At last year’s HackPSU, the 24-hour hack-a-thon held on Penn State’s campus twice a year, Isaiah Harrison came without any knowledge of coding. Instead, from dusk until dawn, he played chess on a giant board.
“I was chess champion,” he said, laughing. “I was beating everybody. It was at a point where I was playing two people at one time.”
But on Saturday, Harrison, a senior energy engineering major at the university, didn’t return to defend his title: He came to code. Assembling his team of four in the sunlit lobby of the Business Building, he started dreaming up an app for scheduling school-group meetups, a solution to one of the more than 10 challenges levied at the collaborative coding marathon.
His team wasn’t alone. More than 550 students attended the event, which is in its fifth year.
“I may not sleep,” Harrison, 27, said, echoing a common thought among the crowd. “All I need is four hours — five hours of sleep is a little too much for me.”
A fleet of air mattress was set to be inflated later that evening. But in the afternoon, games of giant Jenga toppled around the sitting participants, whose hands were either buried in their work or the sandwiches served for lunch. Video games, cornhole and chess on steroids accompanied the day’s entertainment.
On the second floor, Alex Devic ensconced himself in his familiar spot. On his third HackPSU, the 21-year-old junior and his four-person team were punching away at a virtual simulator problem. Imposed by Unity, a video game development platform, the challenge carried a prize worth $1,500.
It was enough to entice Devic’s teaching assistant to join their squad: Mahdy Zolghadr, 30, was the veteran of the group.
But with great power comes grading duties.
“I can die later on at the end,” Zolghadr said, laughing while tapping through homework assignments. “Not now.”
Devic, who met teammates Chong Han Lee, 23, and Kyle Shindledecker, 19, this year, said hack-a-thons feel like home, albeit one without a curfew. The quartet was looking forward to attending a session at 8 p.m. on reverse engineering, and then coding into the early morning.
“It’s like being with a bunch of other people like me, just like a programmer in general, willing to stay up 24 hours to do something you care about,” Devic said. “In any coding competition you go to, you always gain something from it.”
Picking up the chess pieces this time were Yalin Huang and Anh Nguyen. Both freshmen, they came to their first HackPSU not for the competition, but for the reasons referred to by Devic.
Workshops on HTML and Java, for instance, were on their to-do list.
“I want to learn those languages myself,” Huang, 19, said.
After a friend brought Harrison to last year’s HackPSU, his first, he decided to refocus his career path and recalibrate the set of skills he needed to succeed. He started to code nearly every day.
“I saw the job potential in how much you make,” he said. “With the engineering degree, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with it, I felt it was too early to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
He picked up coding through online courses, either free or costing as little as $25 per month. Between his first and second hack-a-thon, he’s learned how to design interfaces, resulting in a game app set to launch on Apple’s App Store before he graduates in May.
Dubbed Boxes, which mimics a popular drawing game from his youth, the app has already landed on Android platforms. Currently, only two people can play against each other, but Harrison is adding an artificially intelligent opponent so players can play solo.
“A year ago I was pretty confident, but I didn’t know anything,” he said, smiling. “Not even a little bit.”