Why Hack?

Why Hack?
A night at Yale's premier hackathon

Published on December 15, 2016

4:15 p.m.

It’s late in a brisk autumn afternoon in New Haven, and I’m on my way to Payne Whitney Gymnasium to observe what, for me, is the pinnacle of Yale’s annual events. Forget about the Halloween Show, the holiday dinner and Spring Fling. YHack — Yale’s annual hackathon — is where it’s at.

Spread out over several days, hackathons bring together programmers to collaborate and complete projects in a “sprint,” typically with the aid of caffeine and pizza and the goal of winning prizes and glory. They’ve long been a staple of startup culture in Silicon Valley — Facebook, for instance, has organized regular hackathons since 2007, as well as unofficial, informal ones since its founding in 2004 — and over the past several years, they’ve continued to grow in popularity, especially on college campuses.

(Robbie Short)

At Yale, hackathons have been part of the scene since 2012, when a group of students who called themselves the Yale Hackers organized a mini-hackathon that attracted just 35 people. One participant later said the experience “wasn’t great,” according to TechCrunch. The next year, YHack — renamed and revamped — drew nearly 1,000 students from the U.S., Canada and England to West Campus. And this year, the fourth iteration of YHack drew 1,500 participants from around the world to PWG, where hackers took over the Lanman Center and turned it into something that would have looked more at home at Stanford than at bookish, gothic Yale.

But my hometown is not far from Stanford, so I’m fairly familiar with that particular brand of techie culture. On my walk to PWG, I reflect on my experience of YHack last year, when I also went just to observe.

My principal recollection of last year’s event was of a pervasive energy — a not-unpleasant thrumming that appeared to both radiate from and sustain the hundreds of hackers, who were, with the exception of a few nappers, always busy typing away. I spent dusk to dawn at YHack last year, eventually retreating from Lanman to try to get some work done and passing out on PWG’s sixth floor around 3 a.m.

I do not plan to spend the night this time (PWG’s floors don’t do much for your back), but, seeing the sun begin to set over Broadway just before I enter, I guess I should expect something similar this year. And, 24 hours later, that’s about what I’d got.

(Robbie Short)

(Robbie Short)

5:24 p.m.
After dropping off my stuff along one of Lanman’s edges, I set up a tripod and spend about an hour walking around, getting photos of the hackers. Probably because my camera rig is quite large, I get a lot of looks — most curious, some slightly annoyed — which I find interesting. I begin to feel self-conscious — something to do with being turned into an object of interest by one’s objects of interest. But this is CS, so I try not to over-intellectualize it.

6:05 p.m.
Still walking around, I run into a friend, a known CS major at Yale, and ask him if he’s participating in the hackathon. “Not really,” he says. “I’m supposed to be. I just took a nap.” Apparently, one of the perks of participating in a hackathon, for college students, is getting universities to fund travel to different host campuses. This friend has some high school buddies in town, ostensibly for YHack, but “really, to party.” One part of me feels that this practice does a disgrace to the sanctity of YHack. Another, though, feels something akin to respect. Way to chip away at the ivory tower, you know?

7:02 p.m.
Dinner is delivered, courtesy of Brick Oven Pizza. Dinner for 1,500 consists of more boxes of pizza than I have ever seen — both at one time and collectively, in my life — except at YHack last year. Several floor-to-ceiling stacks of boxes quickly disperse to all corners of Lanman. I get excited by the prospect of infinite pizza, eat five slices and have to lie on the floor for a bit to recover.

The Super Smash Bros. tournament. (Robbie Short)

(Robbie Short)

8:17 p.m.
Somewhat restored, I get up and walk over to the elevator and take it to Lanman’s upper level, where event organizers have started the annual Super Smash Bros. tournament. The scene is exactly what you’d expect. Wide eyes directed all at one screen. Button-mashing, not quite in sync but also not cacophonous in its harmony. Cheers that seem excessively loud to an observer not following the action. Picture it: A middle school boy’s sleepover relocated to a collegiate gym.

10:42 p.m.
Another friend drops by Payne Whitney to visit me during my quest. She’s never been to YHack, but listened to me hype it up enough to agree, perhaps somewhat begrudgingly, to attend its signature event: the Saturday-night rap battle. This is, in my opinion, the most underrated event in the Ivy League — even more underrated than YHack itself. These nerds are good. I’ve never heard a crowd erupt more at a diss than the rap battle audience does to a rhyme one competitor spits about his opponent’s GitHub. (Yeah, I don’t get it, either. But the atmosphere! You gotta love it.)

The rap battle. (Robbie Short)

12:33 a.m.

After watching the end of the rap battle and taking a short walk around the main floor of Lanman — during which I act as a sort of tour guide, pointing out to my friend the YHack detritus of sleeping bags, Red Bull pyramids and dead eyes — my friend and I decide to try to get some schoolwork done. My enthusiasm for YHack, though strong as ever, isn’t going to impress McKinsey. We decide to work upstairs, on the elevated track that runs along the perimeter of Lanman, where organizers have spread hundreds of communal air mattresses for YHackers who need a little shuteye during the 36-hour sprint. We each claim a mattress and settle in. We agree to work for a few hours, then head out.

12:44 a.m.
I pass out on my mattress.

(Robbie Short)

7:37 a.m.
The sound of someone walking past my head wakes me up. I look around, trying to collect myself, and see that my friend is still asleep a few feet away. I later learn she only lasted a half hour longer than I did the night before. I get up and look down at the floor of Lanman. It hits me that I am still at YHack.

(Robbie Short)

8:02 a.m.
While I’m still trying to process, my friend wakes up. She goes through the same awakening as I did a few minutes ago — disorientation, shock, denial and finally stunned realization — and then looks at me. “What the fuck?”

8:21 a.m.
We decide that we need to leave YHack immediately. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, do not stop to pick up a muffin. Okay, we pick up a couple of muffins. When we emerge from PWG, it’s been more than 16 hours since I entered the building. The sun is up. It’s another brisk day. My friend and I walk to York Street, saying little, then part ways to return to our respective colleges. Just a normal walk of shame for two. We will debrief about the experience some days later, but in the cold November morning, all I can think is: What the fuck?

8:46 a.m.
I make it back to my suite. My addled brain decides the best way to continue processing the experience is to sleep on it some more, so I change and get into bed. When I wake around noon, I realize I can still make it to YHack’s closing presentation of projects.

I opt not to. YHack continues, but my experience of it does not — at least not for the next 8,724 hours, after which YHack, and I, will be back.

(Robbie Short)


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