Programmers’ Paradise

Annual student hackathon returns to Santa Cruz

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Over three days, hackers were hard at work developing their programs. Photo by Brandon Saglam

Friday evening witnessed a legion of 450 coders, hackers, programmers, engineers and techies amass into an unkempt column marching through Stevenson College.

Equipped with paper bowls filled with pizza in one hand and laptops in the other, teams of experienced and novice tech lovers from UC Santa Cruz, community colleges and even middle schools participated in UCSC’s 7th annual three-day CruzHacks event on the weekend of Jan. 17.

The hackathon is one of the largest student-run events at UCSC, receiving hundreds of applicants each year.

“It’s really good for building a sense of community, especially in the STEM field at this university,” said Kelly Fesler, communications lead of the organizing team of UCSC students that set up and hosted CruzHacks 2020. “It gives students an opportunity to apply skills they learned inside the classroom to concepts outside the classroom that they might not have previously considered.”

Despite heavy use of the term “hacking,” this hackathon is anything but malicious. CruzHacks empowers tech lovers to bring their creative aspirations to life in a supportive environment complete with fellow programmers and accomplished mentors.

“Hacking itself has a negative connotation in the media, with people associating hacking with what I like to call a ‘black hat hacker,’ or somebody who’s hacking to exploit something or someone,” Fesler said. “The hacking we celebrate is more of creative hacking, where you come in with nothing but an idea, and by the end of the weekend you have a full-fledged product that you can demo.”

Thirty-eight hours of relentless hacking is all the time the hackers had to code their technological conceptions into reality. Bands of participants moved in and out of the hive that was the Stevenson Event Center to nearby classrooms full of industrious hackers.

A late-night peek into the Stevenson Fireside Lounge would reveal a bonhomie of hackers stretched out on armchairs working on their laptops or stepping over scattered sleeping bags to throw away another empty can of yerba mate. Looking into the oversized windows of Stevenson College’s Senior Commons, one could see packs of programmers discussing their project ideas or in the corner working in stoic silence.

Participants had the opportunity to meet with multiple guest booths from companies such as Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Major League Hacking. Photo by Brandon Saglam

“No one’s built for sleep deprivation, but us programmers are night owls — we’re up late into the night, fueling ourselves with caffeine,” said Jennifer Dutra, co-president of the organizing team. “A lot of these people will not end up with a prize or get a job right as they finish. They already have so much homework in the middle of the school year, but they’re taking their free weekend to develop their technical skills. Their drive is what really impresses me.”

Judges drifted through the avenues of tables supporting participants’ digital presentations — ranking their completed projects for the hackathon’s closing awards ceremony. Mentors, sponsor representatives, members of the organizing team and other participants also checked out the 64 submitted projects.

From an app that creates tailor-made meal recommendations for its users to an educational website that teaches financial literacy to youth, a variety of projects were submitted by the participants.

Some projects were light-hearted, like Trump Runs for 2020, a side-scrolling game featuring a silly cartoon of President Trump. Other projects were more serious, such as AmberDash, an app that scans plates of nearby cars when an Amber Alert is received.

“None of us attended CruzHacks specifically to win,” said UCSC second-year Julian Lehrer from Transparency Project. “We were legitimately having fun with building a nice website, fiddling with data and making it look pretty for personal satisfaction.”

While the host of hackers left behind their discarded cans of energy drinks and echoing clamor at Stevenson College, their spirited energy for CruzHacks continues to impact UCSC’s hacking community.

“It’s pretty amazing to be out here working in the forest, and Santa Cruz students tend to have a certain vibe of being ambitious, but more relaxed and not intensely competitive,” said Jennifer Dutra, co-president of the organizing team. “People here are trying to help one another, and I’ve seen school environments where people are tearing each other down or looking to one-up the other person. Many schools have this cutthroat environment, but CruzHacks truly is different.”

Click here to view all of the projects submitted at CruzHacks 2020