HackRU Lets Students Create Next-Level Technologies

By Michael Hill

On the floor of the Rutgers Athletic Center, Shani Pleasants of Teaneck and Rashida Charles of Boston hope to score big as the Rutgers students write the programming commands for the web application they created called “Study Buddy.” Add your name, classes and where and when you’re studying and click the Study Buddy button.

“It’s like a social media site for studying. So, it’s useful. It’s a resource. Colleges can use and things like that. It helps bring people together,” Pleasants said.

“I think for the more difficult classes like science classes, it’s better to have a study group, but sometimes being in a class of 400 people it’s hard to meet people to study with,” said Charles.

That’s just some of the creativity you find at this 24-hour hackathon. These hackers are not the kind who breach firewalls and confidentiality. Instead, these hackers gather at what looks like a junk food convention, with slacker-look-a-likes in their PJs and chomping on PB and J sandwiches.

Their mission: collaborating to create next-level technologies.

“The way I like to describe it, it’s a real-time invention competition. So these students show up on a Friday or a Saturday in this case. They come up with the craziest inventions they can imagine and then they spend the next 24 hours bringing that invention to life and they’re going to demo it science fair style,” said Major League Hacking Founder Mike Swift.

A few years ago, Swift was a Rutgers law major. He had a campus computer programming job to pay bills. A friend invited him to a hackathon.

“I remember walking into this room and there were a hundred other students who were just like me. They loved the internet. They loved software. They loved building things. They were willing to give up their weekends and partying and going out on college campuses and to go to hackathons and spend their weekends building things. I saw them and I felt like I was at home,” Swift said.

Two years ago, Swift founded Major League Hacking and now supports 150 hackathons a year, reaching 50,000 hackers.

This is Rutgers University’s eighth hackathon. These students come from up and down the East Coast and they’ve come here to create all sorts of things — fun, educational. Typically at these hackathons they create things that are very surprising.

“These kids made a really simple way to multi-task on the iPhone, which you can’t do right now,” Swift said.

These events attract big name, household sponsors giving away software and more, but also recruiting.

“I think what we look for, even when we’re recruiting students, is their passion because passion kind of like leads the way and tells what you want to do for the future,” said Bloomberg Tech Recruiter Rakhee Kher.

Hackathoners make up an eclectic group. Some aren’t even CS or computer science majors or pursuing a career in it.

“I actually want to go in to health care,” Charles said.

“I want to train sea otters when I graduate. I’m graduating in May,” said HackRU organizer Jade Yee.

Yee and Michelle Chen organized what looks like a male-dominated hackathon — a fact not lost on Chen.

“I think the most important step in creating diversity is first creating the space in which that diversity can grow. That’s definitely one of the things that we strive to do,” she said.

After 24 hours of hacking, the top invention is LiteCast — an app to help low-speed internet have a decent video chat experience. First place gets the team $1,000, Dell tablets and $200 in software credit. And no doubt, attention from the multi-billion-dollar tech industry.