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Campus programmers hack out innovation at coding marathon

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FEBRUARY 06, 2012

Seated at a table overrun with computers, cords and cables, UC Berkeley freshman Ryan Davis was enjoying an atypical weekend night on Friday.

Although she was in the familiar company of friends, she had never been surrounded by so much technology or tapping of keys.

Davis, an art practice major, spent the better part of the evening in Soda Hall — home of all things computer science — supporting those friends as they competed in the Code 4 Cal Hackathon.

“I actually came on a whim, but I now realize how passionate these people are,” Davis said as two of her Unit 1 residence hall floormates, freshmen Gerald Fong and Sharad Vikram, feverishly wrote computer code next to her.

Regularly held by different organizations on campus, hackathons do not bring together nefarious hackers who work to break Internet security measures. They pit student programmers against one another to create the best programs, Web applications or smartphone apps over a fixed, sometimes extreme amount of time — Code 4 Cal began Friday at 10 p.m. and continued until Saturday at 2 p.m.

At Code 4 Cal — which was organized by the Student Technology Council — students were challenged to create mobile apps within 14 hours that students could use. Approximately 60 students worked in groups of four or fewer to create apps that ranged from dining commons menu planners to event organizers to help students who want to avoid being bombarded by flyers on Sproul Plaza.

Fong and Vikram won the competition and the $1,500 first place prize with their website, BroBooks, which helps Facebook friends find out who is buying or selling specific textbooks, eliminating students’ need to solicit buyers or books via status updates.

These coding marathons remained mostly unheard of until their portrayal in the movie “The Social Network,” but the innovative products created as a result of them have come to the fore, especially at UC Berkeley.

“In the past, hackathons were more niche … and less applicable to freshmen and sophomores who may not have had extensive experience,” said Fong, who is an officer for Hackers at Berkeley. The club hosted HackJam 2.0 a week before Code 4 Cal. “Now they’re big events, often with big sponsors.”

Not all hackathons at UC Berkeley have a campus focus. Others serve as practical job interviews for companies such as Facebook and Yahoo, which sponsor several hackathons a year.

“It’s an exciting and fun way to do things,” said Shelton Waggener, campus associate vice chancellor for information technology and chief information officer, who helped judge the competition. “You both get to pose problems and propose solutions for them very quickly, and we’re going to be talking to a lot of the teams about how we can take their app concept and make it something (UC Berkeley) can really use.”

Ninja Courses was developed by UC Berkeley alumni William Li and Alex Sydell during one such competition, and Waggener’s office has since bought rights to use it as its official course planning website, ScheduleBuilder.

Joseph Lim-Effendy, co-chair of the Student Technology Council and UC Berkeley junior, said he does not believe the hackers compete for the often-monetary prizes.

“They like doing things like this,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s the entrepreneurial spirit or if they just really like coding, but they’re always motivated to make the coolest things they can.”

Christopher Yee covers Berkeley communities.

FEBRUARY 07, 2012