H. Wade Minter, the chief technology officer at a company that provides web and mobile services to five million users, stood in Swem Library, looked out upon the frantic final minutes of William & Mary’s first 24-hour hackathon and talked about the influence of the liberal arts on computer science.
“One of the things that make William & Mary’s computer science program unique is that because it’s a relatively small program, you can’t just immerse yourself in technology like you can at a larger engineering school,” said Minter, whose company, TeamSnap, offers mobile and web tools to manage recreational sports teams.
“Plus, William & Mary pushes you to take classes outside pure science and technology,” he said. “You have to take English classes. You have to take history classes. Those give you a broader perspective on technology as not just an end, but as a means: How does this technology that you’re working on fit into the broader world?”
Minter is in an excellent position to know. He’s a 1997 graduate of William & Mary’s computer science program. He was on campus for the university’s first entry into the 24-hour computer coding sprees known as hackathons. Minter had a dual role at TribeHacks, signing up as a corporate sponsor and serving as a judge for the apps upon which hackers had hammered for 24 straight hours in Swem Library. Plus, he said, the scene at TribeHacks was just plain interesting.
“One of the things that’s most interesting to me, as a computer science graduate from here, is seeing how the next generation of computer science graduates of William & Mary are approaching the technological issues of today,” Minter said.
A student-led initiative
Joe Soultanis ’15, a computer science student at William & Mary, was the driving force behind TribeHacks, held March 29-30. He explained that the idea of a hackathon was to produce the coolest piece of software possible in 24 hours. Everyone involved in TribeHacks pronounced it a success. Well, there was one hardware glitch: the mammoth takeout order from Chipotle arrived sans forks.
TribeHacks, even in its first year, gained recognition by Major League Hacking, the umbrella organization of the college hackathon phenomenon. A hackathon combines collaborative and competitive elements. The apps produced at TribeHacks were judged and the best efforts won prizes awarded at the closing expo. TribeHacks was open to all college computing students and, through corporate sponsors, the organizers were able to defray travel costs for at least some attendees.
Sponsors like Minter speak at the hackathon’s opening expos about their need for apps that would add functionality to their company’s own products. In the case of TeamSnap, which, offers mobile and web tools to manage recreational sports teams, Minter came to TribeHacks with a suggestion for an API—application programming interface—that would allow a baseball or softball manager to print out a batting order.
“As a sponsor, you want to see people doing something with your application, as opposed to just some random cool thing,” he said. But, he noted, one never knows what’s going to happen at a hackathon, which often act as timed convection ovens for the finishing of existing ideas.
The coding veterans welcome the noobs
Hackathon participants usually work in teams on a project. Novice hackers are welcome and even accommodated; there was a table for the “noobs” to learn coding elements. Rob Dickerson, visiting assistant professor of computer science at William & Mary, conducted workshops and rendered assistance during the event. He admitted being a noob himself; TribeHacks was his very first hackathon. Dickerson said he was gratified to see students from his Data Structures course—mostly first- and second-year students—as well as people from his Mobile Cloud Computing class, a course that focuses on smartphone apps that harness the Cloud.
“I think that hackathons really fill a gap in computer science education. What we teach in the formal courses is important; we lay the groundwork for the theory of computer science,” Dickerson said. “However, hackathons allow the students to be creative and actively apply that knowledge they learned in and a fun and competitive way.”
TribeHacks was enriched by a bunch of cool hardware on loan, most of it from the new Makerspace in Small Hall, home of William & Mary’s Department of Physics. There was a group from Christopher Newport University using a set of Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles to enhance a video game. Raspberry Pi boxes—small computers that add functionality—were in great demand.
On Wednesday, three days after TribeHacks, Soultanis was still trying to get caught up on sleep, as his first hackathon was overlapping with regular class requirements. (“I had a CS project and a take-home Quantum midterm due today.”) But, despite the sleep deficit, Soultanis seemed buoyed by the outcome of TribeHacks.
“Overall I was very impressed with our participants. I think the students really enjoyed seeing a different style of computer science and were excited to learn more about app development,” he said. “The apps turned out great! In the future I can only see this event getting bigger and better, and I'm glad we had such a great first experience to launch us forward.”