Engineers develop new technologies at Hack U competition

Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 22, 2009

You have 24 hours to design a new computer program or phone application. Get started.

These were the instructions given to 20 engineering students last Friday at the Computer Science and Engineering Building. The students were taking part in Hack U, a 24-hour competition sponsored by Yahoo! that challenges college students across the country to design new technologies, or hacks.

This is the first time Hack U has come to the University of Michigan since the competition started three years ago.

Evan Goer, Yahoo! community manager and developer, said Hack U gives students “the chance to take an idea and run with it.”

“We want them to actually create an interesting prototype,” Goer said, “dive into an interesting product and just build that hack in an environment where they have people around them from (the) industry.

“We bring superstar engineers around to the college campuses, and they’re able to talk very bluntly to student audiences about what different Web technology can do for you,” he said.

Goer was referring to engineers like Rasmus Lerdorf, Yahoo! employee and inventor of PHP — a computer language for Web pages — who lectured in College of Engineering classes the week leading up to the event.

Lerdorf and other Yahoo! engineers were made available to help students during the competition. When students work on projects like the ones in the competition, Lerdorf said there’s usually no one around to help them when they run into roadblocks, which isn’t the case with students in Hack U.

“When we have engineers standing right here over their shoulder getting them unstuck, it becomes a very intense 24-hour session where they keep banging away at it,” Lerdorf said.

LSA junior Majd Taby and Engineering junior Bryan Summersett, who created a location-based alarm for cell phones, stayed awake for 35 hours to build their hack. Instead of an alarm set for a specific time, their application sends a text message reminder to the phone based on its geographical location.

“Lets say you’re traveling on a long-distance trip, and you want to remember to take your passport,” Taby said. “When you leave the house, it will send you a text reminding you to take it.”

Other hacks developed in the competition included a program that reads e-mails to you by calling a number over the phone and a system that sends a text to your cell phone with the number of parking spots left in a specific parking lot.

Goer said the real benefit of competitions like Hack U is that it allows students to escape from their day-to-day routines.

“Computer science majors and engineers get lots of homework, and they have to study, and they do all these tests,” Goer said. “Taking them into this 24-hour pizza-, cola-fueled hack event breaks them out of that environment and allows them to collaborate with students that they might not interact with normally and think about problems in ways that they might not ordinarily do.”

University alum Chris Yeh, head of Yahoo!’s developer network, said Yahoo! sometimes hires students it finds at Hack U competitions, pointing out that many of the skills students use to build hacks are the same skills Yahoo! employees need for Web development.

“That’s one of the reasons why we love being here,” Yeh said. “Because it gives us the chance to know some students.”

LSA senior Brandon Kwaselow took first place and will advance to the International University Hack Days competition in Sunnyvale, Calif. this summer.

His winning hack — an iPhone application that uses Yahoo! maps — can be used to find places of interest like restaurants, parks and schools.

While Kwaselow said he was thrilled to receive first place after working on the hack for 24 hours straight, Kwaselow said the first thing he was going to do was take a long nap.

Lerdorf said despite the fact that it’s a competition, winning Hack U “isn’t all that important.”

“The point is to get the students thinking about Web technologies and getting them out of the academic routine a little bit,” he said. “To take some of all this knowledge and apply it and build something.”