SJSU computer science club perfects projects at 24-hour Hackathon

Dozens of 20-somethings stayed up all night on Saturday — and it had nothing to do with getting intoxicated on St. Patrick’s Day.

Instead, about 35 students occupied the computer science clubroom on the second floor of MacQuarrie Hall for more goal-oriented reasons: A Hackathon.

“There are some people who are totally gung-ho for this,” said Patrick Roteman, a sophomore software engineering major and secretary of the computer science club. “Free caffeine, free food and the opportunity to finish a project — they’re like, ‘I’m there.’”

Hackathons are events set up to complete computer coding projects by setting goals, varying from open-ended to specific, in a set time period.

This event supplied what Roteman called “coder food” — pizza and energy drinks — free for attendees.

This Hackathon event was co-sponsored by the Microsoft Student Network and Red Bull USA in an attempt to encourage students to rampage through personal goals of completing computer science projects for 24 hours straight in a fury fueled by cheap pizza and energy drinks, according to Roteman.

“The coder’s best friend is caffeine,” Roteman said.

The SJSU event was open to all projects, said David Do, a senior computer science major and computer science club president.

Do said though the computer science club has had Hackathon events before, none were both sponsored and 24 hours long — from Saturday midday to Sunday at noon.

“This is the first Hackathon we’ve had of this caliber,” Do said.

Do said his explicit goal was to learn about the Microsoft Kinect and Windows Phone software development kits, which he plans to integrate into future club events.

“It’s all new to me, but that’s the fun of it,” Do said. “I now have an entire day dedicated to doing this.”

Do said the club got special permission to keep the doors open to allow students to come and go — as the club wanted to allow people to work hard for 24 hours straight.

“It’s an opportunity for club members to get together in an event that promotes productivity,” Do said. “Throughout the rush of the week, you don’t have time to get to work on your individual projects. Now all the distractions are gone and it’s purely a work day.”

Peter Lau, a senior computer science major, said he was working on a project for MESA Day, when middle and high school students will visit SJSU and learn about math, science, engineering and technology. Lau said he wants to teach them that they can learn how to program by decoding bugs in a video game. He estimated the project would take about five hours to complete.

“There will be some inherent flaws that students will try to fix in the program,” Lau said. “The goal is to make teaching intro to programming fun.”

Lau said his programming career was drawn from a similar force — he diverted from an original interest of video game development himself. First discovering QBasic, then the C programming language, he said he was hooked.

“I knew I wanted to be a programmer,” Lau said. “I was really good at programming. And now, into the programming industry is where I want to go.”

Roteman said project completion, as a whole, is best in groups, and most of the attendees are working in teams.

“Everyone gets together in a communal environment to get whatever projects — side projects, even large homework assignments — done that they’ve never quite had the time to finish,” Roteman said. “It’s a way of having fun getting stuff (done) where otherwise you’d just procrastinate — do it and enjoy doing it at the same time.”

Do said an added plus to this type of event is that people can ask questions of other Hackathon attendees and “see if any helpful feedback comes out.”

Roteman said his coding project is something for the university website — a non-software “repository” to store departmental information in an accessible fashion, to “find out what sort of stuff does the university itself do.”

“People from outside the university could see what exactly makes SJSU a university that is connected to the rest of the world and not in an isolated bubble,” Roteman said.

At hour seven of 24, Roteman said he and his project partner already had a halfway-working prototype, noting they’ll likely exceed their original goal.

“There’s a lot of collaboration involved,” Roteman said. “There’s a lot of, ‘How does this work? I have no idea,’ and someone helps if they can. If not, they’ll tell them to Google it.”

Roteman’s hope for a program that encourages people to learn seems to be more than about just a single coded piece of software, but also a mentality developed out of coding events.

“If there’s a new big language or programming platform coming out every year and they’re becoming widely used, you’re obviously not going to know all of them,” Roteman said. “You’re going to need to learn something throughout your career — which is true of any field, but more so of technical careers. This is a good time to practice teaching yourself.”

This goes against the image Roteman said he has encountered about the event — almost all of the students are learning themselves, too.

“Everyone is running into small little errors that make you feel silly for 30 seconds, (and) then you get past it,” he said.

Roteman said he encourages freshman computer science majors to not be afraid to come to these sort of tech events.

“The whole point is to learn,” Roteman said. “You don’t need to know a whole lot to do that.”