A team of coders led by Spencer Elliott, a computer science student, picked up top prize at the first U of T hackathon, held recently at the Bahen Centre. The weekend-long event, which drew computer science students from across northeastern North America, was the largest of its kind ever held by a Canadian university.
Between Friday night and Sunday morning, more than 500 students worked feverishly to build a unique string of code – often a website or a mobile application – with a practical purpose. (In computer culture, “hacking” means “coding,” not breaking into computers.)
Hunched over their desks, many students worked with little pause over the 36-hour period. A room was provided for naps.
As the clock ran down early Sunday, students could be seen sprinting up and down the stairs of the Bahen Centre looking to confirm a fact with a friend or mentor before racing back to their team.
Elliott’s group designed an application called Cryptr that simplifies encryption and decryption. Their entry beat out students from York University, who created a website that provides recipe options based on the food in your fridge, and a team from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, who designed an app that translates sign language to text. A panel of four expert judges picked the winners.
As hackathons have grown in popularity over the past few years, companies and investors have begun to see them as a way to quickly develop new software technologies. For students, they are a way to polish their skills and to alert potential employers of their coding abilities. And for U of T, the event provided an opportunity to highlight a successful academic department.
“U of T has the best computer science program, and such a large scale event is the perfect way to showcase it,” said Vatsal Namit, vice-president of the computer sciences students union, which worked closely with U of T’s computer science department to organize the hackathon.
Tobias Lutke, the founder of website Shopify (one of the fastest-growing startups in Canada), spoke at the event about the importance of hackathons in enabling students to develop and assess their skills in a friendly competitive environment. He commented that increasingly, technology companies are considering hackathon results when making hiring decisions.
Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Eugene Cheung, a second-year computer science student, as the leader of the winning team.