacker culture began as “[Massachusetts Institute of Technology] students playing pranks on each other” decades ago. Hackers today, however, are more likely to focus on constructing utilitarian tools.
PennApps hackers take projects “from just an idea to a prototype in just hours. You can really build something amazing in just two days,” Sampath said.
The former participants said their experiences prepared them to make an impact in the world with innovative products, many of which incubated in those intensive 48 hours.
“Everyone gets starry-eyed” when imagining success for an innovative product, said Newberg. “Hacker mentality is figuring out how to get there.”
This article has been updated to reflect that ?Wave won the 2011 fall grand prize, not the 2010 Student Choice Award. The same PennApps team won the 2010 Student Choice Award, but for separate app SEPTANow.