32-hour hackathon evolves into recruiting tool for big tech

by Adrienne Berard

William & Mary’s annual student-run coding marathon tribeHacks returns for its fourth year March 23-25. The 32-hour hackathon is a combination hardware and software competition that has evolved over the years to incorporate elements of a tech expo and job fair.

“I would describe it as a time and place to get hands-on with technology and meet companies that you wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to,” said Meg Anderson '20, chair of this year’s event.

The event is sanctioned by Major League Hacking, the official body of college hackathons, and is open to all college students -- as well as anyone who has received an undergraduate degree in the past year. Spectators of all ages are welcome, but hackers must be college students.

Anna Li ’17 (left) and Wendy Guo ’18 laid claim to a comfortable spot in a lounge area in Small Hall for tribeHacks 2016. Photo by Joseph McClain

During the 32-hour competition, teams of students work together to try to build the best app, web component or hardware enhancement. Last year, for example, one team hacked a drone to follow a target autonomously. The year before that, a team hacked a wah-wah pedal for an electric guitar. This year, students will try out their hacking skills with a 3D body scanner that enables the capture of full-body 3D renderings.

“You can use the 3D models to create a videogame of yourself if you want,” Anderson said. “Maybe that’s a little narcissistic, but it’s still fun.”

The event will be held in Swem Library, the venue of the very first tribeHacks in 2014. Lisa Nickel, associate dean of research and public services for William & Mary Libraries, has helped organize the annual hackathon since its inception.

“When the students came to us a few years ago with the idea, we were super excited to partner with them,” Nickel said. “I love working with dedicated students like this, who can manage such a big project. There are adults who can’t manage something like this.”

Nickel says her job is the easier one, making sure students have a safe, clean place to enjoy the event. The students, on the other hand, are tasked with managing nearly every aspect of the hackathon. That includes enforcing Nickel’s two main rules: “No soldering and you can’t fly drones inside the library.” In all the years Nickel has been a part of the event, she has yet to experience library rules being broken.   

“They’ve been really good stewards, because I think they realize that we depend on them, we trust them,” she said of the students. “We want to be a place that encourages innovation and learning and, frankly, doing cool stuff with technology. They are a great group to partner with on that front.”

This year, Swem will not only play host to students, but crowds of recruiters scouting talent for the sponsor companies they represent. Hackathon organizers were tasked with securing such sponsors. Anderson says the organizing committee has locked in several major sponsors so far. One big-name sponsor this year is Facebook.

“That means there will be recruiters from Facebook here, getting to see what our students can do over the course of the weekend,” Anderson said. “Of course, Facebook has a vested interest in getting the best possible candidates and this is a great way of showing them what we can do.”

Sponsors offer more than just job prospects. They often bring a team of their own specialists to help hackers work through problems related to a company’s hardware or software. Some sponsors even present their own challenges at the event and students are awarded prizes if they are able to solve them.

The event is organized by undergraduate members of William & Mary’s chapter of the Association of Computing Machinery. Dan Jelf '18 is the chapter’s chair. He’s attended the past three tribeHacks and has watched the planning evolve over the years.

“This year, I feel like we're getting started earlier than we ever have before,” Jelf said. “Which is great, because now we can focus on making it bigger, making it more diverse and attracting a lot of different students to the event.”

For those new to hacking, the tribeHacks committee has organized a series of team-building events throughout the weekend. The goal is for those who arrive without a group to find people who are interested in the same thing they are, Anderson said.

“Some people come in and they already have an idea of what they want to work on and who they want to work with,” Anderson said. “But I wouldn’t say that’s the typical hacker we have. We have a lot of beginners.”

Members of the W&M ACM chapter also give small group tutorials throughout the event, so students can pick up new skills and meet new people. With an event lasting 32 hours, Jelf said, it’s important to make sure people are interacting -- and eating.

“As hardcore as any hacker can be, we find that usually people need to eat at some point,” he said.

Jelf joined the W&M ACM after attending his first tribeHacks. He says the event continues to help grow ACM’s presence on campus. Anderson is also a member of the group and says the chapter’s meetings regularly draw in about 30 students. More than 100 students are signed up to receive notifications from the group. As the chapter has expanded its membership, it’s reaching a wider range of students, Anderson said.

“I think that what's strong about our ACM is that there are a lot of comp sci people, but everybody seems to have their own interest outside of that,” Anderson said. “For me personally, I’m double majoring in biology and working in a biology lab. I would say there are a large number of students who fall in that category. We touch a huge number of disciplines.”

Broad areas of expertise and a diverse student body within computer science is helping attract tech giants like Facebook to recruit at William & Mary, Anderson said.

“I feel like the computer science department is becoming more respected as a place to go for tech,” she said. “We have a much stronger gender ratio in our CS department than other universities, which makes us a more valuable university to come to.”

According to Michael Lewis, chair of William & Mary's Department of Computer Science, about 30 to 35 percent of the department’s undergraduate majors are female. That is nearly double the national average. Anderson says a better gender ratio makes the university more appealing to recruiters.

She cites the recent recruitment effort by language learning software company Duolingo. The company made the decision to only visit campuses with strong female-to-male ratios in their computer science programs. The new tactic resulted in a

tribeHacks organizing committee, left to right: Olivia Meehan '19, Kayla Shirley '19, Dan Jelf '18, Meg Anderson '20, Liz Weech '20, Conrad Gehrki '19, and Alex Fantine '21. Organizers Rane Squires '18 and Adam An '20 are not pictured. Photo courtesy Meg Anderson

 in the company’s 2018 hires.

“They decided it was more important to them to get this wide, diverse candidate pool than just going to the same places again and again,” Anderson said. “So I feel like William & Mary is very much in that camp. We have such a strong CS program and it's becoming even stronger now as people are seeing our candidates moving forward and going into the job market.”

The job market looms large over Jelf as he helps organize this year’s tribeHacks. As a senior, he’s currently on the hunt for work after graduation. He and Anderson agree the pressure is on to land jobs at big tech firms, based on what their predecessors have achieved.

“The graduating seniors, in particular, have left quite a number to live up to,” Anderson said, referring to recent grads who landed positions at tech giants like Amazon and Microsoft. “It certainly puts the pressure on us to find a job.”

“Yeah,” Anderson’s colleague interjected. “If anyone is hiring, my name is Dan Jelf.”

“You can just put that in bold,” she said. “That would help him out a lot.”