HackNorthwestern provides space to code

    Hackathon, as photographed by Shaunacy

    Students work away at Hack Night. Photo by Shaunacy Ferro / North by Northwestern

    A week ago, HackNorthwestern didn’t exist. But Monday night, the brand new initiative took over a Tech auditorium with fellow programming enthusiasts.

    When Gursimran Singh and Ethan Romba, two McCormick juniors studying computer science, were talking last Thursday about hosting an event to get programmers together, Romba didn't expect it to happen overnight. 

    “He said ‘I think we should get a hackathon going,’" Romba says. “And he kind of made it happen the following night.”

    On Friday, 10 people showed up to hang out and code together, after discussion over the computer science section of Northwestern’s Facebook group. According to Singh, the term “hacking” refers to a process that emphasizes technical merits.

    “The main objective being that it works," he says. "That’s the only objective, whereas with software engineering, you have to go through and ensure that it works properly and everything. Hacking is usually just, ‘What’s the easiest way that I could get it done?’”

    About 30 people showed up to code Monday night.

    “We ended up setting a website, a Facebook page, a Gmail account — the whole gamut — that night and it kind of went viral to some degree," said Romba. "This room is evidence of that."

    Some people showed up with little or no programming experience at all, just wondering how to break into it.

    “The hacking culture is something I’ve always wanted to get into and never really had the chance to,” says Carlos Reyes, a McCormick freshman studying electrical engineering. “So it just seems like this would be a way to dive into it and see how it is, get my feet wet a little bit.”

    Anyone who wanted to could write their name on the board to start a discussion. “TTMA Ruby!” Gursimran Singh wrote under his name, using shorthand for “talk to me about” Ruby, a programming language. Other listings chalked across the board included Google App Engine, Drupal, an open source content management system, and “E.E. B.S/M.S.” On the next board, the agenda for the night was laid out in a timeline, from arrival to pizza ordering to “Please sleep at some point.”

    Partway through the event, two entrepreneurs from the University of Chicago carted in a full-sized iMac screen and set up in the front row. “I’ve just been looking for a greater programming culture in the city in general,” said James Thoburn, who is working on a collaborative note-taking startup called Merch Note.

    According to his co-founder, James Rowley, the programming culture in Chicago is more down to earth than it is in the Silicon Valley.

    “It’s very project- and individual-oriented,” he said. “If you talk to people who are professional programmers, they’re foremost, ‘Oh, I code Ruby, I code JavaScript’ — it isn’t 'I’m founder of XYZ company.'”

    HackNorthwestern seemed to embody that laid-back vibe. No one was particularly in charge, and the event’s organizers rarely spoke to the entire room. They just held an open, collaborative space to work on homework or personal projects.

    That space seemed to be lacking in the computer science community at Northwestern before this. Late last year year, a group of people interested in the intersection of technology and the arts came together to form the Creative Arts and Technology Studio (CATS), a McCormick student group.

    “There hasn’t really been a group on campus that addresses the needs of computer scientists,” said Ryan McAfee, a McCormick sophomore and one of CATS' co-founders. “Our goal as CATS has always been to facilitate anything that helps the people in our community.”

    CATS provides infrastructure (booking rooms and advertising) for things like HackNorthwestern and student-run classes on topics its members are interested in teaching. According to McAfee, the group’s once highly attended events have taken a downturn, with interest waning as the year goes on, so a new group may help invigorate the community.

    “HackNorthwestern’s new and exciting, so lots of people are hopefully going to continue to come out to their initiatives," he says.

    Hackers focus heavily on creating something and making it work, and, accordingly, HackNorthwestern came together quickly. And regardless of the end product, most of the students that piled into a classroom on their Tuesday night seemed simply excited that the space existed.

    “There’s been sort of a lack of infrastructure for computer science majors for sort of a long time, and it’s nice to sort of have a place,” said Leif Foged, president of CATS.

    In that place, they hope to create a stronger community, one that can provide support to fellow computer science enthusiasts.

    “I actually got an email from someone today who was just taking an intro class, who was just having a hard time and he happened to know a professor that forwarded on the email,” Foged said. “But there wasn’t a place where he could go that was like, ‘I just want to confirm that I’m not insane to somebody.’ I hope this is sort of a partial solution to that.”


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