Robbie Short

From 6 p.m. on Friday through 8 a.m. on Sunday, the main gymnasium of Payne Whitney was teeming with a new crowd of athletes: hackers.

One thousand four hundred tech students, along with representatives from more than 30 sponsors and 60 Yale volunteers, settled in for one weekend of brainstorming, coding, rap battles and dance-offs. The gym was transformed into a hub of innovative tech activity, with long tables stretching all the way from the front to the back, lined with hundreds of glowing computer screens. Participants were also provided with materials to support them through hours of coding such as air mattresses, fleece blankets and a gigantic snack booth at the front of the room. In its third year, YHack has progressively grown from just over 1,000 competitors last year to over 1,400.

“We think the hackathon is a really cool competition, but it’s really about bringing a community together who loves to build things and get their hands dirty,” said Kevin Tan ’16, co-director of YHack 2015.

Once students had been welcomed by the opening ceremonies, the room filled with the sound of fingers on keyboards and the buzz of conversations. Students worked in teams of four to create any project of their choosing. The final products ranged from augmented reality viewers to location-based storytelling apps.   

In attendance were students of all global and technological backgrounds. International hacking experts worked alongside beginning CS50 students. Connor Dube ’19, one such first-time hacker, decided to come to YHack in the hopes of gaining valuable coding experience, he said.

“I’m here because I want to try comp sci,” Dube said. “I’ve never done it before this semester — I’m in CS50 right now.”

This year, the YHack planners said they took advantage of the popularity of CS50 and appealed specifically to CS50 students, encouraging them to attend simply by announcing the event in a CS50 lecture.

“I think [YHack and CS50] is a cool integration because [CS50 students] … learn basic programming and some technical web development, and those are super useful in hackathons,” Tan said.

In addition to 36 hours of coding, the event offered hackers an opportunity to interact with companies interested in recruiting tech students. In the center of the room was a long corridor of vender booths, staffed by representatives from over 30 companies, including Microsoft, Intel, Facebook and PayPal.

This year, YHack also hosted companies not well-known for tech, such as The Huffington Post, JetBlue and Bloomberg. Interviewed representatives from many of these companies said they came to YHack to reach out to tech students and dispel assumptions that they weren’t interested in hiring tech workers.

“We’re looking for sharp new talent,” said Michael Steppagious, a representative from The Huffington Post. “We’ve gotten a lot of questions at this event about why Huffington Post is [at YHack], we don’t seem to be a tech company, but in fact our tech team is a big part of what The Huffington Post is.”

Despite the fact that YHack is only in its third year, it has grown to be one of the largest and most prominent hackathons in the country, said Tan who co-directs the event with Jason Brooks ’16 and 60 volunteers. He added that YHack is so well-known that his team receives messages from prospective students, citing YHack as one of the main reasons why they are interested in coming to Yale.

YHack planners expressed that in addition to appealing to prospective students, they hope that YHack has the ability to change the overall reputation of Yale’s computer science curriculum.

“I think Yale has a bad reputation in tech that’s very misguided … I actually think [Yale’s tech program] is very good in a lot of ways,” said Robert Tung ’18, director of sponsorship for YHack. “Given that the interest in tech itself is growing, [YHack] perpetuates that and feeds off of that, so it’s a nice cycle.”

The winning group and recipient of the $3,000 grand prize was “Check Me Out,” creators of augmented reality goggles that instantly match a face in view to a person and their Facebook profile.