Get with the programming

Students wield their computers creatively at YHack, one of the nation’s biggest college hackathons.

Alan Wechsler, a freelancer in upstate New York, has written for the New York Times, the Atlantic, and other publications. 

It’s a Friday afternoon in early December, and outside the Payne Whitney Gymnasium something decidedly unathletic is happening. Hundreds of students are piling out of charter buses. Others are driving up in cars or paying their fares for taxis from the train station. They’re toting rolling suitcases, carrying sleeping bags and pillows. A few have stuffed animals. Everyone has a laptop, of course.

They’re here to compete, but it’s nothing remotely related to physical activity. Unless you count insomnia as exercise.

This is a gymnastic event of a more cerebral nature: YHack 2017, said to be one of the nation’s biggest hackathons. For the next day and a half, more than a thousand college students from all over the United States and Canada will work in teams of up to four people, wielding computer code and ingenuity to solve the problems of their choice.

What is a hackathon? First of all, it’s a good thing. The word “hack” has a bad rap for its association with cybercrime. But among computer aficionados, “hacking” refers to the act of finding creative solutions to problems. So a hackathon is a computer programming contest with time limits. A hacking marathon.

The concept of young programmers working nonstop to complete a tech challenge goes back to at least the 1960s. But according to Wikipedia—itself a hack, of sorts, of the knowledge industry—the first organized hacking contest occurred in 1999 at a cryptographic development event in Calgary. In 2016, according to the coding-oriented website BeMyApp, there were 1,568 hackathons in the United States, and nearly 3,500 organized worldwide.

YHack, now five years old, takes place in the 57,000-square-foot William K. Lanman Jr. Center, a relatively new addition to the Payne Whitney gym. Hundreds of folding tables and chairs have been set up to accommodate the throngs. The 1,100 participants, chosen from more than 3,700 applicants, include 325 women and 10 students who identify as non-binary. Mixed into the crowd are just under 150 Yalies.

Here, at one of the world’s largest gymnasiums, they face one ultimate challenge: can they hack it?


It begins with speeches. 

At YHack, sponsors offer a prize for the best hack in their category. The Poynter Fellowship in Journalism at Yale is seeking a hack to prevent the spread of fake news. FINRA is looking for a program to prevent cybercrime. Google is looking for a unique use for its cloud platform. There are many more. The event begins with each sponsor saying a few words about their challenge.

Then a student organizer takes the mike. “I feel like it’s probably time to get hacking,” she says. “Who here is excited to hack? Let’s hear it!” There are a few cheers. Most people are focused on their laptops, and are not paying attention. The announcements are pretty inaudible over the din anyway. “You have 36 hours to build something amazing,” she continues. “So we’re going to count down. Five, four, three, two, one. Welcome to YHack.”

As thousands of fingers begin to type, those who don’t yet have a team mill about upstairs, comparing skills and seeking partners. It’s an exercise in networking, and not the kind that involves connecting computers together.

Two people searching for teammates are Dhruv Khurana and Achintya Kumar, first-year students at UMass Amherst. Kumar says he won an award at a previous hackathon for a program designed to predict stock price increases. He didn’t collect the prize money, though—he had to leave before winners were announced, and they gave the money to someone else. He and Khurana are looking to use the program Unity to create something in the health-care realm. Soon, they’re speaking to Jeremy Chu, a hacking newbie from Stony Brook University. “I want to be able to meet people and try to work on something cool, basically,” he says.

Suddenly, an alarm goes off. Hackers look at each other in disbelief. Really? A fire drill? A recorded voice implores: “Please leave the area by the nearest exit.”

Down in the heart of the hackathon, the alarm is just part of a greater noise—music, conversation—that is ignored. Eventually, someone gets on the microphone and says, “You don’t need to evacuate. Keep doing what you’re doing.” They do.

At one table, a team of—mostly—former strangers has set up shop. The two who know each other are senior Jordan Rego and junior Kristen Arms, of Northern Illinois University. They drove 16 hours to be here, paying $90 in tolls along the way. (Arms is still annoyed about that—it was an unexpected hit to their limited travel budget.) Across the table is David Feng, a computer science major at UCLA. “I’ve done a lot of hackathons on the West Coast,” he says. “I wanted to get a taste of what it’s like on the East Coast.” The fourth member is Momen Abdelkarim, from the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State.

They’ve decided to build a program that can evaluate emotion. (For a team name, they choose SentiMeant.) Their first idea is a program that can determine whether a customer’s note on a company’s comments page is positive or negative, and create an appropriate response. Eventually, their work will send them in a different direction, to develop a program that might help people with Asperger’s syndrome identify emotions.

After some talk about programming languages, the conversation turns to the insufferable Wi-Fi connection. Feng says it’s a problem at many hackathons: the downside of having a thousand computers in one room, all searching for bandwidth.

Arms and Rego are hack veterans. For two years in a row, they won a prize at Huskie Hack, a hackathon at Northern Illinois. Truth be told, Arms is feeling a bit intimidated by Yale’s Ivy League status. “I’m like, ‘I go to school in a cornfield,’” she says. “I don’t belong here.” But the conversation turns technical again, and it’s clear she fits in just fine.

“It’s not about knowing the language. It’s how fast you can learn it,” she says. “That’s what hackathons teach you. It’s doing in 36 hours what takes companies months.”

There are some Yale students scattered among the masses. Michael Chang ’21 is from the San Francisco area. He came alone. “I wanted to meet people who might have more experience,” he says. “I want to see what sort of crowd I can get into.” In a moment, he’s chatting with another Californian, who flew in from Stanford. Soon, they are six. By 9 p.m. they’re having too much fun to worry about the four-person team limit—or, for that matter, finding a project. “Currently I’m working on my homework,” Chang says; it was due by the end of the day. (He ended up doing a project on his own.)

One Yale team already has an idea: a web application that would randomly match two people in a campus club together for lunch every week, so they can get to know each other better. They call it MealBot. They’ve already figured out the languages they’re going to use—JavaScript and Python. John Daniswara ’19 came up with the concept. He’s joined by Bradley Yam ’21, Eric Ou ’21, and Yuchen ”Sophia” Dai ’20. But after a few hours working in the maw of YHack, they decide to pack up and head elsewhere. They can’t get a Wi-Fi signal.

Alfred Delle ’18 and Franklyn Zhu ’17, computer science majors, are leading another team. Their app involves QR codes. Let’s say you want to learn how to use a piece of equipment in the gym; you scan the machine’s code, and the phone shows you information on how to use it. This is Delle’s second hackathon. “It’s a good way to test yourself. It teaches you to be a more rigorous thinker,” he says. They’re thinking of aiming for the hacker equivalent of “best in show,” a $3,000 top prize for best overall hack. Also on their team is Xinyu Hong ’18PhD, a grad student in microbiology who uses programming in his research, and José Rodriguez from Stony Brook.

Eventually, thoughts turn to sleep. On the one-eighth-mile track that overlooks the hacking floor two stories below, organizers have inflated 400 air mattresses. By midnight, many students have crashed, eyes shaded with shirts, blankets, or hoods. Downstairs, a student is asleep in his chair, forehead on laptop. His two friends lie on the floor, heads pillowed by duffel bags.

Hundreds more continue to work, fingers tapping, eyes fixed on the screen.


How did competitive coding become a thing at Yale? For that you can thank three former computer science undergrads: Charles Jin ’16, Mike Wu ’16, and Frank Wu ’16 (no relation). In March 2013, the three went to a hackathon at Princeton. “We were just curious about what these hackathons were like,” recalls Mike Wu. “We really soaked in the energy and got really excited about this whole movement. We just got hooked.” Most exciting to them was the idea that these coding events were taking places on campuses around the world. “It was something we knew we wanted to bring to our school,” he says.

Nowadays, there are websites dedicated to putting on a successful hackathon, but not in the collegiate hackathon Dark Ages of half a decade ago. These three just figured it out on their own. They hacked a hackathon.

They recruited volunteers and spent much of the summer and early fall working on details. To find sponsors, they crashed start-up fairs and job fairs around the country, introducing themselves to tech companies and asking for sponsorship. Eventually, they raised $150,000. “We spent a lot of time cold-calling,” Mike Wu says.

They reached out to Yale administration, but the first few people they contacted didn’t understand the concept. They got some blank looks. Eventually, with the help of Joy McGrath, the president’s chief of staff, and Rebecca Brandriff, then lead administrator of West Campus (she’s now at NYU Steinhardt), they got a vacant West Campus office building to use, along with a good deal of administrative help. It was a big job. At one point, student volunteers rented two U-Haul trucks and bought ten pallets of drinks and snacks from Costco.

On November 7, 2013, the first Y-Hack (they later abandoned the hyphen) was held at Yale. The event attracted more than a thousand competitors from about 75 schools. The top two prizes went to Yale students. Word spread quickly about the event and its not-insignificant prize money. More than 5,000 students applied for the second year.

Today, YHack is an official student club, with a mission beyond its signature event. The club puts on, for example, an annual program called CodeBoola, a one-day “learnathon” for teaching local high school students about computers, programming, entrepreneurship, and web design. YHack has a sponsor-funded budget of about $250,000, which pays for renting out the Lanman Center, along with prizes, meals, transportation for attendees, and snacks (though the 3,000 cans of Red Bull were donated by Red Bull). The club also receives administrative support from university organizations, including President Peter Salovey’s office, Payne Whitney, the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale (a major YHack sponsor), and the Poynter Fellowship Advisory Committee. About 25 Yale students plan and run the event.

Today, the founders are pleased to see their legacy continuing without them. “I went back last year. We never could have imagined things could have grown to where they are now,” says Frank Wu. Adds Mike: “They’re a lot more organized than we were.”


It’s now Saturday morning, 9 a.m., on the YHack floor. The detritus of a hard night’s effort is scattered everywhere: paper plates with uneaten rice from last night’s dinner, empty Red Bull cans, apple cores, free corporate swag like branded plastic cups or fidget spinners.

A sleepy-eyed competitor, wearing his blanket like a robe, wanders up to his teammates. “Good morning,” he mumbles, rolling up his blanket and getting to work. A neighbor, too engrossed to look out the window, asks his computer, “Alexa, what’s the weather today?” “Sunny,” is the synthetic answer.

At Team SentiMeant, Kristen Arms reports a solid seven hours of sleep. By mid-morning she’s back in action, albeit a bit stymied. The ability to recognize emotion electronically is proving elusive. Language, after all, makes use of subtleties such as sarcasm, inflection, facial expression. How, then, to get a program to understand such subtext? “I am struggling quite a bit,” she says. “It’s difficult to get the sites to work with each other.”

Arms and team are answering a challenge from one of the sponsors, Mirum, the global digital agency of the advertising firm J. Walter Thompson. “There are so many creative problems that are yet to be tackled using existing technology,” says Kamran Aslam, director of technology at J. Walter Thompson New York. He’s aware of five to six other teams at YHack who’ve taken this one on. The prize: Google Home Minis and, perhaps more exciting, a chance to pitch their idea to Mirum’s CEO and CTO.

Elsewhere, a team from Canada works on something called “Blowing Winds,” which would allow users to post their life problems anonymously and receive solutions or statements of affirmation from others. A team from UMass is coding a project called Reminisce AI. It’s an app that would identify visitors and recall previous conversations to help an Alzheimer’s patient’s fading memory. There’s Cram, an app to help students study by quizzing each other online. StudentSave would help students save money by sharing deals. Calc Your Carbon Offset would help users reduce their environmental footprint. The trading of cryptocurrencies is a popular theme.

Kristina Shia ’19, codirector of YHack, notes that more hacks this year are focusing on topical issues, such as preventing fake news. It’s a long way from some of the whimsical work at the first YHack five years ago, including an app that clucked like a chicken and another that laid down dance beats over Morning Edition, turning the NPR news show into a rap song. “I think it has a little bit to do with the political culture,” she says. “There’s been a lot of talk in computer science this year about the role of computers and technology in politics, and I think that’s been on a lot of people’s minds.”


By late afternoon, teams have spread to couches in the lobby, seats in remote gyms, empty hallways, and quiet corners. There’s a lot less talking and a few more anguished looks. The timer ticks.

At 7 p.m., Jonah Back, a software engineer at Intuit, leads a seminar on how to succeed at a hackathon. Programs will be judged on four factors, he says—creativity, technical difficulty, polish, and practicality. Students will also need to explain their work to judges. His advice: have a working demo, keep the pitch to under a minute, and make it sound simple. “Pitch with confidence, with passion, and with a smile,” he says. “We want to see people who are really excited about what they’ve done.”

With less than 12 hours left, some competitors take time out to see a performance by the student Indian dance group Yale Jashan Bhangra and the a cappella group The New Blue. At 9:30 p.m., there’s a rousing contest to find out how high a tower can be made out of plastic cups. (It’s clear that engineering students have an advantage.) Also popular is the 11 p.m. rap battle, in which a dozen students with stage names like G-Frank, Tobodious, and MC JavaScript practice their skills in front of an enthusiastic crowd. It quickly becomes clear that there are no Jay-Zs present. However, one contestant earns cheers with this line: “Man, your rapping ain’t too fly/man, you suck more than this one’s Wi-Fi.”

Back at Ground Zero and nearing midnight, the Yale team working on QR codes finally discovers the bug that had brought them to a standstill for much of the evening. “It turned out to be this tiny little thing, as it often is,” Zhu says. Delle looks on. “We’re thinking in two hours we can have something basic working,” he says. “Then we can start working on improvements.”

An all-nighter? “Yes, definitely.”


For many, 8 a.m. Sunday comes too soon. Still, 271 teams submit their projects. For the next few hours, judges make the rounds from table to table to see what students have wrought.

Eventually, 35 prizes are awarded. The top award goes to a concept called Sight, created by a team from Brown University. It uses voice recognition and other technology to help the visually impaired recognize their friends, get an idea of their surroundings, and have written text read aloud.

Emmett Chen-Ran ’20, who goes by the initials “ECR”, is part of a team that wins the Mirum prize for creating software that can understand emotion. Their submission, Chatsense, is meant to help people with autism spectrum disorder communicate by analyzing and identifying a speaker’s emotional state. This is ECR’s sixth hackathon. His team is made up of people from four different universities, including two in Canada. “That’s the beauty of hackathons,” he says. “All the superficial awkwardness of meeting people for the first time is stripped away, and you’re all very focused. You just get in the zone and do it.”

A team that included two Yale graduate students wins the coveted Poynter fake news prize, beating out 22 other entries. Stefan Uddenberg ’19PhD and Michael Lopez-Brau ’23PhD had joined Alex Cui of Caltech and Jeff An of the University of Waterloo to design a program called Open Mind. As winners, the team will be flown down to Washington, DC, to present their idea to Congress.

Team Open Mind approached the challenge from a unique point of view. Its Yale creators are both researching cognitive psychology, with Lopez-Brau focusing on how the confluence of computer science and psychology can help lead to improvements in artificial intelligence.

“We knew we wanted to do fake news,” Lopez-Brau says afterward. “As to what exactly, that was what happened as the night progressed.” It’s hard to classify fake news electronically. Technologies that exist today search a variety of stories on the same topic, looking for words that might be a red flag. But programs have their limits. If it’s a new story, for instance, without other stories on the same topic to compare it with, the programs won’t work. “We realized very quickly this is a bigger problem than we thought,” Lopez-Brau recalls.

In the end, the team went in a different direction. Instead of merely flagging potential fake news, their Google Chrome extension ranks a story as positive or negative with respect to a given topic and offers links to articles with an opposing viewpoint—always from reputable news sources. And, explains Uddenberg, “if you happen to navigate to a website our database has flagged as fake news, you will be shown a warning.” That warning would include “a list of a few alternative reputable websites you could go to instead,” such as Reason and the New York Times.

The team managed to get some sleep on Friday night, but on Saturday they stayed up all night. Uddenberg, who hails from Trinidad and Tobago, was elated to hear of their win. “It isn’t every day that a Trinidadian gets the opportunity to address Congress,” he says.

Other students aren’t so lucky. Alfred Delle and Franklyn Zhu, who also stayed up to complete their QR code idea, end up winning nothing. “It’s OK,” says Zhu. “We all learned. This was an idea we wanted to test out. It was cool to have a working prototype.”

Kristen Arms and her team also fail to win a prize. They made some last-minute changes to their prototype just before the judges came by, and the speech processing went silent. They did show the judges a Facebook chatbot that could score any message for emotion and respond with an appropriate emoji, and a script processor that could score written dialogue. It wasn’t enough. But there’s no time for regrets. By the afternoon, Arms and fellow Northern Illinois student Jordan Rego are about to take on their next challenge: driving back to Illinois, overnight. They figure that, to make Monday morning classes, they’ll have exactly one hour to pull over and rest. (Arms will later report that they fell asleep at a truck stop and missed half their classes. But their teachers were very understanding.)

Teammate Momen Abdelkarim has a slightly easier trip ahead—a flight back to Arizona. Although their project didn’t win, it was his first hackathon as a college student, and he had a good time. Innovative technology aside, that’s pretty much the point of hackathons.

“I plan on coming back next year,” he says.  

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