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W&M’s student-run hackathon returns March 22-24 with a new name

  • 36 hours of coding:
    36 hours of coding:  Alex Fantine ’21 talks about plans for Cypher V in Swem Library, the venue for the annual hackathon. It’s set for March 22-24. Open to all college students, coding experience is not at all necessary.  Photo by Joseph McClain
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William & Mary’s student-run hackathon returns to Swem Library with a new name, but bearing the same commitment to providing a welcoming, inclusive and sleep-free creative session.

Cypher V will be held over 36 hours from March 22 to 24. It’s a free event and open to all college students. The schedule of events is evolving and will be updated on the event’s website.

Alex Fantine ’21 is the lead organizer for Cypher V. He began by explaining the name change for the event formerly known as TribeHacks.

“In part, it’s in honor of the William & Mary cypher,” Fantine said. “And also, cyphers mean coding.”

Hackathons are loosely organized creative marathons that center on coding. Fantine is quick to state what a hackathon does not involve: “‘Hack’ doesn’t mean like, hack into a mainframe,” he said. “It’s more like ‘hacking something together.’”

Activities at a hackathon include, but are not limited to, the creation and alteration of apps and other software. Drones, 3-D printers, virtual-reality headsets and other hardware are available for hacking at Cypher V.

The hackathon ethos values collaboration — hackers are encouraged to both seek and give assistance. Hackathons are also competitive events — hacks are judged and prized awarded. Fantine is a computer science major, but he says anyone can benefit from Cypher V.

“Part of the name change is to stress that anyone can attend this — and be successful — regardless of their experience level or skill level in computer science,” he said. “One of our goals is to have an event where anyone who comes can create something cool, even if they’ve never touched a computer before.”

Accordingly, Fantine and his committee have established a set of beginner-oriented workshops near the start of the event. “They’ll kind of evolve,” he said, “so if you attend all of the workshops, you’ll get like one big lesson.”

Another set of changes for 2019 centers around the restructuring of how prizes are awarded for demonstrated hackathon excellence and achievement. They’ve abandoned the traditional first, second, third-place paradigm in favor of a system that recognizes the different varieties of creative achievement that can arise from  36 sleepless hours of coding.

“We’re having more-general categories, such as Most Ingenuity or Most Entrepreneurial, for a project with the most potential to grow into a full business,” Fantine said. “So if a student is not experienced with coding, but might be incredibly experienced in finance or writing up a business proposal, they have a chance at winning a specific category.”

He stressed that hackathon organization is not a one-person operation and the other members of the Cypher V team come from the William & Mary student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery. The team behind the university’s fifth hackathon is Meg Anderson ’20, Wils McCreight ’20, Ben Ryan ’21, Emily Wydra ’21, Jade Chen ’21, Scott Saas ’21, Alex Harris ’21, Sophia Armitano ’21, Samuel Dawson ’22, AJ Marra ’20, Liz Weech ’20 and Conrad Gehrki ’19. The team’s web developer is Adam An ’20, and the PR chair is Kayla Shirley ’19.

Fantine said the William & Mary hackathons enjoy a good reputation, adding that events here are known to be sensitive to food preferences and allergies of prospective hackers.

“We tend to give out big prizes for a small hackathon,” he added. “And we tend to be well sponsored.”

Cypher V is assembling an impressive slate of sponsors, including the info-tech firm CGI, Capital One, William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business, Agile Software, Ferguson, and Aplaud, a music-oriented app that is a startup by Sophia Serghi, professor of music at William & Mary.

Securing sponsor support is one of the top priorities for a hackathon committee. Sponsor involvement goes beyond monetary contributions. Sponsors send representatives and hardware to the event. Face time between students and sponsor reps is one of the primary benefits of a hackathon. Many reps show up with a project from their company that a team of hackers might take on.

Cypher V is sanctioned by Major League Hacking (MLH), as were the four previous William & Mary Hackathons.

“NLH is the NFL of hackathons,” Fantine said, “and it’s literally like the NFL, because they give every school a score, depending on how many people they send to hackathons and stuff like that. William & Mary has a score, and we’re doing really great this year. We’ve sent about 50 people to different hackathons across the Eastern Seaboard.”

Fantine is a veteran of a few hackathons, starting out on the committee at last year’s TribeHacks event. He and a teammate won a prize at HoyaHacks, the Georgetown event. The Cypher V committee believe they understand what makes a good hackathon.

“First of all, the food,” Fantine said. “I’m just kidding. Oh, I mean I’m not kidding. You’re sitting at your computer for hours and you’re reading and working and coding and talking to people. You’re not sleeping. ”

The food is important, he said, and Cypher V will serve six full meals scheduled during the event. Energy slumps are to be expected during the 32-hour brain sessions, and food breaks serve to revitalize the hackers. Last year at TribeHacks, the planners decided to forego a full dinner and just get a pizza order. The order arrived, and Fantine said he thought it was proper for him, as coordinator of volunteers, to let the hackers and volunteers have first crack at the hot pizza.

He showed up six minutes after the pizza’s arrival, to find only a ravaged scattering of warm, greasy cardboard. Lesson learned. Cypher V will offer dinner on Friday; breakfast, lunch and dinner on Saturday; and breakfast and lunch on Sunday.

“A lot of food,” Fantine said, noting that the meals will come from some of the favorite local eateries of William & Mary students. “Our caterers this year are going to be Mellow Mushroom, Nawab Indian Cuisine, Zoë’s Kitchen, Panera Bread, Emily’s Donuts and Wawa.”

Fantine said that once the food plan is settled, the most important component of a good hackathon is the event’s facility to foster a sense of community and encourage interaction among participants. He said that a great deal of the community feeling comes from the architecture of the venue.

“That’s why we’re really glad to have Swem,” he said. “The Read & Relax area is a huge open space for people to work in. You see everyone around you. You get to interact with the other people.”

The organizers are expecting 200 to 250 hackers at Cypher V. Fantine says people from as far off as Boston have registered, but most of the attendees will likely be from the home institution. “William & Mary tends to attract very thoughtful, kind and cooperative hackers, as opposed to some events that are kinda hyper-competitive,” he said.

 “My goal is for people to come out of the event feeling like this is something they can do,” he said. “This is a problem I’ve noticed in the computer science department. Students sometimes struggle with believing in themselves when it comes to doing something or making something. Because it’s hard. It’s super intimidating. There’s so much stuff out there already that you’re like, ‘Oh, what am I going to add to it?’”

Fantine said the best advice he has for people intimidated by the coding world is to “just do something — anything.

“Cypher V is going to be a fantastic place for people to just do something,” he said.  “And have a good time.”