Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Student-Run Hackathon Brings Top University Computer Science Talent to Michigan

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Michigan Hackers compete at the PennApps Hackathon in Philadelphia earlier in January. Michigan hackers placed a number of teams in the Top 20 (photo courtesy of Shiva Kilaru).

An anticipated 500 student hackers from across the country and Canada will converge on Ann Arbor this weekend for MHacks, a two-day hackathon organized by University of Michigan student groups Michigan Hackers and MPowered Entrepreneurship. During the 36-hour competition, students will build web and mobile applications, engage in technical sessions, and vie for over $10,000 in prizes.

The idea for MHacks emerged as Michigan students traveled to other hackathons across the country, including PennApps at the University of Pennsylvania. 47 U-M students competed at the most recent PennApps in January, the highest showing from any institution other than the host, and four Michigan teams took top prizes. MHacks organizers believe their event is now poised to overtake PennApps for the title of largest college hackathon.

According to David Fontenot, MHacks director and Michigan Engineering sophomore, "Hackathons were really defining for me. When I started at Michigan, I thought I was going to major in business. Now I'm pursuing computer science. The learning you do at a hackathon is unrivaled; you can't match that in a classroom. I want more students in the Midwest to have that experience."

Fontenot and fellow U-M students Raj Vir and Shiva Kilaru won the award for Most Viral App at PennApps in October 2012 for "Hack My Facebook," the app that posts humorous content to a Facebook status to make it seem as though someone else has taken control of the account. Their hack received some high profile recognition, including by TIME’s Techland blog, and they were invited to participate in the Hackathon Finals at Facebook headquarters last November.

MHacks kicks off Friday, February 1 at 9:00pm with keynote remarks. Then it’s a day and a half of hacking, defined as fun, exploratory programming. Students form teams, conceptualize a "hack," and develop a working prototype of that idea by the end of the weekend. There are no specific prompts given, but branded prizes offered by sponsoring companies will guide many teams' projects. Event sponsors, such as Andreesen Horowitz, Raytheon, and Facebook, will send engineers to hold technology talks and to mentor students as they work on their hacks.

"Facebook is excited to partner with MHacks to bring the tradition of hackathon to the Midwest at a huge scale. We hope to continue to support the hacker community, and give students a place to work together and build something awesome," says Facebook recruiter Will Barnett.

The event culminates on Sunday, February 3 with a project expo and awards ceremony from 11:00 am – 2:00 pm at U-M's Palmer Commons. In addition to first, second, and third-place prizes, nearly twenty branded prizes will be awarded. The winner of MHacks will receive invitations to compete at the Global Facebook Hackathon Finals, the Greylock Hack Fest, the Launch Hackathon, and HackNY.

Michigan-based economic development organizations and startup companies will be on hand to speak to students about opportunities within the state. MHacks organizers say they view the hackathon as an opportunity to showcase U-M’s software engineers and growing hacker scene, as well as to introduce student talent from other universities to Michigan-based companies.

'We want to establish U-M as one of the top computer science and hacker schools in the country and Michigan as a cool place for young people to come work," says Fontenot. "Michigan is at a turning point – the tech startup culture is starting to take over here."

Story by: Amy Goldstein, Center for Entrepreneurship

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Posted: January 29, 2013