On April 25, about 400 student hackers across California gathered at the PayPal town hall in San Jose for HackingEDU’s training day. At first glance, the event looked like any other hackathon, with pizza and Red Bull both in great supply. However, instead of “moving fast and breaking things,” attendees spent the day attending practical programming workshops, giving them skills they can build upon over the summer and at HackingEDU’s main event, a 1,000-person hackathon this October.
Workshops covered topics such as how to build Flappy Bird for iOS in an hour and how to build a weather app for the Pebble watch. Some workshops, such as those sponsored by Firebase and Twilio, demonstrated features of their developer API. Others, such as the Node.js workshop sponsored by PayPal, focused on tools frequently used in modern development. The day ended with a founders’ talk with Guillermo Rauch and Jacob Thornton, creators of Socket.IO and Bootstrap, respectively.
In choosing workshop topics, the HackingEDU team focused on technologies that both interested them and prepared developers to rapidly build software at a hackathon. “I really thought that Twitter Bootstrap was important to do … it helps [programmers] build the front-end really quick and then they can focus on heavy-lifting back-end [development],” said HackingEDU director and San Francisco State junior Alex Cory.
The team met Rauch, who also connected them to Thornton, at a small hackathon in February. Rauch told the team that he knew someone who did work on Bootstrap but didn’t specify what that person did. “I didn’t find out until a month from the event that he’s the founder,” Cory said.
One of the unique characteristics of HackingEDU’s organizing team, and perhaps its greatest challenge, is that its members are spread across universities throughout California. Meetings occur through Google Hangouts, and even so it is difficult for the core team to keep track of what other groups are doing. To bridge the communications gap, Cory requires new directors to sit in on each sub-team’s meetings for at least a month.
Even though HackingEDU’s leadership usually cannot meet in person, they have the unique ability to directly advertise to students at a variety of schools, which leads to a more diverse turnout than at traditional hackathons. “We don’t market exclusively through online channels … even though we flyer where there tend to be more technical majors, we’re always telling people, ‘If you want to come and learn, feel free to come,’” operations lead and UC Berkeley Computer Science freshman Leland Lee said.
What may have attracted so many people to Training Day is HackingEDU’s emphasis on creating an environment that puts learning at the forefront. “There [are] many different aspects to hackathons. There’s the ‘hacker culture thing,’ and then there’s people who want to make a product and turn it into a startup and drop out of school, and there’s the people who [come into hackathons with a mentality of] ‘I don’t know anything. I’ve heard about hackathons, but I don’t know what they are, and I know how to code a little bit,’ and they come to hackathons as a learning experience. HackingEDU is getting in on that slice of the pie,” said Kirby Kohlmorgen, a developer evangelist at Pebble and a junior studying computer science at Purdue University.
In the end, learning and education are at the core of what HackingEDU stands for. The grand prizes for their main event in October are solely for education-related hacks. “We’re talking with professors, mentors, educators, students and the goal [for the main event] is to have a list of problems that people have with school, and hackers can try to solve it. Hacking education is about finding a better way [to learn] than [what] they have in the classroom,” Cory said.