01/12/2015 03:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Clash of Codes: Hack UCSC 2015

2015-01-12-outside2.jpg Students looking to form hackathon teams.
John Raedeke via UCSC

The staffers at the registration desk of HACK UCSC 2015 looked frantic. A line of hopeful students stretched out at least one hundred feet. The draw of $80,000 in prizes probably helped in selling every single $20 ticket of the 350 available. Hack UCSC 2015's turnout blew expectations -- especially considering it was only the second incarnation of the competition. Known technological innovators, like Plantronics, waited inside an auditorium that would morph into a bumper-car ride of techies. A 'geeky' programmer filled every corner -- but now-a-days being labeled a programmer is a badge of honor.

This year there was an organized push to bring more diversity to the hackathon. Partly because the previous year had less than 10 female participants -- fortunately this year had over 80. "We have women t-shirts," HACK UCSC organizer Mark Adams told me "It's a minor detail but a thing that a lot of hackathon's just don't do." Unfortunately the sign up process did not ask for the participant's gender to generate a statistic.

Adams -- a founder of HACK UCSC (and former UCSC student) -- took the stage to share the ground rules. Teams were to be no larger than five, pre-written code has to be open-source and "you have to use GitHub." Adams assured me that the "Github repo lets us see if you use pre-written code." Students had three categories to design for: 'Innovation' (newer concepts), 'AgTech' (agricultural technology), and 'TechCares' (a product with a positive social impact). Sleeping bags were welcome, after all this hackathon was an "overnighter."

Many students still had to find a team to join -- but some had come with friends and knew who they were working with. After presentations from sponsors and project visionaries the competition building broke out in chaos. Students swarmed around the various sponsors tables; which offered them products (such as Pebble's smartwatch) to work with.

"I like the wild-westy structure of it." Quentin Lindh, CTO of CityBlooms -- a sponsor and micro-farm startup -- said as we watched the commotion. I paused my interview for the 'AgTech' competitors who kept trickling towards CityBlooms' table. "Everyone's running around and trying to make alliances." After forming those alliances the teams began 'hacking' (coding their project) at 4pm. The hopefuls had a mere 46 hours to finish the project.

By the final day it wasn't hard to catch students rubbing their eyes. It was forbidden to code after 2pm, but there was still a presentation to give for the judges. During the pitching process the judges wouldn't hesitate to grill teams on how they would address a scenario, or what techniques they would use to add in new content. "Whatever gets their juices flowing is good with me," said judge Tracy Larrabee, UCSC's Associate Dean of Engineering, "Every once in a while you have an 'ah' moment when you realize 'I made this shit'."

Zach Rubin from team 'Make it Rain' was inspired to make his web-app controlled plant-care system by California's "drought problem." When I asked Zach how he felt he said "very very confident. We are about the only group that physically built something."

It was at the awards dinner that the top teams from the hackathon converged for their fates to be decided. Embarrassingly during UCSC Chancellor Blumenthal's speech a powerpoint slide prematurely outed the 'SlugBus' (a crowdsourcing app that follows campus buses) team as second place. "I didn't understand why it was even up in the slides," said Nicholas Mata, a 'SlugBus' team member. Whoops. But the show must go on.

The most anticipated speaker of the evening was Lila Tretikov, Executive Director of Wikimedia (the organization behind Wikipedia). "When I was in college we weren't thinking about building tech." Tretikov shared, "One thing I realized as I was learning is that it is an incredible opportunity to change the world. Everyone of you at this hackathon have the ability to change the world." Her inspiring speech touched on how Tretikov was "often the only girl in the classroom" and eventually became "the only woman in the boardroom."

Then came the winners. Avi Varshney's software, which controls a robot via your movements on the XBox Kinect, won him first place in the 'Innovation' category. His technology also won him the largest monetary prize of $4,000. RECYCLOPS won first place in the 'TechCares' category including $2,000 and matching $2,000 donation to a non-profit of the team's choice. The RECYCLOPS app allows you to scan a barcode and see how recyclable a product is (based upon it's materials). In the 'AgTech' category, 'Plant Anywhere' won the $2,000 first place prize for their software for agricultural planning. Eron Lake with his educational web-based 'Cell Game' won second place in 'TechCares' and the coveted People's Choice Award of $1,500.

HACK UCSC 2015, like any hackathon, was a rollercoaster that was more than worth it for the competitors. Considering the success and growth of this year over last, it should be interesting to see what 2016 will hold for Santa Cruz's hackathon. Events of this nature can only be good for pumping technological progress into any community.