Coding Contests

Hackathons. Python. LaTeX. Foursquare. These names sounds like they’re part of another world, and in some sense they are—the world of Rutgers–New Brunswick sophomores Joshua Matthews and Kaitlin Poskaitis, two computer science students who have teamed up to participate in computer programming competitions known as hackathons. 


A mix of contest and networking event—and most definitely a learning experience—hackathons let eager coders like Josh and Katie hone their skills by building software applications on deadline and presenting demos of their handiwork. The events are open-ended, freewheeling affairs with coders thinking up—and creating—new apps for smartphones, tablets, and computers. The timeframe is tight, too—typically just 24 or 48 hours.

“It’s a great learning experience,” says Josh. “It’s a competition, but there are people to help you out the whole time. And it’s pretty collaborative. You have an incentive to work with other people to get things done faster and better.”

The setup varies from one hackathon to another, but often there are lots of desks, couches, and chairs, with coders working in teams wherever they can find a spot. It’s not quiet, either. “It’s pretty loud until people start falling asleep, basically,” Katie says. And when’s that? “Two or three in the morning.”

Though the term hacker is often associated with illegal activity, hackathons are entirely legit, sponsored by the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, as well as scores of startup companies from the vibrant technology hubs in New York City and Silicon Valley. As an article at the technology blog TechCrunch put it, “Participating in Hackathons Is the Best Way to Become Pitch Perfect for VCs”—a reference to the venture capitalists who fund fledgling technology firms.


Because of Rutgers’ easy access to New York, Rutgers students have a bounty of hackathons available to them with names like Photo Hack Day and Sustainability Hackathon, as well as Rutgers’ own HackRU event. The companies sponsoring these events benefit by putting their services and technology in front of programmers, while the participants benefit by testing their skills on a tight deadline and working with mentors from leading firms.

“The first time I went, it did not go so well,” Katie admits. “There wasn’t any sleeping.”

But by teaming up, Josh and Katie earned a second place at last spring’s HackRU for a project to generate a laser visualization—yes, something like a laser show—of songs from an MP3 player.

Both Josh and Katie learned about hackathons from student colleagues at Open System Solutions—part of Central Systems and Services at Rutgers. The two of them work at Open System Solutions, where they help to maintain and update software on university computers and adapt open-source software for Rutgers systems. “It’s real-world experience,” says Josh, something he knows employers value. “I can show there are projects that I’ve worked on.”