Q&A with HackPrinceton Directors

Every year, students across the country come to campus for HackPrinceton, the biannual hackathon event that boasts thousands of visitors. While I’ve never attended a hackathon in my life, quite a few of my friends attend them regularly. They gather in small teams to work on technology and engineering projects (colloquially called “hacking”) at the event, which culminates in group presentations of the projects they’ve created. I’ve noticed that the hackers who are involved in research or entrepreneurship find the hackathon experience especially rewarding. So, this spring, I plan to try out my first hackathon at HackPrinceton. In preparation for the April 1-3 session. I decided to learn a little more about hackathons and how they relate to research in general.

Here’s a snippet of my Q&A with 2015-16 HackPrinceton Directors Zach Liu ’18 and Monica Shi ’18, who helped run the incredibly successful HackPrinceton Fall 2015.

A great perk of being a HackPrinceton competitor – lots of free swag! Swag Credit to Monica!

Me (Kavi): What exactly is a Hackathon?

Monica: Essentially it’s an event where people come together to think of and build projects. Traditionally, these projects are divided between software and hardware, but there are hackathons for other things – like design projects. It’s a great way for people to learn about programming and technology by getting together with a group of like-minded students to build a project for 24-36 hours. It’s kind of like a marathon where you have any and all the materials you need to build your project. The hackathon organizers will do their best to make sure you’re able to hack with all the resources you need – including all the food you need to keep you satisfied. At the end, teams get feedback from a panel of judges, and the top projects win awesome prizes!

Me: What are some examples of great hackathon projects?

Zach: Some of the coolest ideas have actually come out of HackPrinceton. One that comes to mind is the auto-shifting bike that took top honors in the hardware division one year. There’s always really cool projects using piezoelectric devices – devices that generate power through movement. And there’s also awesome robotics projects – an example being a robot that follows home-intruders around. All were built in 24-36 hours at HackPrinceton!

Me: Besides the hackers themselves, who attends hackathons?

Monica: At typical hackathons there’s usually 200-600 competitors and an additional 100 people representing various companies. The companies will sponsor the competition. A hackathon typically raises anywhere between $30,000 – $200,000 of funding, and all of this is from the sponsors. The sponsors are incredibly diverse as well. Obviously you have the big name tech-firms – the Googles and Facebooks – but there’s also a ton of startups and other companies that come to the event both for branding and recruiting.

A cool thing that some of these companies do is share a particular API (application programming interface) with the hackers so that they can use it to create something. So essentially the companies are getting their money and time back by having the students brainstorm cool projects using their software. It’s a great networking opportunity for students as well. They get to meet industry leaders in their areas of interest, and get feedback from them regarding their project ideas.

Me: Do people prepare for hackathons? How do they prepare?

Monica: From my experience, it seems like some people come in knowing what they want to do. Their team has thought about it and has applied to the hackathon with the project idea. But most people just come in with a team and figure out what they want to build after the hackathon starts. They talk to some of the sponsors who help them get a better idea of what they want to build. Some hackers will change their idea midway through the event – in the end, it’s not necessarily a high pressure, stressful environment. It’s just a place to have fun while building cool projects with your friends.

“It’s not a high pressure, stressful environment. It’s a place to have fun while building cool projects with your friends.”

Me: Why HackPrinceton?

Monica: At Princeton in particular, a lot of our classes are pretty theoretical. A lot of people haven’t been able to build self-created projects in their freshman and sophomore years. HackPrinceton is a great way to meet new people as you apply some of that theoretical knowledge learned in the classroom in a practical way. It’s also a fantastic way to get an internship or job through companies recruiting at HackPrinceton. HackPrinceton is typically one of the most well-funded events, and so we attract a great deal of attention from schools nationwide.

Me: How can I get involved? Is there a timeline?

Zach: HackPrinceton holds events in the fall and in the spring. For the fall event we start planning in the summer (starting from June). Right after that we started planning for the spring hackathon in April. This year HackPrinceton Spring is happening April 1-3, 2016. Signups for the event are live now at https://hackprinceton.com/!

Me: How would student researchers benefit from participating in a hackathon?

Zach: There’s actually several ways that hackathons attract student researchers.

The first that a hackathon mimics the entire research process itself. Hackathon projects span a broad array of applications. There were a lot of teams doing projects related to medicine and health, projects for social good and creating social impact, etc. With respect to research, hackathons are a condensed version of the research process. Hackers first have to develop a question or problem in one of these fields, create a hypothesis (in terms of a minimum value product or a model), and develop steps to solve the problem they are confronted with. So in a sense participating in a hackathon is a lot like doing research.

The second is that hackathons actually help provide researchers with ways to better their own existing research projects (for thesis, JP, etc.). Frequently, researchers will come to hackathons with a large set of data that they need to analyze. The hackathon gives them a chance to talk to sponsors, mentors, and other students who can help them create the technologies and tools they need to fine-tune their data analysis. Typically the researcher will have some sort of data visualization in mind, and with the help of the hackathon, will be able to produce that visualization.

Lastly, it’s just an awesome way for researchers to gain programming experience which is pretty valuable in any profession nowadays. We see several bio and chem majors working on biotech and healthcare projects every year, and they really enjoy the process.


Readers: now that you (and I) know a little bit about how hackathons work, we hope to see you at HackPrinceton 2016 during the first weekend of April! Zach, Monica, and the rest of their team have worked super hard all year to make this event possible and they’d love to see more first-time “hackers” at the event! Happy hacking!

–Kavirath Jain, Engineering Correspondent