Making friends at the world's largest student hackathon

SEPTEMBER 26, 2013

Originally published on the Dorm Room Fund Blog on September 26th, 2013.

On a sunny day in Israel, a team of four hackers woke up early to catch a plane that would take them 6,000 miles around the globe to the world's largest college hackathon ever. After spending over 20 hours just to get there, they whipped out their computers, plugged in headphones and spent the next 40 hours hacking. And these hackers aren't alone in flying halfway around the world for 8th bi-annual PennApps competition. There were teams from ETH Zurich and the National University of Singapore, among hundreds of others of students who piled into airplanes around the world for the event. All in all, over 600 kids schlepped their hoodie-covered heads to the City of Brotherly Love to do what they do every weekend: bury their heads in their laptops. Why do all these talented nerds travel so far to do what they can do literally anywhere in the world with an internet connection? Is it for the prizes? The glory? The free trip to Philly? Yes, some come for prizes, and more for glory, but the vast majority of PennApps come for something entirely different. They come for the community.

Let's face it: Philly isn't a smaller version of New York City, nor is it the Tech Mecca of San Francisco. Yet, year after year - even after graduation - the same alumni dutifully return to their alma mater twice a year, for the bi-annual hackathon. Penn '13 CS grad and former-organizer Ayaka Nonaka's tweet sums it up perfectly, "@PennApps is probably the only thing that would ever bring me back to Philadelphia." So sure, it's sad to say goodbye to Penn's graduating CS class each year, but it's not really all that sad. We know they'll be at PennApps in a few months. And at the one after that, too. The CIS@Penn community doesn't end when one stops studying CIS at Penn.

Similarly, the same company mentors return twice each year. For example, there's Swift, formerly from SendGrid, "who'll never miss a PennApps or HackNY," because, as he put it on Twitter, "[I'm] starting to think that @pennapps is the equivalent of a family reunion for [an] evangelist." Then there's the Brooklyn Hacker himself, Rob Spectre, giving his awesome API demo for Twillio each year. And, of course, PennApps wouldn't be complete without Kortina from Venmo walking around alone, trying - and often succeeding - in blending in as anything but the guy who's been footing the bill for this 'family reunion' long since before I've gotten here. As weird and idiosyncratic as it is, these mentors and hackers now belong to a family - and PennApps is Christmas twice a year.

Now hold on a sec, you say. Nerds are, by their very nature, antisocial. Are you really trying to tell me that these kids all pile into airplanes by the hundreds to hang out? Well, yes - that's exactly what I'm saying. Speaking from experience, we nerds have tough time connecting. However, ask me about how my backend scales and you won't be able to get a word in to shut me up. As it turns out, nerds seek to be just as social as everyone else, but they need people that speak their own language and whose eyes don't glaze over when they start talking about first-class functions.

And this is exactly the magic that PennApps has, purposefully or not, created. Luring in many of these computer nerds through the premise of prizes and a quick resume-boost, PennApps has allowed us geeks to come together like never before. It allows CS kids from Michigan, Berkeley and MIT to see each other on a multiple-time-a-year basis - more often than some see their real families! And through these connections, an undergraduate professional community is forming unlike any other the world's ever seen. I'd go so far as to speculate that a staggering portion of the world's future technology leaders were sleeping on the floor of the same building last weekend.

So here's the secret: if you're looking to meet the brightest technical minds of tomorrow, you should come to PennApps and "network." But it's not that easy. You can't to it the MBA way, by asking someone to build your startup for you. You have to do it the hacker way. Get yourself a classic PennApps mentor hat and go around asking people if they need help connecting to their databases or fixing a buggy CSS property. You need to become part of the family and the quickest way to get there is by clearing the table and offering to do the dishes. And before you know it, you'll be coding with the future founder of the Next Big Thing - though that'll have to wait while you two fix this Javascript scoping bug in the next 20 minutes before the demos.