From 2820 Radio in Philadelphia, it’s The Build, conversations with entrepreneurs and innovators about their dreams, their triumphs, and their challenges.
Hackathon. If you don’t write code for a living, that word sounds like something out of a science fiction show. However, for college students hoping to break into the fields of technology, engineering, and entrepreneurship, hackathons have become an essential rite of passage. Holed up in close quarters for a weekend with lots of pizza and very little sleep, teams of undergrads test each other’s skills while building out new ideas from scratch. On this episode of The Build, I’m talking to Pranav, the undergraduate student in charge of leading the team that stages this massive event twice each year. He’ll show us why he thinks hack-a-thons have become so important to both students and business owners, and he’ll share some of the things that you can do to bring hack-a-thon to your community. It’s the story of PennApps, coming up next on The Build.
Joe Taylor, Jr.:
It’s The Build. I’m Joe Taylor, Jr., joined today Pranav, who is the current director of PennApps, which is, to my knowledge, one of if not the largest student-organized hackathons in the world. Accurate?
Yeah. Yeah, I would say so.
Tell me a little bit, because I will spoil my own age here, because when I was in school, you would become the editor of the school newspaper, or the program director of the student newspaper. Now in 2016, when this airs, we have things like student director positions of hackathons, right? So …
Yeah. We still have editors for the student newspaper, so that hasn’t gone anywhere, but yeah. There’s definitely a lot more that you can do as a student, especially in the technology space, and running a hackathon is probably one of the most intense but really, really satisfying things you can do with your time as a student, if that’s the kind of thing you’re interested in.
You are currently an undergraduate?
Yeah, so I’m a junior in the management and technology program at Penn.
Okay, and so by the time you got to Penn in 2013, PennApps was at what point in its development?
I want to say that was the sixth PennApps, maybe the fifth or sixth. PennApps started in 2009, and we’ve been having one every semester since then, so this last one in the fall was the twelfth PennApps.
It was also the biggest, because you actually had to move into an arena, a literal arena to fit everybody that wanted to play.
Yeah. We have to move to the Wells Fargo Center, which is where the Flyers and the 76ers play. It was absolutely insane, in terms of scale. We pretty much doubled where we were before that.
Walk us through. A lot of folks who listen to this show may not necessarily be in technology. They are building businesses of their own, so tell us a little bit, what is a hackathon?
Sure. A hackathon is sort of like a catch-all phrase, to broadly talk about this thing where a lot of people stop what they’re doing, what they do day to day, and maybe for a day, maybe for a few days, it usually varies depending on the hackathon, you decide to sit down with a few people, build a team, and try and make something. As opposed to a pitch competition, where the point is to come up with an idea that’s great, the point of the hackathon is to actually make something, make a minimum viable product of some kind, that actually works, and does something, and hopefully it’s really cool.
The goal here tends to be, try to execute an idea in real time, and at the end, whether you win or lose, put something in front of judges who could maybe help you move forward in your career.
Yeah, so I’d say the objectives of a hackathon change depending on the context of a hackathon. If you’re at a company hackathon, then the objective is, “Let me figure out the best idea to move our company forward, and hopefully the upper management, the executives like it, and ask me to continue working on this.” If you were at some place like Tech Crunch Disrupt, the objective is, “Oh, let me make a minimum, viable product to put in front of VCs, and maybe they’ll like it, and jump start my funding.” At a student hackathon, the objective is, how many skills can I learn in a weekend, or what can I put together with the skills that I do know, and turn them into something practical?
For some people, yes, they’re trying to go forward with that, but that isn’t the case with everyone. A lot of students are just there to learn. A lot of students are there maybe just to win a prize, to meet people. It’s a great way to meet a lot of other people, whether they be from sponsors, like really cool companies, or just other students from all over the country, all over the world, that are like-minded.
PennApps, to my knowledge, is one of the few hackathons that you really have to plan ahead to become a part of. Walk us through what it takes to actually get to play on that scale.
Right. If you want to participate in PennApps, and let’s say you’re not a Penn student, you’re going to need to apply. We have applications a few months out, at least. I think we had applications open in like May for the hackathon in September, and we had them open through July. You have to get through this application process, and we’ve gotten to the point where even last time, with 2,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center, we still had to reject about 70% of the people that applied to PennApps, because we just had so many people interested. You need to get through that application process, and then you RSVP.
The nice part, though, is that we cover all of your expenses once you are accepted. If you’re coming from anywhere in the US, we will cover all of your travel expenses. We’ll give you food. You basically stay all weekend, so you pay nothing as a student, and that’s one of the coolest things about PennApps. A lot of other student hackathons follow a similar model.
For PennApps, these are all students. They’re typically engineering students, technology students?
They’re all students, so PennApps is a student-only hackathon. It’s a little disappointing for the people right as they graduate, but they often come back as mentors to help out other people, so it’s still definitely a big and very fast-growing community. It isn’t just engineers. Yes, it started off as a lot of computer science people, and slowly brought into more engineers, but at the moment, I’d say it’s even broader than that. You’ll find a lot of students who are business majors, who are from the humanities, especially designers, so it’s very much … This is something we pride at PennApps more so than other college hackathons, to sort of make it a very cross-disciplinary kind of thing.
When folks apply, are they applying as individuals or as teams?
They can do both.
If you apply as a team, we try to look at you as a team. You apply as an individual, we’ll look at you as an individual. You apply as a team and the team doesn’t make it, we’ll still look at you as individuals, and try to get as many of them in as possible.
The hackathons that I’ve been involved with in the past are usually a little bit more, a little less formal, a little deliberately less organized, and folks will arrive and self-select into teams usually. In some cases, a team will be imposed upon somebody. What’s the process to actually organize 2,000 people into functioning teams over a weekend?
Yeah. One of the interesting things about it being a college hackathon is, usually you’re a bunch of college students. You’re going to try and go with some friends, and the moment you’re going with some people you know, the odds of you teaming up with them go up a lot. I’d say a majority of the teams at PennApps come to PennApps as teams, but that’s not to say it’s like 90%. Maybe like 60% of the people come with teams, and the other 40% just show up and find each other. We even have a Facebook group that we form right after everyone’s accepted to PennApps, where people can find other people going to PennApps and just team up with each other, and so a lot of people tend to make teams before PennApps, but they often team up with people they just met over a Facebook groups.
Are the teams aware of what they’re going to work on in advance, or does that happen when they arrive?
Here’s another place where college hackathons differ from company hackathons or themed hackathons. Most college hackathons don’t have a theme to hack on, so you’re free to come and literally build anything you want. It’s completely up to the people that come. Again, I don’t have real numbers in this, but just based on what I’ve seen, I’d say maybe half the teams coming to PennApps come with an idea, and the rest of them show up, and look around and see, what are the resources available to me? Based on that, try to come up with something they want to make. A lot of the focus for us as organizers, then, becomes, what are the coolest resources? What are the best resources we can bring to all of these students, to inspire them to build something, or to build on something?
Coming back to the idea of applying to PennApps and getting accepted, if you’re telling me that 2,000 played last semester, are you doing it at Wells Fargo again this coming semester?
We’re not doing it at the Wells Fargo Center in the spring semester. Part of that is because basketball season is on, so that’s not happening, but it’s also because we don’t want to completely move around from Penn. We work very closely with Penn engineering, and they provide a lot of support to us. One of our missions at PennApps is to bring the best hackers to Penn, and to have all of our students working alongside them, working with them, friendly competition, that kind of thing. We don’t want to move away from Penn completely, so we’re going to stay on Penn’s campus for at least one of the two semesters, I think for the foreseeable future.
Where about on campus do you operate?
When we’re on campus, we essentially take over every single engineering building, so we take over all the engineering buildings, every single classroom, every single lecture hall, and line the corridors with tables. Pretty much anywhere you can fit people, we fit people.
If there’s a square foot, there’s an engineer in there working on something.
2,000 people came to the last one. That was 30% or so acceptance rate, which means 5,000, 6,000 people applied and didn’t get accepted. What are the ingredients for a good proposal? What do you put in the application to get yourself selected for PennApps?
There’s a number of factors. Mostly what we’re looking for is someone who is really passionate about wanting to come to PennApps, or wanting to hack. It’s not necessarily wanting to come to PennApps. It’s about, do you show us somehow that you are passionate to build? People are free to write whatever they want, link whatever they want when they apply, so some of the coolest applications we tend to see are people just giving us a bunch of links to things they’ve made, that are really cool. Every once in a while, they’ll be people who maybe haven’t made that much, but have described the efforts they’ve gone to, to build a community of builders, and makers, and hackers at their school. That’s also really inspiring.
We’ll often find people who are just really good at what they do, and maybe they don’t spend all their time building side projects, but they have some really, really cool things that they’ve made, or they just really know what they know very well. It’s really just looking for, are you looking for a free to Philadelphia, or do you really want to be making something at PennApps? That’s really the litmus test, and past that, it’s a function of how far away you are, how much it’s going to cost to fly you out, and so on.
It doesn’t seem, though, that you’re going to get to see a lot of Philadelphia, because the event itself takes up quite a chunk of time.
Yeah, yeah. That it does, but there’s a good number of people that will fly in about a day early, leave a day late, spend a little time, meet some friends. They have friends going to a university. There’s tons of universities in town. They’ll come by, meet some friends, hang out with them, so there’s quite a few people that will still come hack, be a part of the full event, and still get to see a good bit of Philly.
Bookend it with some sightseeing or some time to wind up or unwind.
Walk me through the timeline. What happens at kickoff, and then what do you observe during the event? What stages do teams go through as they’re working on their projects?
Sure. PennApps runs Friday evening through Sunday afternoon, pretty much, and you hack from 8PM on Friday to 9AM on Sunday. The kickoff is a little before the start of hacking, obviously. Kickoff is usually, we’ll get someone who is an interesting speaker. We’ll usually have a lot of the companies who are sponsoring PennApps, who have brought tools for people to work with, or have prizes for certain things that people can build, come up on stage and do short pitches about what they’ve got to offer, trying to get people to hack on what they’ve brought. A lot of Friday evening tends to be team formation, if you haven’t come with a team. We have a ton of workshops Friday evening, so we try to make PennApps very accessible to students who aren’t already pro-hackers.
One of the reasons we have a lot of those people, because we have this application process, you might think, “Oh, there’s no newbies at all at PennApps.” This last time, we let in everyone from the local Philadelphia area who was a student. This includes Penn students, Drexel, Temple, or any high schools within I think a 25 mile radius. We had a huge amount of people who were new to hacking, or maybe didn’t even know any programming. We have a ton of workshops Friday evening to help people ease their way into actually making things. That’s largely what Friday evening tends to be, as it’s a lot of socializing with people, meeting people, going to workshops, meeting the companies, getting a lot of free swag, because we have a ton of sponsors, from Apple and Google, to Comcast, who was our title sponsor last time, to startups.
There’s a wide range of companies, and all of them bring insane amounts of free swag to give away to the students. There’s often a mad rush for getting all the swag before it runs out. It’s just a very social atmosphere Friday evening. About Saturday, people start to have an idea. They’re like, “We know what we’re building now,” and it’s a lot of, “All right, like, lets figure out how we’re doing this. Let’s get any help we want. Let’s get any APIs. Let’s get any hardware. Let’s make sure we have everything we need to be able to build this.” A lot of Saturday tends to be, “Let’s get down and start working on this,” and we try to break it up through the course of PennApps, with a lot of fun side events. We’ll have Quiz-O. We’ve had ice skating in the past. Just fun things that you can to take a break from constantly working on your project.
A lot of Saturday tends to be when you’re really getting down and dirty, and really getting through the project. By about Saturday night, everyone’s a little tired. People start taking quick naps, and then try and pull and all-nighter for the home stretch leading up to Sunday morning.
Sunday morning, you start to demo what you’ve built. What does that look like?
That’s probably the most crazy part of PennApps. It’s the part that if you’re walking into PennApps, that’s the part you want to see, because it’s absolutely awe-inspiring. What we had was the entire floor of the Wells Fargo Center filled with tables, and we had a science fair-style expo of everyone’s projects. You just see this insane amount of people on the floor, everyone having built something and showing off what they’ve built to everyone else. That’s absolutely just incredibly inspiring to watch. You see all sorts of stuff from, someone last time just built a contraption that folded t-shirts for you, or folded any clothes, really. You’d put it on there, and you’d turn it on, and different parts of it would flap up, flap down. Eventually, you’d end up with a folded t-shirt. That was just a really cool thing that some high schoolers built, that it has no practical application, but it’s a really cool thing to see.
I don’t know. If you work at the Gap, it sounds like it would be great.
Yeah, so you see everything from that to devices for … We had, last time, one of the big routes that we promoted and we got people to work on, we were working with Code for Philly and the City of Philadelphia. It was the civic hacking route, so we saw a lot of people who built hacks that were for social good, or for government good. There were hacks that made it very simple to fill out all the government forms you needed to do anything. You just picked what you wanted to do. It would just, in a very nice, easy-to-read way, give you a bunch of prompts asking you for information, and at the end of it, you had completely filled out government forms that you just needed to sign.
I heard you use the word “routes,” and I understand that you’ve been using that to make the experience a little more digestible for teams. Tell me a little bit about the concept behind routes, and how you executed on it.
Yeah, so one of the ways, before we introduce routes that pretty much every college hackathon is set up is, you can build anything you want. You have a lot of sponsors who come to an event, and they have a lot of prizes that they offer for the best use of MyAPI. That’s great. It means that there’s a lot of things you can do. There’s a lot of incentives, but it also means that your incentive structure is slightly skewed, because now if you’re a hacker coming to PennApps, or any college hackathon, what you want to do is win the most prizes. You’re incentivized to throw as many random APIs together as possible to maximize your chance of winning at least one of those prizes, and getting the recognition of having won something.
Throwing like ten APIs together isn’t necessarily going to result in anything that makes sense, or is really something that people want. It’s only optimized to win the prize. It’s not optimized for any real world use case. Our idea with the routes was, the main reason we think people do that is because they want the recognition of having won something. It’s not because you won a $200 Amazon gift card, or an X-Box One, or whatever the prize is. It’s because you can say, “I went to PennApps, and I won this prize.” We were like, “Why don’t we offer more prizes for things that would incentivize you to work on really useful, cool, or just fun things?”
We had routes that ranged from civic hacking, to virtual reality, to just humor, and each of them had a prize associated with it. We said, “We’ll give you a prize. We’ll give you recognition for working in one of these spaces, but go and do something really cool with it. Don’t feel limited by the fact that,: other than the top three, the grand prizes, which out of like 2,000 people, three teams are going to get, then you’re not as interested in that. You’re more interested in sponsor prizes. We said, “Let’s give you more prizes, and moreover, let’s give you the resources, so if you want to work on civic hacking, we’re gonna ask the City of Philadelphia and Code for Philly to come in, and help you guys get started. We’re gonna help them get you ideas, give you support through the weekend,” and maybe that’ll be enough incentive to get people to work on that.
Something like virtual reality, where we said, “All right. We’re just gonna have 50 Oculus Rifts, and if you want to hack on virtual reality, we’ll give you an Oculus Rift. Here you go.” It’s this sort of combination of having some way for you to get recognition, and a lot of support for you to work on those routes that we think worked really well last time, and we’re doubling down on it for the next PennApps. I think we’re going to continue to keep expanding the scope of that, because it seems to have worked really well, and people responded very positively to it.
This is a pretty significant undertaking. You are organizing this while you’re still maintaining a full course load as an undergraduate student. How did you end up in a position to be running an organization like this?
Yeah. I’ll tell you how I ended up there. I think it’s a fairly similar set of reasons, though, that any of the other people on PennApps, and we have a pretty large teams that’s all absolutely amazing. I think it’s a pretty similar reason why we all do it. I attended PennApps like two weeks into my freshman semester. It was one of the reasons I actually picked Penn as the place to go to college, because I heard about PennApps, and I was like, “This is really cool.” Two weeks in, I go to PennApps, and it was insane. It was absolutely out of the world. That was the first time a hackathon had been over 1,000 participants, and the atmosphere is just electric.
It’s very hard for me to put into words how inspiring it is to see everyone around you building things that you cannot imagine building, or for me personally, I thought it was just the most inspiring thing, and I tried to take part, and my team failed miserably, in terms of actually building something by the end of it. It was an incredible experience, and the moment I was done with it, I was like, “I need to join the team of people that puts this together, because this is such an amazing event.” I have a hundred ideas now to make it better. I think it’s a pretty similar story for anyone else who joined PennApps. They either participated in or volunteered at PennApps, and really just love the atmosphere. As I said, it’s impossible for me to describe, but if you ever go to a very large hackathon, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
It seems like there’s a meta-issue here, which is you’re tasked with, in that same amount of time, building the environment in which creative people can flourish, but that in and of itself becomes the thing that you are building during the hackathon.
Yeah. Absolutely, and that’s a big reason of why I still love doing it. This next PennApps I think will be the fifth PennApps I’ve organized, and I’m still enjoying every moment of it, because every single time, you’re building this incredible environment, and you get to see all of these people building all of these things, because you went to the effort of making all of that possible. I’m not saying I’m trying to take credit for everything everyone builds at PennApps, but it’s just great to see that you’ve enabled that to happen. It’s a little addicting. It’s sort of my way of feeling like I’m doing some good for my university, my community, other people like me, who really enjoy technology and might want to build it, but maybe at some point in time didn’t feel like they knew enough to.
Tell me about the biggest challenge, the biggest hurdle you had to overcome to actually make PennApps a reality in one of its instances.
PennApps has been around for a while, but this time moving down to the Wells Fargo Center was essentially, we were reinventing the wheel. We had all of these processes that we’d fine-tuned over the years, all of these things we do, all of the people we work with that know what is expected of them, rather, how the event works. We had to redefine all of that, and work with a completely new set of people all over again to move down to the Wells Fargo Center.
To people who aren’t familiar with a hackathon, the concept of a hackathon is very daunting if you’re a facilities person, because facilities don’t stay open for 48 straight hours. You don’t keep facilities open overnight. The Wells Fargo Center has never been open as long as we kept it open in one stretch. The Wells Fargo Center has never had tables lined up in the concourses, and every single, literally every single part of the building was filled with tables and chairs for people to sit and work at. Just working with a completely new set of people, explaining over and over to a lot of people what a hackathon was, how it worked, was a very long process. It was very, very rewarding when it all came together, but the process of turning a sports stadium is a non-trivial one.
I think beyond probably hearing the question a lot of, “You want to do what?” That’s probably what you heard a lot that time. One of the things that I’d love to get your perspective on, as an undergraduate student, you’re organizing this event, and partnering with vendors, facilities people, folks who have probably been in their jobs or their roles for ten, 20, 30 years, in some cases. There are some folks that have worked in arenas for their entire career, and now basically, they’ve got to take orders from an undergrad, who is showing them how to do things that they never in a million years thought they would ever need to figure out how to solve. How do you built rapport with someone when you are trying to direct them through something you are very familiar with, but they’ve never experienced?
There’s two parts to answering that then, and I think both of them were definitely equally important. One was that we’ve worked very closely with Penn engineering for years, because PennApps has been in Penn engineering, and we work closely with the facilities people at Penn Engineering. They’re very familiar with the needs of our event, and they’re also facilities people that have been doing this for years. When we wanted to move to the Wells Fargo Center, because we ran out of space in Penn engineering, we worked with them, and they were incredible. The support Penn engineering gave us this time was invaluable, and it wouldn’t have happened without them.
Basically, we had the facilities people from Penn engineering working alongside us, and it was us working with the facilities people at the Wells Fargo Center. Whenever there was something that their facilities people needed to hear, we’d first talk to the facilities people from Penn engineering, and say, “What’s the best way to get this across?” Often they’d help us talk to the people at the Wells Fargo Center. It’s having that additional, “Oh, here are other facilities people that understand my job, who are telling me what this new event is.” That helped a lot with communication, in that aspect.
Another part of it was just, yes, we are undergraduate students, but a lot of us and the people who work directly with the Wells Fargo Center, were people who have been around long enough that we also know, we pretty much know every detail off what needs to happen at PennApps, in terms of the facilities and what we need. When you talk to other facilities people, yes, they see you as a student and an undergrad first, but the moment you show that you know what you’re talking about, they were all very reasonable people, and it was an absolute pleasure working with all of them.
When you attend other hackathons, when you don’t have to wear your organizer’s hat, what do you look to get out of a hackathon as a participant?
I have a few answers for that, but I should start off by saying even though I don’t have my organizer hat on, in the sense that I’m not organizing their hackathon, I still have my organizer hat on in terms of looking at all the things an organizer’s going to look out for. I’m still going to see and focus in on a lot of things that the average participant might not always. That said, when I go to a hackathon, my goal, I have never gone to a hackathon to win a hackathon. I have only gone to a hackathon when I’ve decided I want to learn something new, and then I pick a technology, and then I go and make something with that. I have something in mind that I want to build, and a hackathon is just a really nice environment for me to go and build it.
A good few times I have also gone to hackathons, since I am an organizer, I have a lot of other friends who organize different hackathons, and so I’ve gone to other hackathons just to help out with my friends with organizing theirs. I have gone to a good few hackathons just as a volunteer.
Looking forward, looking beyond 2017, when you graduate, do you foresee bringing this into your career, in terms of becoming a professional organizer? What’s on the horizon for you? Where are you going to take all this experience?
I think for me, what I really enjoy is working with a lot of people, and working in different situations. I think working with people is just always very interesting, because you can never tell how someone is going to react to something, how different people’s incentives line up. Really going forward, I think I just want to be in a place where my work centers a lot on dealing with people, and trying to get people to work towards a common goal. Some kind of maybe managerial or project-centered role, as opposed to maybe just an engineering role, but.
We’ll wrap up with this. Tell me about the most exciting project you’ve seen come out of any hackathon in the past year or so. What got you really excited when you saw it getting demoed?
That’s a hard question. There’s a lot of very cool projects at hackathons, but I think, personally, one of the coolest ones I’ve seen … I can’t say this is the kind of thing that’s going to change the world. I just thought it was really cool when I saw it, was this one game a group of people made about a year and a half ago, with a slightly older version of the Oculus Rift. It was one of the earliest demos. They built this game where they think the Oculus Rift up to a Microsoft Connect, and you were essentially playing as Iron Man, and there were evil sharks attacking you. You could simply move your arms and laser kill them.
It’s a very silly concept. There’s nothing super exciting about the idea, but that was the first time I ever saw an Oculus Rift demo that actually was fun. I had tried a lot of Oculus Rift before that, and a lot after that, and I’ve never had as much fun in an Oculus Rift game, because there’s always something holding it back from feeling natural. That was the only time, despite some pretty … There was no premise to the game other than you can shoot things, but it was just so natural, and the sync up between tracking your body and you feeling like you were in that new environment was so amazing that I’m just incredibly excited about what people are going to be able to do once virtual reality actually comes out as a consumer product, as something that’s commercially available. It’s absolutely awe-inspiring.
I think it references something that you said a little bit earlier, that some folks go into hackathons with the goals of trying to mash things up based on levels of expertise within teams, or subject matter experts that happen to be on hand. What’s compelling here is, what conditions were created that someone that was really good with virtual reality headgear, which is Oculus Rift, for folks that don’t know it, and then the Connect, which is an off the shelf consumer essentially movement measurement device, just measures how you move around a room. For the first time, somebody thought to put that together in a way that actually made sense for a player, but now start to envision other applications of that technology.
You could think of things like virtual surgery, or using it as an interface into something else, because this is the first time that we’re actually getting to see the blend of these technologies together. Where they intersect is where really interesting things happen. Thinking ahead, and thinking about beyond your graduation, right, thinking about your fifth year reunion, your tenth year reunion, you come back to PennApps as, say, a sponsor or a mentor. What do you expect to see?
I’m not even sure. I don’t think it’s possible for me to predict what it’s going to look like five years out, because what it looks like today is completely different from what it looked like five years ago. Hopefully, I won’t recognize it, and I will be absolutely delighted by what I see.
Olympics proportions, maybe.
Yeah. Who knows.
Great. Pranav, thank you so much for coming on The Build. The next PennApps is going to be when?
The next PennApps is January 22 to 24, and the one after that, which hopefully will be really big again, will be sometime next September.
Fantastic. Thank you so much for joining us here on The Build.
Thanks a lot.
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