Mike Ross, a Quicken Loans security guard, stood watch in the elevator lobby of the seventh floor of the Qube building in Detroit on Saturday afternoon. Ross had heard of hackathons before the weekend, he said, but this was his first time interacting with one.
Ross stood tall, watching a constant trickle of hackers and organizers go from side rooms to the main hall elevator. He wasn’t a hacker, but he stood in one of the best places to watch the event.
Saturday afternoon was the halftime of MHacks — the midpoint — the make-or-break time, when more than 1,000 hackers got an idea of whether they’d be ready to present at Sunday’s wrap-up celebration or have to accept that their ambitions were too big.
“I wish I could say energetic,” Ross said of the atmosphere, and pointed to the “dozen people crashed on the floor,” in the main hall.
The kids that haven’t burnt out are zeroed in on their computer screens.
“They work, work, work and crash,” Ross said.
He wasn’t kidding. Walking through the main hall occupied by a few hundred hackers meant stepping over pillows, suitcases, sleeping bags and sleeping college kids.
If you haven’t heard of MHacks, here’s what you need to know: There’s 36 hours to write a program or make an innovation, hundreds of students and an abundance of caffeine. It’s part competition, part collaborative learning and part party.
The main hall of the seventh floor embodied the hackathon spirit. It might have been a large office space for an online retail mortgage lender, but there was no beige or gray. Brightly colored columns punctuated the rows of tables taken over by hackers and the walls were covered with white boards where teams argued over scrawled ideas or bored hackers sketched out their school’s logo.
And there, creativity did come, but often at the expense of sleep, hygiene and fashion — sweatpants and pajamas make for more efficient hacking.
But on Saturday afternoon, when competitors rested their heads on crossed arms and drooled on the table, the creativity was at a lull.
The real start of MHacks came before the Friday kickoff. Competitors aren’t allowed to present projects they’ve previously worked on and they’re encouraged to come up with fresh ideas. The real start of MHacks came in the past couple weeks when those fresh ideas began to percolate.
A few days before Friday, Matt Kula, a computer science major from DePaul University, was Facebook chatting with his team, one DePaul student and two from the University of Michigan.
“It was a joke, honestly. But they took it seriously,” Kula said on Saturday of the idea he had proposed.
“That was a great idea,” Engineering sophomore James Kotzian said, surprised. “I thought it was a sweet idea.”
The team went along with it and by Saturday afternoon, they had built a functioning three-dimensional Quidditch simulator.
“You can get motion sickness pretty easy doing some barrel rolls,” Kula said. “It’s crazy.”
To play the game, the Quidditch player puts on a pair of 3D goggles hooked up to the computer and straddles a stick with a Wii remote taped to its end, twisting and leaning to fly their broomstick in a recreation of the stadium made famous by the “Harry Potter” book series.
Kula said it was a good thing his teammates didn’t pick up on his original sarcasm.
“We really expected to take this much longer,” he said. “Anything we do now is kinda a plus.”
The group acknowledged that there are some pretty competitive hackers at these events, but most students, including them, come to learn and try new things. DePaul doesn’t have the large hacking scene that the University does, Kula said, meaning hackathons can be a time of immersive learning.
Nonetheless, the team knows they’ve built something good.
“I still wanna win, but … ” Kula said, trailing off. There’s more than just winning and losing, he explained. There’s resumé building and there’s interacting with other hackers from across the country.
His team, for instance, was formed after Kula met some University student at the MHacks hackathon in November.
Plus, there were plenty of ways to blow off steam. A break room adjacent to the main hall had a Pacman arcade game, ICEE machine and foosball table — among other amenities.
A block away, however, a team from the State University of New York at Stony Brook was powering through programming an annoying alarm clock for your phone, although their surroundings weren’t as ideal: two floors of an unfinished office building hastily fitted for the event.
Concrete floors, bare walls and temporary fluorescent lights gave off an industrial vibe at best. And this vibe was amplified when compared to the Qube’s eighth floor, which had views of Windsor’s skyline across the river and ice skating at Campus Martius Park. But at least both locations were only a quick walk away from Lafayette Coney Island, home of the world’s most heavenly Coney dog.
Nonetheless, the Stony Brook team continued coding the app, which was designed for people who have trouble waking up early in the morning, or, colloquially speaking, college students.
Team member Ted Saintvil called it the “dreaded eight o’clock class,” and the three New York students pointed at the fourth member of their team whose head was slumped down on the desk in sleep.
This team, too, noted that there were some people who take the competition very seriously, but those people are the exception, not the rule.
“You come here to do what you want to,” Kenneth Ramos said. “I come for the experience.”
Besides, Ramos said, the biggest competition was for when new rounds of food were distributed. “You ever see a Walmart on Black Friday?” Ramos said.
But regardless if you’re a first-time hacker or a seasoned pro looking for recognition, nobody gets much sleep.
“What is that — sleep?” Ramos joked.
None of Ramos’s team had more than four hours of sleep, and even that’s considered a good night’s sleep at hackathons.
Kula, despite having the luxury of carpeting in his building, only laid down for two hours.
“I don’t sleep at these things,” he said. “Too much going on for me to sleep.”
In the end, sleep-deprived or not, the teams all had memorable experiences. Some came away with full, functioning products they had planned for all along. Others … not so much. While Stony Brook didn’t place in the top eight, Kula’s team and their Quidditch simulator placed second overall. Both teams, though, left the event as better programmers. And that’s what it’s really all about.