Four Reasons Why The hackNY Kids Are Really Smart

HackNY founders

[credit provider=”Photo by Elena Olivio (c) NYU”]

It was the special, sunny brand of Saturday that hasn’t visited our city in a long, long while. After a freakish winter of record meteorological insanity, we finally got an off day with the sun over our heads.  Walking from Union Square to Washington Square Park, Manhattan was simply beaming – flush with rare gratitude for good weather and the promise of more to come.

But in the mathematical sciences building at New York University, over 150 college students from all over the Eastern Seaboard weren’t sporting shorts and sunglasses, or clutching frisbees and picnic baskets for a leisurely weekend in the park.

Clad in hoodies and startup-logo-peppered T-shirts a full military company of twentysomethings had surrendered the first nice weekend we’ve gotten in forever to stare at a computer screen for 20 hours straight, load up on caffeine and voluntarily march through a marathon of coding and creating put on each semester by hackNY.

By bus from Pennsylvania and Providence, by train from Hoboken and Boston, hackNY’s Spring 2011 Hackathon drew gaggles of budding designers, technologists and entrepreneurs from the best and brightest East Coast institutions to surrender that gorgeous weekend to create some big over a 24 hour marathon bender of business disruption.

I had the good fortune to see these prodigies trade sunny weather for Internet wonder as an engineer at Boxee and proud(er) member of the New York tech scene alongside hackers repping Etsy, FourSquare, Tumblr, Trendrr, Fluidinfo, HyperPublic, 10gen (MongoDB), Nodejitsu, StackExchange, Yipit, Aviary, Fridge and GetGlue.  Serving as startup Ambassadors, we got to be the ones watching the frantic keytapping to make a deadline for a change and – I’m here to tell you – it was something to see.

As the curtains closed and the students started to crash, many came up to exclaim how much they learned about making the Internet go in such a short amount of time.  Sharing their desperate need for a bed and some peace and quiet, I neglected to share what I learned:

These kids are alright.  Here are four reasons why: 

1) They already self-identify as entrepreneurs.

hackNY’s hackathon attendees didn’t refer to themselves as Comp Sci majors or seniors from NYU Poly.

Even before they graduate, they are striking out to build real products.  Just look at their Twitter profiles. Adit Shukla (@aditshukla) doesn’t throw up his Greek letters; he bills himself Creative Director of Two Toasters, a couture app outfit built with his brother Rachit.  Ayaka Nonaka (@ayanonagon) doesn’t post as class president but as co-creator of and organiser of a Rails group.

These kids are jumping into the startup scene headfirst and aren’t waiting to walk on Graduation Day to get started.

2) They shoot free throws until 5am.

It’s easy to get hyperbolic about a student’s dedication when they pull an all-nighter on a school-sponsored trip to New York.  Clearly, a hackathon is going to be an exceptional occasion and probably not the best indicator of a student’s work ethic.  But, spend a little time with these talented youth and you start to see how deep their determination goes.  Most of the student hackers I met over the weekend had three or more public repositories on GitHub.  Several had over 1,000 repoutation on StackOverflow.  And nearly every project demoed was powered by a NoSQL backend.

They don’t teach Sinatra at Penn.  They don’t teach WebGL at Brown.  These students are putting in the extra hours after a day spent learning the fundamentals to apply them on top of the trends that will govern their careers. 

3) They are not afraid to fail.

Around 11pm, a student named Andres Campanella Pinzon pulled me from conspiring with some of the other “grownups” to pitch me on his idea.  His partner had bailed on the project, but his enthusiasm was still radiating and he, at least, thought it was golden. So golden, in fact, we had to find a quiet hallway far from any eavesdropping ears to hear it.  The idea spilled out of his mouth almost faster than his lips could pronounce them.  It was doable, used a number New York APIs, and had was pretty funny.  It also wouldn’t be used by a single human being other than him, and I gently told him so.

Undeterred, he kept hacking away.  Around 1am, he ran into the common Oauth speedbump for one of the APIs critical to his idea.  After working with him for a couple more hours, I got him over that hump and a couple others, leaving him at 3am certain that he wasn’t nearly far enough along to get the hack completed by demo time.

The deadline came and Andres had barely gotten his project Mugshot over the finish line.  He then delivered the handsdown most entertaining pitch of the day for this barely working app no one will ever use.

But the judges came back with a fun award for his effort and as we all parted company at day’s end, he mentioned he even got a job offer.

Over those 24 hours, Andres probably had a couple dozen opportunities to throw in the towel.  But he didn’t.

And the building was full of dozens like them.  Fear of failure is the biggest cause of failure in the startup business, and I don’t think there was a shred of it in the fibres of any in attendance.

4) If we work hard enough, we won’t lose them to the banks – or worse – Silicon Valley.

Out of the 24 hacks that were presented, only 2 were explicitly commercial.  Among the social games, mobile apps, and location services that remained, very few had obvious monetization but nearly all had obvious use.  The Free Food map of Columbia University, the Hunch/Netflix movie recommender, the client-side Javascript machine learning library, the WebGL photo manipulation demo, the 4chan reCAPTCHA hack – the stuff these kids were creating are meant to solve interesting problems, not make billions of dollars.

It is incumbent upon us in the New York tech scene to build endeavours worthy of this spirit.  We must create environments where these students can bring their ingenuity and enthusiasm to bear on real problems for real people.  We must create products in which we can integrate their algorithms for serving customers instead of swapping securities.  

They want to build something awesome.  And they want to build it here in New York.  All we got to do let them.

Inspired by this remarkable group of young people, I know that job continues for me tomorrow morning, bright and early.