Student hackers try to improve programming culture

    Like any good nerd school, groups of Northwestern students have been coming together in various ways over the past year to share their love of technology. Take HackNorthwestern, which gives aspiring programmers a space to exchange ideas while honing their skills. Founded in May 2012 it may be one of the newer groups but it isn’t the only one. However, even as emerging communities continue to develop, the state of hacker culture at both Northwestern and beyond into Chicago remains unclear.

    “The technology space is obviously a great place to be,” says Leif Foged, McCormick senior and one of two team leaders of the Creative Arts and Technology Studio, another recent hacker friendly Northwestern group. Founded in September 2011, CATS helps students explore the relationship between art and computer science in fields like film and video games. “Over the past year, we’ve seen enrollments in intro computer science courses explode as initiatives like HackNorthwestern and CATS rise up,” Foged says.

    Wesley Sun, the other team leader of HackNorthwestern, agrees that these groups are helping build interest in programming throughout the campus. “I’ve been to nearly every hack night and it’s amazing to see how many people have shown up so far,” the McCormick senior says. The group’s growth and success was apparent at their recent 24-hour Hackathon. Students from across Chicagoland coded apps, games and websites for prizes and glory.

    Learning how to hack is about more than just having fun though. It’s about getting skills that may be useful in the future. Luckily, online start-ups and potential real-world employers out in Chicago have also begun the feel the effects of this increased self-education. “Northwestern has greatly increased its participation in the development and entrepreneurial scene,” says Mike McGee (Communication ’10), co-founder of The Starter League.

    The Starter League provides interested individuals the tools they need to learn coding, web design and other aspects of programming and has been seeing a steady increase in Northwestern student involvement. “We have had undergraduates from Northwestern as well as Kellogg MBAs and Continuing Studies students. Northwestern is quickly becoming an incubator whether they like it or not,” McGee says.  

    However, while progress is being made, it is still too early to predict just how much more this newfound appreciation can grow. Students also wonder whether or not both the Northwestern community and the administration are doing what they can to help sustain the burgeoning enthusiast subculture.

    “Although HackNorthwestern is quickly changing things, I personally haven’t found much of a hacker culture here at Northwestern,” says McCormick junior Sean Gransee, former executive team member of CATS. “I feel this is a Northwestern-wide issue. It is difficult to find people with enough time to work together on projects because everyone is so busy with all their commitments.” 

    Gransee isn’t the only one with a skeptical viewpoint. “I think there is an overall lack of passionate and smart programmers,” says McCormick senior Gabriel Peal. “There is a lack of truly exciting projects that other students are working on.”

    More troubling, though, is the idea that this is not just a Northwestern issue. While Chicago does have a programming culture to call its own, there is a considerable debate to be had over its merit. Some believe it pales in comparison to its New York and California rivals.

    “I’ve lived my entire life in Chicagoland and I still haven’t seen anything resembling a programming culture,” says Gransee, who feels that the scene here just isn’t as bustling and vibrant as those in other areas. “Maybe I was in too much of a Northwestern bubble, they do nothing to encourage us to branch out of Evanston, but after graduation I’m definitely going to the coasts.”

    Meanwhile, others insist that Chicago is still just a young culture and that it will blossom in time. “Chicago is just emerging as a programming hub whereas Silicon Valley has an established reputation,” says Mohini Tellakat, Weinberg senior and member of the CATS E-team. “There are a lot of motivated people choosing to pursue start-up dreams and building a base for that sort of development.”

    Even though there are reasons to stay hopeful, for budding Northwestern programmers, the idea that there may not be a welcoming culture awaiting them in their nearest major city is understandably discouraging. However, there’s also the thought that Chicago, a more finance-oriented city, offers different kinds of roles for programmers than the more tech-focused coasts.

    “Each city has its own unique coding culture. With Chicago I think you get a lot more consumer-facing stuff,” says Dhrumil Mehta, Weinberg senior and business technology summer scholar at Deloitte Consulting. “The real innovative meat of something like Groupon or GrubHub isn’t in the technology but in the idea.”

    Regardless of their level of optimism, Northwestern programming culture, the Chicago programming culture and the relationship between the two are all still continuing to evolve and define themselves, even if the process has been a struggle. While they may not have the largest presence, that just gives them all the more potential for growth.  “Chicago is still figuring out its identity,” says McGee, and the same applies to Northwestern, “but the programming culture is expanding exponentially.”

    Editor's note, Nov. 20 at 7:23 p.m.: The original verison of this article included outdated titles for Foged, Sun, Gransee and Mehta.


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