HackIllinois 2017: A hack with a twist
Known as one of the biggest and best collegiate hackathons in the nation, HackIllinois lived up to its reputation this past weekend (Feb. 24-26) with another 36-hour, caffeine-fueled exercise in creativity, cooperation, and innovation. This year’s event drew more than 1,100 students from around the country and was the first collegiate hackathon to focus on developing the open-source community.
Open source refers to the practice of sharing code so programmers can use, modify, and improve software that is free and publicly available. Technologies like the Linux operating system and the Apache Web server application are examples of open-source software that billions of people use almost anytime they access the Internet.
According to HackIllinois Outreach Director Nikitha Gajula, a CS junior, 30 teams worked on projects in the Contribute track, where they were mentored by dozens of industry mentors from the event’s nearly 40 sponsor companies. “The students in this track contributed to an existing open-source project,” Gajula said. “Nearly 90 teams competed in the Create track, where they created a brand new open-source project that others can build upon after the event.”
CS @ ILLINOIS freshman Rygar Carvajal, Alecia Bell, and Pawel Michalski, who were attending their first collegiate hackathon, created software and a handheld keyboard they called Helping Hands, which aimed to improve the call button in a patient’s hospital room while prioritizing the urgency of calls at the nurse’s station.
“This was a really nice environment to be programming in,” Carvajal said. “As first year students, the [industry] recruiters and mentors were really supportive. The companies didn’t care what year we were, they just let us show our skills and they valued what we could do.”
In addition to the technical help and encouragement, HackIllinois provided students with corporate networking opportunities. “I met a lot of really cool people and learned about companies that I hadn’t even heard of before,” said Bell.
Among the corporate sponsors were Fulcrum-GT, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook, said HackIllinois Director Arnav Mishra. In addition, participants could learn more about open-source projects and specific technology at a series of industry panel discussions, workshops, and keynote presentations.
The keynote speakers included: Karl Fogel, author of Producing Open Source Software; Jean Baptiste-Kempf, founder and CEO of VideoLAN, which develops VLC; Jessica McKellar, director of engineering at Dropbox and a Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree for 2017; and Jay Freeman, creator of Cydia and a pioneer of jailbreaking iOS technologies.
The variety of these workshops was a real bonus for U of I student Joe Rogge, who was part of a team that created Rhythm Trainer Pro, an app that helps musicians play complex pieces. “My impression of a hackathon was that you’d be sitting in a room and programming straight through,” said Rogge, a math & CS major and cello player in the Illini Strings Orchestra. “But I really liked that there were things to do besides just work on your projects.”
Several CS @ ILLINOIS faculty served as judges at the Sunday project expo, where all the participants demonstrated their projects. Special thanks to Ranjitha Kumar, Sanmi Koyejo, Mike Woodley, and William Kramer.
In addition, the following CS @ ILLINOIS alumni participated as mentors, recruiters, and workshop presenters: Milan Dasgupta (BS CE ‘16) and Sri Vasamsetti (BS CS ‘16) with Microsoft, Nathan Handler (BS CS ‘15) with Yelp!, Joel Poloney (attended 2004-07) with Google/Firebase, and Matthew Dierker (BS CS ‘15) with Google, who was a driving force behind the very first HackIllinois in 2014.
Illinois Institute of Technology graduate student Sanjay Mohan, who was part of a team that created an Android app to help caregivers with their patient’s health information and medicine regimen, was impressed with HackIllinois. “I thank the management team because they did a great job,” Mohan said. Added his colleague Bhargav Mardimani: “It would be our pleasure to come back next year.”