I’ve had the privilege of seeing PennApps, UPenn’s 48-hour student-run hackathon, grow from a small collection of my peers to the booming international attention grabber it has become. And boy what a transformation it has been.
When I first participated in PennApps in the Fall 2011, everyone fit in the same lecture hall, the same used by my classes. Attendees were largely Penn students with a few visiting students from Rutgers or CMU. People hacked together in the one long hallway, the farthest hacker never more than a sleepy shout away. Each team demoed their hack to everyone in attendance. In this setting, no hack felt too small, too easy, or too pointless. Spirits were high and the stakes low.
In the most recent PennApps in the Spring of 2013, hackers occupied multiple levels and stretched across the entire engineering quad. Visiting students from as far as Zurich now make up a substantial portion of the attendees. People hacked in every crevice of Towne Building, sometimes having to hunt down even their fellow teammates. Demos were split across three auditoriums, with many hacks not coming to fruition. In this setting, some of the more serious teams mock the less experienced under their breath or to each other, calling the 48 hour efforts of their colleagues too small, too easy, and too pointless. The tensions were high and the stakes even higher.
Now, don’t get me wrong PennApps is probably still my favorite weekend of the semester. Nothing beats a sleep-deprived, soda-fueled, swag-filled, free-food weekend of pure coding even if the attention has brought a sense of commercialization and the opportunists that come along with it, but at the same time, I can’t help but think that PennApps has lost touch with what it started out to be: a hackathon.