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A look inside the world of a modern hacker

Jan 23, 2015

As a self-proclaimed geek with a passion for engineering, I have known my fair share of programmers. Whenever one of them tells me with a devilish gleam in their eye that they've been dabbling with hacking, I jump to the conclusion (often correctly) that they're up to no good.

So when I heard a “Hack-a-thon” was descending on the University of Michigan campus over Martin Luther King weekend, I immediately had a vision of my old robotics teammates: disheveled, manically excited, awake only by the grace of Mountain Dew, trying to break into the secrets of the free world. 

I learned quickly that this understanding of hacking is woefully wrong. The activity of “hacking” has come out of the shadows and transformed into something that does not harm society, but rather, encourages the use of innovation and creativity for its betterment.

Students exhausted after a day of straight programming.
Credit Ari Sandberg

For the past five years, the University of Michigan has hosted the "MHacks" hack-a-thon. MHacks challenges thousands of high school and college students from around the country and the world to create applications, games and other programs in an intense 36-hour development period.  

Walking into the MHacks venue, I was taken aback by the sheer scale of the event. Students filled every classroom and commons area within sight. Some were alert, eagerly coding projects whose purpose could only be guessed. Some were feeling the already 15 continuous hours of programming that had taken place (I visited the event on its second day) and were sprawled in various states of unconsciousness.

To me, the event’s mission of using technology in "innovative ways" was commendable, but just too broad. What were the students working toward? How did they get their ideas?

"The student's limits are their own ambition. We aren't about prizes – we are about experience."

I talked to John Zwick, one of the coordinators of the event. He explained that participating students have no guidelines as to what they can create, and that the prizes are unimportant to the spirit of the event:

“We are here to use technology in a way that it has never been used before. The atmosphere at MHacks is not like anywhere else: excitement, passion, people willing to help each other.”

Indeed, as I began talking to the students, the variety of their projects was striking. One group of high school students from Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High School was attempting to program Google Glasses to reverse search and identify images that they viewed. A team of students from Michigan State University was attempting to create a healthcare app that would instantly alert people to changes in their health stats. One student was programming a drone he had just won in one of the event’s raffles.

The work station of the team from Mexico.
Credit Ari Sandberg

The event was truly international. I met teams from as far away as Mexico, China and Canada.

Like in the professional world, students were not expected to solve problems in isolation. Companies such as Facebook and Google provided employees who served as “mentors” to the students, offering advice and insight to any teams that needed guidance.

Dozens of recruiters were set up at booths. I asked the representative from Goldman Sachs Technology why her company, which is headquartered in New York, found it valuable to send her here. 

“Coming to MHacks serves two purposes," she said. "It increases student awareness about opportunities that we have at our organization. We also use it as a touch point to hear what students are excited about, what they're learning in school, and how they can benefit our company. A lot of learning happens in both directions.”

Recruiters searching for interns at MHacks.
Credit Ari Sandberg

I talked to one veteran hacker who had attended six previous hack-a-thons. He noted that “every internship (I've) gotten is the direct result of a Hack-a-thon or the experience I’ve gained from one.”  

I am by no stretch of the imagination a hacker, or by any functioning definition a programmer for that matter. However, I was deeply struck by the closeness of this coding community and the overwhelming enthusiasm that these students demonstrated for their work.

I don’t know who won the event. I just know that my hall mate, coming back on Sunday night, barely able to stand after two days without sleep, said the event was one of the most exciting and meaningful of her college career.

-- Ari Sandberg, Michigan Radio Newsroom