The Smoke Signal, MSJ's Official Newspaper


Hackathon Series #3: An Insider’s Look at Hack Gen Y


By: Staff Writer Harshita Gupta


On a hazy Saturday morning, 449 high schoolers and I packed into NestGSV headquarters in Redwood City to kick off 36 charged hours of collaboration, inspiration, learning, and pure fun. On January 24, Hacking Generation Y (Hack Gen Y) brought together students from the ages of 14 to 18, put us in one building, and watched us prove the motto that “age is only an integer.”

Our day began with a diverse group of over 15 keynote speakers, who reminded the hackers of their power as young minds in a creative space. Venmo software developer Cassidy Williams talked about creating enthusiasm by combining your passions and values.  UnCollege’s Jon Gordon stressed social and emotional awareness to create lives around causes you care about. Google executive David Weekly emphasized using the Internet as a synthesis of human and machine intelligence, a pool of all human knowledge– backed up by code that can extract from it in seconds. I could write an article about each powerful idea presented in that hour, but the simple takeaway is that when you have convictions and want to empower real change, very little can stand in your way. Learning to build things, while maintaining the humanity and thoughtfulness behind creation, is empowering. The keynote speakers set the euphoria of invincibility that characterized the next day and a half. A crashing app meant practicing debugging; a complex system requirement meant attending a workshop to learn something new. When you decide you’re going to accomplish something at a hackathon, there isn’t much that can stop you.

What the keynote speakers emphasized, the next 36 hours proved. I saw hacks that made travelling safer, that improved YouTube streaming times, and that assisted during earthquake crises. I met passionate and driven people from all over the world– 20 of Hack Gen Y’s attendees were international, hailing from Israel to Guatemala to New Zealand. All the students present were in the same space because they wanted to work hard and build something that they cared about. We not only challenged each other to grow technologically, but exposed ourselves to new mentalities and ways of living. Every product had a wide range of perspectives and experiences that contributed to its development– the international perspective, the female perspective, and the cross-cultural perspective. The hacks there weren’t just amalgams of complex jargon and obscure code, they were built to serve normal people in their everyday living.

Hack Gen Y made sure that all the attendees had role models and mentors they could look up to and emulate in their project efforts. I met a fellow from the Thiel Foundation, Alex Koren, who is working on monetization alternates to advertisement in mobile applications. The Thiel Foundation pays students with startup ideas to drop out of school and focus on their work, their research, and their self-education. Koren dropped out of college when he was 17 and took his future into his own hands. He is currently 19 and working on his startup, Hyv. Make School, another similar gap-year program, teaches students to build iOS apps and websites, puts them in internships, and gets them a job in two years. The mentors and representatives from groups like the Thiel Foundation and Make School emphasized creation and experience-based learning over theoretical learning, and encouraged students at Hack Gen Y to believe in the power of their ability to disrupt the norm and revolutionize change.

Hack Gen Y was a place for all experience levels and interests. Workshops on web development, app design, and game design gave novices a crash course of the basics they would need to build a product over the weekend. Machine learning and API demo sessions allowed a look into many of the unique applications of computing, and talks on behavioral economics and “hacking cross-culture” offered twists in perspective and interesting conversations. There was something for everyone– I got a chance to develop applications for Muse Headbands, brain-activity-sensing headbands that are being used to improve mental health. I saw people build software for smart watches, Google Glasses, and Arduino microcontrollers– devices that are hard to get ahold of but were in abundance at Hack Gen Y’s hardware hack stations.

Hack Gen Y established global connections, made a number of beginners fall in love with building, and led to some really great hacks. Jeremy Rossman, founder of Make School, affirmed that the creations at Hack Gen Y were at the same level as those of major collegiate hackathons, like HackMIT and MHacks. A point worth noting is that over half of Hack Gen Y’s attendees were at their first hackathon that weekend.

HS Hacks II, from February 7-8, is carrying on its legacy as one of the largest and most exciting high school hackathons, at 1,200 attendees. It’ll be a big crowd in a big space, with the biggest and best ideas. Make sure that yours is one of them.


Read about how MSJ students performed here.

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