BoilerMake It or Break It - CS Students Dominate Event

2/17/2014
Writer(s): Tim Brouk

“ … 4, 3, 2, 1! Happy hacking, everyone!” Luke Walsh, emcee and Purdue Hackers president, announces over the sound system at BoilerMake, Purdue University’s first 36-hour hackathon.

A few seconds of enthusiastic cheers and then 400 computer programmers from 17 universities turned back to their laptops and got to work within the feature gymnasium of the France A. Cordova Recreational Sports Center. Some worked in teams, others in pairs. The goal of the weekend – Feb. 7 to 9 – was to create a new, interesting and marketable hack.

For dozens of students in the Department of Computer Science, “hacking” is no longer a dirty word.

Members of the Purdue Hackers club as well as the Computer Science Undergraduate Student Board, which organized BoilerMake, have a mission to reclaim the term “hacker” to its once positive meaning.

“I do believe, with the help of clubs like Purdue Hackers, that the term ‘hack’ can be reclaimed and re-framed in a positive light,” said Michael Clayton, Purdue Hacker and Computer Science senior. “It will likely take time, having been portrayed negatively in many movies, but as the hacker culture grows — so does the awareness of what that culture actually entails.”

According to Boilermaker hackers, the term “hacking” was coined decades ago when a programmer made a breakthrough. The new code he or she created was called a “hack.”

But quickly the hacker term started its negative decline in the 1980s thanks to movies and real life criminal activities. Mainstream media called these rogue programmers who broke into government security systems or stole credit card numbers from businesses as hackers. In 2014, young computer scientists like Clayton have had enough. A hacking lifestyle is a positive one.

At Boilermake, the DominoBot earned the top prize of $5,000. Other big winners were .synth and Engage, all hacks from Purdue teams.

The young hackers used white boards to jot down ideas. Some had plans coming into the event, others blank slates. Some had to improvise early on when they realized their original idea wasn’t going to work or they came up with something better early on.

“I realized I didn’t prepare myself well enough” for the initial idea, says Mason Everett, a Computer Science freshman. “We kind of scrapped the idea and I changed it to my second idea.”

The aftermath

Dozens of Papa John’s pizza boxes, two-liters of Coke and a cotton candy machine helped fuel the hackers throughout the weekend. Most interviewed reported only single digit amounts of sleep, most of it occurring in the wee hours of Saturday morning. It was a mad dash to complete the hacks before the 10 a.m. Sunday deadline.

To break things up, tech talks were held, featuring representatives from several of the 30 companies on hand. Apple, Microsoft, Qualcomm and several Purdue startups were busy all weekend meeting many of the nation’s top collegiate hackers. Interactive Intelligence served as cohost.

Mike James, systems integration consulting analyst at Chicago-based management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company Accenture, had a table next to heavyweights like Apple. A Purdue alumnus himself, the young entrepreneur was impressed with the turnout and energy at BoilerMake.

“I just graduated a few years ago and we had nothing like this,” James says while surveying the hacking action. “As soon as I heard this opportunity come up, I was sure to hop on it.”

On Sunday morning, a few hackers slept with their heads on the tables where they had spent 36 hours hacking. Empty pizza boxes, soda cans and decimated Doritos bags surrounded them. Others sprawled on couches in a nearby CoRec lobby area. Most of the conscious hackers were in a second gymnasium showing off their creations. Running on pure adrenaline, Everett was ecstatic to present his new creation, Doge-ify, a playful Google Chrome extension that allows users to change images on their favorite websites to “doge” meme images from a database. A news site with pictures of President Barak Obama can suddenly become more like Paws-ident Ba-ark O-bow-wow-ma. Plus, Everett’s code transforms every font on a site into beloved comic sans, which is part of the meme’s humor.

“Who doesn’t want that? Come on,” Everett pitches with a smile. “Tired of seeing your plane old news in Times New Roman? Come on, Doge-ify it!”

Mason Everett
Computer Science freshman Mason Everett pitches Doge-ify Feb. 9 at the close of Boilermake.

Visiting hackers also had success. Representing The Ohio State University, computer science engineering students Xavier Shelton and Dan Marchese created Twisible.com. This hack allows an easier way for Twitter users to have a conversation through hashtags. Any topic that would get a hashtag on Twitter could elicit conversation on Twisible without comments getting lost in feeds.

The duo finished just after midnight early Sunday morning. However, they contemplated adding to their creation before deciding to put on the brakes.

“Should we make this into an app? Should we go further with this?” Shelton says. “The more we thought about it, it was ‘How about we just show our product at first and then we can go anywhere with it.’ And that’s what makes it cool.”

Shariq Hashme and Manujar Ahmed came all the way from College Park, Md., to compete and create at BoilerMake. The University of Maryland students’ hack centered on Ahmed’s sweet dance moves – a program that coordinates sound files with certain movements as picked up via Xbox Kinect. The files are “dynamic” allowing the user to create a large variety of sounds with his or her body. Each dance session elicits new tunes.

“We wanted to hack something that people could enjoy a physical experience, make music and be happy with the production,” Ahmed says.

Quick startup

Like the hacks themselves, BoilerMake and Purdue Hackers started quickly. Purdue Hackers was officially born in August. However, Computer Science students have fueled hacking teams in previous years.

But BoilerMake was months of planning in the making. No coding event of this magnitude had ever been tried before at Purdue. Some inspiration came from MHacks, a similar event at University of Michigan that usually draws around 1,000 hackers from across the nation. MHacks is one of the oldest such events, all eight months its been in existence.

To make BoilerMake happen, much collaboration came between CS USB and Purdue Hackers. Computer Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering students dove in for a common goal – to spread the hacking lifestyle. That’s an enthusiastic love for computer based creativity, expertise and entrepreneurialism.

“Once we formed a team, which we call our exec board, picked a date, and chose a location,” says Brittany Vacchiano, CS senior and BoilerMake vice president, “we began meeting every Wednesday to hash out plans for BoilerMake. These weekly meetings extended into the summer, fall, and winter right up to the weekend of the event. We’d talk about how we wanted the layout to look, what kind of food we wanted to order, what kind of tech talks would be given, how to handle promoting the event, how to find student representatives for the event at other schools, who we wanted to target to come to the event, how to the schedule would look for the 40-plus hours, and who we thought could become potential sponsors. 

“This hackathon could not have happened without the hard work, dedication, and support of the exec team as a whole. We’ve dedicated hours of our lives to ensure that other hackers get an event that could be life-changing for them and to see Purdue in a new, entrepreneurial light. A special thanks should also be given to the College of Science and Computer Science Department, who helped us plan, put us into connection with the right people, and supported us along the way.”

Kirby Kohlmorgen – director of BoilerMake, a CS USB officer and still only a sophomore in Computer Science – sees BoilerMake as an excellent tool for exposure for his department. It also gets a lot of his peers in front of companies in a less formal setting. A hackathon puts the companies on the students’ turf, as opposed to a job fair or interview.

Kohlmorgen confirmed that plans for the next BoilerMake are already in motion. He expects the event to return to the CoRec in the fall semester.

Taking a rare break during the miles he walked/ran around BoilerMake ensuring hackers were happy, companies were content and enough caffeine was available to keep the day and a half event rolling, Kohlmorgen was content with BoilerMake’s debut.

“I got my seventh wind,” a tired Kohlmorgen says while leaning against a railing outside of one of the BoilerMake gyms. “The event itself is going over really, really well. We’ve had fantastic feedback from the hackers, companies and everyone.

“At least half the companies (at BoilerMake), Purdue has never seen before. The companies have given us all this great feedback and we proved ourselves to them. We proved Purdue to them.”