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Twice a year, Penn hosts Penn Apps, the longest-running college-sponsored hackathon

Credit: Zoe Gan

For some Penn students, hacking is more than a hobby — it’s a culture in itself.

Hackathons are becoming more and more popular across the globe, with over 13,000 members in the “Hackathon Hackers” Facebook group. Earlier this month, The New York Times published an article titled, “The Hackathon Fast Track, From Campus to Silicon Valley,” which highlighted student hackers at the Stanford sponsored hackathon, TreeHacks.

Last year there were some 40 intercollegiate hackathons, and more than 150 are expected to take place this year, the Times reported.

The hackathon community is known for its close-knit nature, with a lot of the same college students attending the same large collegiate hackathons across the country.

“They provide a way for people who may not be that good at coding to go and see what the environment is like,” said Zach Feldman, the co-founder of New York Code and Design Academy, which aims to help any developer improve their coding and web building skillset. “You’re surrounded by a community of people who can help you level up as developers.”

Twice a year, Penn holds the longest-running college-sponsored hackathon, Penn Apps, where students compete in a weekend-long coding marathon to solve real-world problems. This year boasted 1,300 students who competed for thousands of dollars worth of prizes and gadget giveaways.

Hackathons usually provide compensation for student travelers, and some students come to these events hoping to find venture capitalists who will invest in their ideas or recruiters who will hire them for jobs during the summer or after college.

“At some events, six figure numbers will be thrown at these kids,” Engineering and College sophomore Benjamin Jiang said. “Peter Thiel is at some of these hacks and he’s kind of like the boogeyman, if you take his money and you don’t make it hot you have nothing.”

Although hacking culture is relatively close-knit, some divides do exist. Jiang, who attends about five of these hackathons per year, explained there is a competitive side as well.

“There is a divide between those who come there for fun and those who come there to win,” Jiang said. “My friends and I never end up doing any of the social things.”

“This is problematic in the sense that it is like putting people who are playing rec ball against people who are semi pro,” he added.

Engineering sophomore Nancy Wong does agree that the hacker community is very close and sees many of the same students attend major hacking events — yet she feels that the group is somewhat homogenous.

“If you think about the archetype for someone who does hackathons it’s generally a white, college male. A result is that it can be not that friendly,” Wong said. “The Facebook group and the general hackathon culture can be sexist and kind of racist, they don’t consider what it is like to be entering computer science from any kind of minority background.”

In preparation for a hackathon event, Jiang and his team of five, which includes students from colleges from coast to coast, brainstorm ideas almost a month in advance. Jiang explained that the same teams will often make the top 10 at many different events.

Wong feels that those who work towards a certain prize at these hackathons are missing the point.

“For me, it’s the concept of doing something really cool,” Wong said. “I feel like if you try hard to aim for a specific prize you will sell yourself short because you will not make a project entirely because you want to.”

Regardless of the personal outcome of these hacking events, coding is becoming an increasingly important skill.

“It touches every aspect of our lives,” Feldman said. “It’s better to be a producer than a consumer because you can better tailor technology to your own needs.”

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