Pizza, Perseverance And Skills At A Major League Hackathon

The University of Maryland has claimed the 2013 national hacking championship, beating out more than 100 schools for the title. Claudio Sanchez attends a college hacking tournament to find out more.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. The University of Maryland, College Park has claimed the title Best School for Hackers. They have got the trophy to prove it. Maryland beat heavyweights like MIT, Stanford, Michigan and Carnegie Mellon, and they did it by sending the most students to five hackathons last year. They placed first in two of them.

But wait. If you're thinking these schools are celebrating college kids who break into computer networks, you're wrong. NPR's Claudio Sanchez explains.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: First, forget what you think you know about hacking and hackers.

KUNAL SHARMA: Yeah, I'd consider myself a hacker, but I don't like to break into computer systems.

SANCHEZ: Kunal Sharma(ph), 19, is an electrical engineering major at the University of Maryland, College Park.

SHARMA: I definitely like to build something really interesting with software, with any other skills that I have.

SANCHEZ: To that end, Sharma competes for the Maryland team that won the 2013 Major League Hacking trophy, known as the Hacker Cup.

(SOUNDBITE OF BACKGROUND CHATTER)

SANCHEZ: It's a Saturday, and Sharma and his fellow hackers are in Philadelphia on the University of Pennsylvania campus, attending the oldest and one of the biggest student-run hackathons, known as PennApps. Young hackers here say they want to reclaim the true meaning of the word by showing what hacking is not.

BRENT BORENZI: The students here - hacking is not about breaking into anything at all.

SANCHEZ: On the contrary, says Brent Borenzi, a 20-year-old electrical engineering-government studies major at Maryland.

BORENZI: A lot of people do things that could help the world.

SANCHEZ: Like protecting the environment, or helping people with disabilities. Let me show you, he says. He pulls me into a hallway that looks and feels like one mammoth sleepover.

BORENZI: So we're in the engineering quad here at UPenn. There's just tables along the entire length of the hallway, with different teams at each table with all their laptops out. You have a few people, also, sleeping under the tables as they've gotten really exhausted.

SANCHEZ: They've been working almost 20 hours nonstop on their projects or hacks, with 30 more hours to go. An army of janitors with plastic trash bags tiptoe around students who've collapsed on air mattresses, dreaming perhaps of the next big thing or whatever else hackers dream about. Students' projects, whether it's a phone app, a video game or a new gadget, are judged based on usefulness, creativity, technical difficulty and polish - how finished the project looks. That's how teams earn points, which are compiled at the end of the hackathon season to proclaim a winner.

Way, way back in a corner where Maryland students have settled in, team leader Shariq Hashme's sitting on the floor, hovering over his laptop. I hover, too.

What am I looking at here on the screen?

SHARIQ HASHME: So on the screen is this software which allows me to program without an actual writing code.

SANCHEZ: Hashme, a computer science and electrical engineering major, is working on a set of instructions for his computer to guide a hang-gliding simulator.

HASHME: It's much more interesting to be creative and build useful things than to break into other people's computer systems for fun.

SANCHEZ: If hackathons had a golden rule, it would be have fun, but do no harm. At least, that's what the organizers want us to believe, says Christina Dolan(ph), president of the MIT Club of New York. She says promoting hacking like a sporting event is wrong.

CHRISTINA DOLAN: It kind of means breaking into a computer system or taking something illegally. So that's why I think it becomes an issue when the word "hack" gets promoted as a good thing.

SANCHEZ: Dolan organizes anti-hackathons, or what she calls creatathons. Not that hackathons lack creativity, she says.

DOLAN: But if you think about the people that get involved in those type of things, you're probably not going to find people who are shy; people who don't want to spend 72 hours without showering; drinking Red Bull and eating cheap pizza, or whatever is served. What we're trying to do is something a little more inclusive.

SANCHEZ: By attracting more women, for example, which hackathons have had troubles doing. This year, PennApps registered more women than usual, just over 10 percent. There is a bit of a frat boy culture at hackathons, with young men trying to prove who can go the longest without sleep, without a bath or a toothbrush. The University of Pennsylvania students who organized this hackathon want to change all that. They made shower facilities available and even placed tubes of toothpaste in every bathroom. Day-old pizza is still a stable but there's juice, celery and carrot sticks, turkey sandwiches and hummus - or something that looks like hummus.

It's been a pleasant surprise, says 20-year-old MacKenzie Burnett, a government and politics major at Maryland.

MCKENZIE BURNETT: Fresh fruit, healthier snacks, healthier activities. And I think that's something that a lot of women, actually, respond to.

SANCHEZ: The companies that put up a quarter of a million dollars on average for these events also have a vested interest in attracting more women.

MIKE SWIFT: Yeah, I mean, traditionally the tech industry in general is not very diverse, right? And it's definitely not specific to hackathons.

SANCHEZ: Mike Swift(ph) is the commissioner for Major League Hacking. Yes, that's his actual title. Swift started the Hacker League as a student at Rutgers University a little over 10 years ago. Since then, hackathons have attracted high-tech giants like Intel, Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and dozens of smaller startups. They're usually interested in getting feedback on their products or recruiting, but Swift says some companies show up with what students want most - mentors.

SWIFT: Those are events that are about the hackers themselves, not about the companies.

SANCHEZ: Everybody benefits, says Maryland's Kunal Sharma.

SHARMA: Once in a while, a hack or something that somebody builds ends up becoming a business, or something that people actually sell.

SANCHEZ: Sharma says companies that are looking for the next big thing know that hacking can drive innovation. So the demand for coding and programming skills is huge.

SHARMA: Giving a computer a set of instructions to execute some sort of task, it's definitely a really useful skill to have no matter what field you're in.

SANCHEZ: It's not uncommon for students to leave a hackathon with a job offer or at the very least, with the seeds of an idea for that next big thing.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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