Hackito Ergo Sum

November 17, 2013 at 10:22pm

It's been a while since I last wrote on my blog; lots of big things have been going on in my life and regretfully, I broke my one-a-month minimum post streak for October. I do, however, feel undaunted in that I haven't really lost much momentum: although not directed toward my blog, I've been at work on many exciting things, the majority of which involve writing. Thoughts on a few of my recent experiences have accumulated enough incubation time in my mind to warrant a blog post; from attending HackMIT in October, to hosting my school's own computer science contest earlier this month, and attending HackTX just this weekend, the commonalities of these large gatherings outline in my perspective amazing opportunities for creativity and purpose.

HackMIT

Having planned for HackMIT since I registered at 1am sitting in my UT dorm room back in July, I was extremely excited to fly up to Boston for the weekend. Upon arrival, I met up with a few of my favorite people and spent the day exploring the Cambridge area. I especially enjoyed spending time soaking in the fresh air and tranquil autumn atmosphere at the MIT Sailing Pavilion (pictured above), as well as my pilgrimage to the Calculus/Real People sign in front of the Media Lab (I'd like to exist at the point of inflection (that joke probably gave away my leaning)).

At the hackathon itself, it was amazing to be immersed in the hacker culture, surrounded by people who care about similar things and aspire to similar things and read similar things on the internet. It's an experience like no other. Lots of companies that I recognized were sponsoring (giving away t-shirts and other neat things and helping hackers with their APIs). I definitely like keeping little knick knacks around to decorate my desk with things relevant to my interests, and I picked up enough shirts to last a substantial amount of time.

For our hack, my teammates and I decided to build a collaborative gaming experiment. Two units, one for each team, move around the game board trying to collect coins of varying point values before they fade away. However, every member of each team has the controller for the unit, which moves in the average vector of each player's input. All players on a team must work together and cooperate spontaneously in order to move in a coherent fashion.

Unfortunately, I was feeling pretty ill that weekend and I left the hackathon around 10pm to catch some sleep. I wrote the game logic while my teammates were working on the Firebase backend and mobile controller, and I had left them with a finished app -- or so I thought. One line that I had commented out for debugging and forgotten to uncomment proved crucial for the integration of all of our pieces, and the app encountered many problems while I was sleeping. I ended up oversleeping for judging as well, which was a little bit awkward (but I was really sick, so it was probably for the best).

Despite the mishap with our hack, I had an overwhelmingly great time at HackMIT. The value was not in the hack itself, but in the exposure to the community and culture I enjoy, learning about what's going on at each of the sponsor companies, and being around other great thinkers in a collaborative environment.

I later came across a great post on Medium about organizing HackMIT. It was definitely apparent to me as a participant that a lot of work went into making the event a success, and it definitely paid off. For a gathering at such scale -- 1000+ people in an ice rink -- it went amazingly smoothly. Other than the heavy WiFi load from everyone connecting at once, and the (allegedly, I wasn't there) disorganized judging, the logistics of hosting/feeding/housing a huge crowd of people were handled incredibly.

HackTX

I got home last night from HackTX, which was a veritable marathon for me. I was exhausted and slept the greatest sleep I have ever slept afterward (except for my nerdiest nightmare ever).

I arrived in Austin around noon and had lunch at The Backspace based on a recommendation. It was an amazing meal; I ordered a mushroom pizza which was made in front of me with dough and stuff and cooked in a non-electric oven with a fire burning inside. As someone who really likes pizza (read: programmer), it was nice to start my trip with such a legit pie.

I then went up to the UT campus where I picked up my last paycheck left over from the summer. I ran to the bank and deposited it before rushing to meet up with my boss and the new team; sadly enough, my card access to the building was disabled but I luckily ran into some familiar faces at the entrance. It was great to see my team from summer as well as meet the more recent members, and I had lots of nostalgia for our amazing office building.

After meeting up with my startup crew, I rushed back to downtown to the Capital Factory where I met with a connection that was introduced through my Independent Study course. We talked for a while about his work at Boxer and my own aspirations in technology entrepreneurship. It was great to hear insight from someone in the field and from that culture who could share lots of relevant experiences. I found it really encouraging to hear that he started out in CS pretty similarly to me, with AP CS in high school, and then Independent Studies as I exhausted my school's CS curriculum.

After going from downtown to campus to downtown again, it was time to return to campus for the hackathon itself. I took some notes on the interesting sponsor companies and their APIs, with the resolution that since I was less ill this time around, I would make an effort to chat with some of the representatives and practice my interpersonal skills. Since I hadn't taken anyone with me to this hackathon, I also needed to find myself a team. I ended up running into two guys who looked really familiar; turns out, they worked in the same office building as I did over the summer. I hadn't met them before, but they were looking for a javascript developer and I fit the bill, and I joined up with them to make BALLERCREEK, a fashion app.

A super cool thing happened a good way through the night. I just happened to be wearing a Square t-shirt that I had received at HackMIT (it's hip to be Square!), and the Square representative at HackTX came and struck up a conversation about it. I asked him to tell me about the cool goings-on at Square, and I could really tell that he was super passionate about his job. It's great to be around people who are excited about things, because the excitement definitely transfers over. I was fascinated by the breadth, ambition, and innovative approach the company took to the work they do. I ended up sharing my resume with him and we found out that we are both Eagle Scouts, which is something I totally respect.

One of my friends that I had gone to HackMIT with was actually an organizer of HackTX, and he was running around making sure everything ran smoothly, managing questions from staffers, and generally keeping the ship afloat. I could see the stress and understood the immense effort it takes to make an event run smoothly, and I was super appreciative. (When I called him the night before, there were boxes and stuff falling over in the background. Seriously, this hackathon stuff is hard.)

While on the UT campus, I had lots of opportunity to walk around, and although I don't even count as a UT student I experienced immense feelings of nostalgia for a lot of the areas I had spent time at during the summer; Welch Hall (also the site of UIL State), the Turtle Pond where I took a walk with some friends, the Main Tower area with the weird looking sphere (someone played Bad Romance on the bells while I was walking past), some random funny looking fire escapes. I was staying at my friend's place overnight, and I had an awesome opportunity to reconnect with his roommates, whom I knew from high school (but not as well as I would like). The residence itself was about one mile from the Student Activity Center where the hackathon took place. I ended up having to walk back and forth 3 different times on Saturday, for a total of 6 miles. Although it was nothing compared to the Hiking merit badge (my last on the trail to Eagle Scout), it was a testament to how comparatively little I've worked out since summer ended that my legs were totally sore that night. However, it was also a pretty good sign that my legs weren't sore at all the next morning, so I'll take that as a win.

Taylor Contest

I had the opportunity back in early November to host a computer science event as well, a UIL-style competition that saw visitors from all over the region come to participate. While thankfully nowhere near as complex as a hackathon, I felt a similar kind of managerial stress and pressure as one of the event hosts. We worked up to the last minute on the logistics of setting up the electrical in the staging area, judging coding puzzle submissions, and providing lunch and awards to everybody in a timely manner.

My co-host and I ended up rolling out our custom judging system as an alternative to the relatively antiquated PC^2. Our school had pioneered PC^2 to replace the prior judging system before my time, and we were excited to be at the forefront of a new modernization of contest hosting. It was a really bad experience last year when the PC^2 log files filled the disk space on our server, and we were itching for a change. When it came down to deploying our solution, we had to fix some issues live as our participants forced us to scale up dramatically, but the fact that we were able to fix the problems in time was a testament to potential advantages over PC^2, which you do not touch with a ten-foot pole once the contest is running.

Hosting an event like that is a stressful experience, and I am certainly glad it only happens once a year. However, I am happy to do so because the willingness of the computer science community to try big things and succeed is part of what makes these events successful. If everyone who normally hosts a contest during the year suddenly gives up because they don't want to deal with the heat, there would be nothing for anybody to look forward to and the community would suffer. That's why I'm glad to be a part of this network of amazing people who get things done.

There's been a lot going on recently and a lot of cool things coming from it all. As always, it feels great to write for myself and I'm glad to be able to reflect on all the experiences I've had of late and appreciate how fortunate I am to do what I do.