Written by Yisen Wang
Edited by Anastasia Chang Ieong
In a third floor office space located in downtown Montreal, students are hard at work adding the finishing touches to their day-long group projects. Milling about and overseeing the chaos are the mentors: professionals, entrepreneurs, and young graduates offering their advice to aspiring programmers. Boxes of pizza, packages of soft drinks, and candy buckets have been prepared for the stray eater.
Welcome to the very first edition of MariHacks, an intercollegiate hackathon event organized by the Marianopolis Programming Club. Hosted on Sunday, February 11 at Shopify’s Montreal headquarters, the full-day event attracted over 120 students from Cégeps and high schools across the city. Dawson, Vanier, Brébeuf, and, of course, Marianopolis were all represented. Sponsors included Shopify, a Canadian e-commerce company, and RealVentures, Canada’s largest seed fund. The room teemed with representatives, some of whom are product managers and research scientists at Microsoft and ElementAI.
Camille and I arrive at 6:00 PM. Our mission is to find out as much as we can about this new event. Splitting up, we probe the room for interviews. A quick scan leads me to Jean-Christophe Btaiche, a first year in Pure and Applied Science and one of the organizers. “A lot of the students in the beginning were just staring blankly at their screens,” he tells me. “Soon, though, they were able to form teams on the spot.”
For many students, MariHacks is a first introduction to the world of coding. Some had attended a learnathon hosted by the Programming Club the previous week, but the majority learn real-time through the pressure of creating a functioning app in only one day. Mentors are instrumental in guiding this experience. In addition to hosting periodic workshops, targeting different aspects of app development, (anything from Data Visualization to Introduction to Blockchain and Ethereum), they advise and instruct students on how to effectively code their programs. “They were a lot of help,” says Jackie Cho, a Marianopolis student in Honours Commerce. “The mentors helped us choose which software to use to build our video game.”
One might think that students at a hackathon would “hack” into a security system, but this is not the case. A hackaton is in fact a coding event, encouraging coders to form teams and collaborate to build an app. The event is also a business pitch, where teams can strive to come up with “the next big thing”, or simply learn more about the world of entrepreneurship. This innovative ethos is reflected in the stunning variety of projects. Some participants developed a math software to intelligently help students develop their skills by targeting their weak areas. Others created cooking websites, where users could sign up for personalized courses. A word query to find the perfect phrase for your Valentines Day card and a topical cryptocurrency game were also contenders.
MariHacks participants are from a variety of academic and cultural backgrounds, both in the sciences and the social sciences. One, for example, currently studies Arts and Literature. Another student immigrated to Canada from Brazil: once a practicing lawyer, he is now registered in Dawson’s DEC in Computer Science and Technology.
Two of the students I interviewed, Marcus and Nicholas, are still in Secondary II. Having learned some programming in high school, I was interested in what they had to say.
Me: “So what brought you guys here? How did you hear about it?”
Nicholas: “We heard about the event at school. And we just wanted to try it out. I like coding, and I want to test my skills and explore more.”
Me: “How long have you been guys coding?”
Marcus: “Since I was seven.”
Nicholas: “Nine for me.”
Me: *sweats nervously*
My own (lack of) experience aside, the great diversity of people at the event speaks to the universal appeal of coding. Whether you are a returning student or a precocious teen, the exciting possibilities of coding are both attractive and accessible. Attractive, because many of the world’s top corporations are searching for employees with coding experience. Accessible, because that experience can be accumulated through humble hackathons such as these. Adriel, a mentor and Support Engineer from Breather, describes the situation:
“Some of the students here could start applying for jobs. A few more projects and they’ll have portfolios of programs they’ve completed.”
In the fast-changing and experience-reliant industry of programming, it is often the coder who has the most varied and extensive portfolio and not the one with the most impressive education who succeeds in landing a job. To Adriel, a university degree is not necessarily the only way to pursue coding.
“There’s a popular misconception that you can only start coding after studying Computer Science in undergrad, which isn’t the case. I studied physics, but most of my coding experience comes from programming in my free time.”
His partner, a mentor from Lighthouse Labs, seems to agree. “Unless you really want to understand the theory, most practical programming can be learnt on your own. I’ve seen some CS grads who still can’t code.”
“But these kids, they come here and they learn. I’m supposed to be a mentor, but I really feel like I’m learning from them. The sheer energy and enthusiasm is inspiring.”
Ultimately, hackathons help instill greater interest in the tech industry. Although booming, the field never has quite enough young blood. When youth are interested in technology and entrepreneurship, innovation takes root in society. The effects are visible: at events like MariHacks, students who wouldn’t have otherwise pursued coding are inspired by what they have learnt. Some will undoubtedly continue to participate in even more hackathons in the future and perhaps even pursue a career in the field.
10:00 PM. As closing speeches are given and prizes are awarded, I can’t help but admire the creative potential and technical prowess displayed. A democracy bot to dramatically increase political engagement. An ambient sound app capable of adjusting a phone’s output according to surrounding sound levels. A sign language translator.
But when my friends Roland, Omar, and their team “The Silent Boys” jump on the stage to receive their prize, I realize we’re all still just Cégep students messing around. This is a Sunday night.
And I have an 8:15 class.
Special thanks to the Marianopolis Programming Club for hosting the event! The MWR wishes the club success in all of its future endeavors.