‘There is a huge chunk of this campus that just wants to make something cool’
You’re a first-year undergraduate in computer science. Your coding skills aren’t great (yet), but what you lack in knowledge, you make up for with hard work and enthusiasm. When you see posters advertising a “hackathon,” you decide to check it out.
You arrive to find small groups of students have already broken off into teams. They glance in your direction, and then turn back to their laptops. None introduce themselves. No one offers to help. You’re intimidated. You slink out, dejected, wondering if you’ve made a mistake in choosing your major.
That’s exactly the scenario that TartanHacks—CMU’s relatively new series of coding competitions—is trying to avoid.
It’s also helping to push Carnegie Mellon students out of what recent graduate Amy Quispe (CS’13), a co-founder of ScottyLabs, TartanHacks’ parent organization, describes as “a rut in terms of how they think about building things.”
At CMU, argues Quispe, “there are certain ways that are viewed as ‘acceptable’ to how you use your time, like going to classes, TA’ing, or doing research. It’s the way people at CMU are taught to think.” In that atmosphere, hanging out and experimenting to learn new tasks can seem as if you’re “fooling around” or wasting time.
Jeff Cooper, now a senior, noticed it when he joined CMU’s Robotics Club his freshman year. “There were a lot of people who had really cool ideas, and they would start on a project but then end up getting buried in their schoolwork and give up,” he says. “There was this reluctance to get involved in something that wasn’t grade- or academics-focused.”
That’s a barrier to innovation, Quispe argues. “How can you innovate if you don’t realize that you can solve the problems around you?” she says.
ScottyLabs was created for that reason—to solve one of the problems around students such as Quispe and her classmate, Vinay Vemuri (CS’13, E’13). They found CMU’s dining, housing, class scheduling, and bookstore information scattered and difficult to use. In 2011, Vemuri returned from an internship at Google Boston with the idea to create APIs, or application-programming interfaces, that could pull these different data together into easy-to-use formats.
“I don’t know when the brainstorming started, but pretty soon, we really got rolling,” says Cooper, who was recruited by Vemuri from the Robotics Club. “Our feeling was, ‘let’s do this right.’” The trio thought they could write some simple “scraping” scripts and launch “APIs@CMU” by the end of that year.
They were wrong. They hit their first brick wall—the data wasn’t in any format that lent itself to being easily imported. And another—some offices, worried about privacy or security backdoors, didn’t want to share their data with the students.
But as the late Randy Pausch (CS’88) famously said, “Brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.” Fighting administrative red tape only made the students more determined. Pretty soon, their hobby turned into a fully staffed technical project, attracted more students and had a name—“ScottyLabs,” after the university’s Scottish terrier mascot.
As work continued, Vemuri attended a “hackathon” at the University of Pennsylvania. He returned with the conviction that CMU needed to be in the hackathon business, too.
Hackathons—marathon programming sessions where students compete to make something from scratch before a deadline—weren’t unknown to CMU, but they tended to be sponsored by companies. They also tended to be a little cliquish, attracting the same people again and again—those with lots of previous coding experience. “Frankly, it was getting kind of boring,” says Cooper, now director of operations for ScottyLabs. “We started thinking, why not more women? Why not more freshmen?”
The stereotypical “hacker,” they decided, was something like Comic Book Guy from “The Simpsons”—smart but overconfident, and a little anti-social. In other words: Worst. Mentor. Ever.
The ScottyLabs crew decided that a CMU-run hackathon would be different. It would provide a more inviting environment; there would be a competition, sure, but one in which mastering skills, sharing ideas and having fun were as important as “winning.” They reached out and advertised not just to computer science students, but also to first-year students in other undergraduate departments, and to Women@SCS.
And they decided to train people up, providing two days of pre-hackathon sessions, called “Crash Courses,” to introduce “newbies” to techniques they might not already know, on subjects ranging from Ruby on Rails to user interface design, says Drew Inglis, a CSD senior who serves as director of technology for ScottyLabs. Students took turns giving talks. (The “Crash Courses” were popular enough to inspire a spinoff event of their own, called “SkillSwap Weekend,” held in fall 2012. When George Hotz, the first hacker to carrier-unlock Apple’s iPhone and now an SCS undergrad, spoke about security, more than 400 students showed up. “People camped out to hear his presentation,” Quispe says.)
The first 24-hour “TartanHacks” was held in February 2012, and 150 students turned out, many of them with little to no hacking experience. “We kind of nailed it on the first try,” Quispe says, a bit sheepishly. Volunteers—both students and IT professionals—circulated around the room, offering advice and encouragement. “We picked people smart enough to answer the complicated questions, but also people who liked to interact with other people,” Cooper says.
The second-annual TartanHacks, held this past February, was even more successful, attracting nearly 200 people plus support from companies like Dropbox, eBay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!
With the graduation of ScottyLabs founders Quispe and Vemuri, the organization is in the hands of students such as Cooper, Inglis and current ScottyLabs Director Julia Teitelbaum, a senior majoring in information systems and human-computer interaction.
“Growing up, I always liked to make things,” Teitelbaum says, “and not software things, I’m talking like the Pinewood Derby car race—I owned that at our middle school!—and in high school, for example, I needed additional lighting in my room, so I built wall panels.” What she couldn’t learn from her parents or friends about carpentry or wiring, she researched online.
“I was willing to learn what I needed to learn to remove the barriers I faced,” Teitelbaum says. ScottyLabs and TartanHacks help remove barriers other students may face that keep them from innovating, she says.
To that end, ScottyLabs recently absorbed Make CMU, an interdisciplinary space where students can get together to work on their personal projects. “Every week, we hold a hack session, where people can come and work on stuff for three hours—or more, if they want to,” Inglis says. “We’ve had people come and work on hardware, we’ve had people come and work on software. We had someone come and make a block puzzle using a laser cutter.”
Although student groups come and go, ScottyLabs has a core group of 10 people dedicated to keeping it sustainable. “I think we’re in good shape for the future,” Inglis says. The strong interest in maker culture at CMU and in Pittsburgh seems to work in ScottyLabs’ favor as well.
“There is a huge chunk of this campus that just wants to make something cool,” Cooper says.
—Jason Togyer (DC’96) is editor of The Link. His hacks are mostly in the domains of ham radio, model trains and backyard car repair.
Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 | firstname.lastname@example.org