Red-eyed programmers hunched over laptops. Free catered food and caffeine to keep them going. Exhausted coders crashing and falling asleep on tables. Prizes, maybe even glory, for the winners.
That’s how people imagine a hackathon, and it’s a fair representation of HackTCNJ Feb. 22-23, when 105 students tried to turn an idea into a workable app inside 24 hours. But top winner Jim Rottinger, a junior computer engineering major working alone, got his project working after 13 hours in the creative zone and went home to bed. In the morning he returned and polished his creation: a feature allowing viewers of twitch.tv, a live-steaming video game broadcasting network, to watch more than one channel at a time.
Rottinger came away with an $1,000 Amazon gift card and a sure-fire resume builder. But he says it was the creative challenge that made the experience worthwhile. “What’s cool about a hackathon is trying to figure out how to take an idea and make it real. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it,” he said.
The hackathon, the college’s second, proved so popular registrants had to be turned away. And many of the participants came from schools other than TCNJ. “People come to hackathons because it’s fun, it’s social, and it’s a way for people to test their skills,” said Nadya Pena, one of the event’s student organizers. She welcomed participants, directed the action and made an unscheduled 3:30 a.m. run to a Pennsylvania Wal-Mart for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. “Not all are computer science students or even technologists. A lot of this is stuff you learn on your own.”
People would come to hackathons even without prizes, says Sean Devlin, 32, co-founder of the seven-year-old tech firm Front Rush in Lambertville, N.J., a sponsor of the event.
“Right now, hack is definitely hip and cool. Many of the new heroes of today are tech CEOs. There’s an integrity to the thing that supercedes the victory. You’ve created something that didn’t exist,” said Devlin, who helped judge 24 successful apps. “The winning project was technically advanced and unique. It was also a crowd favorite. As soon as Jim was done presenting, the room went wild.”