Talking to Nick Quinlan is like riding a roller coaster. The young entrepreneur talks a mile a minute—taking the conversation in dozens of different directions and transmitting his contagious enthusiasm. He was 11 years old when he launched his first business: Nicholas Quinlan Computer Consulting. The Colorado native went on to work on dozens of projects, and ultimately ended up as the commissioner of Major League Hacking, an organization that facilitates hackathons across the U.S., and in Canada, Mexico, and Europe.
Quinlan converged with University of Colorado junior Dawson Botsford when Dawson approached Major League Hacking about hosting a hackathon at CU. The computer programming major had attended three hackathons, which irradiated his passion for coding and creating. We sat down with Botsford and Quinlan to learn about what exactly a hackathon is—and what will go on at the HackCU competition in Boulder April 10 to 12.
What do you mean when you say the word “hack”?
Quinlan: The term “hacking” actually comes from way back in the day—the early days of computers when they were the size of rooms. Back then, hacking meant “to build cool things elegantly.” Later, the term was co-opted to mean this “cyber-terrorism” thing, but now more and more, people are talking about hackers in positive [ways]. Mark Zuckerberg recently wrote a letter to shareholders about why Facebook wants hackers—not the kind of people who will protect their system or break into their system, but the kind of people who will make Facebook a better platform.
What exactly goes on at a hackathon?
Quinlan: I like to describe hackathons as real-time science fairs. A bunch of students come into a place and are given 24 to 36 hours to build whatever they want. At the end, they get to show off what they have created. So it’s a really good time for students to come and meet some cool people, learn new things, and build something fun.
Botsford: At HackCU, everyone gets together on Friday night—we hear from our sponsors, and then there is a dinner where students can meet each other, form teams, and create something useful. [Some students form teams prior to the competition, others form teams once there.] The competition starts Friday night at 9:30 p.m. and everyone works until 9:30 a.m. Sunday.
Students are awake for 36 hours coding?
Quinlan: A grand majority of people stay on site, and hopefully get a little bit of sleep. People find really, really innovative places to rest—using table cloths, underneath tables. It’s one of those really cool things: you are there at 3 a.m. and there people are still excited and exuding really great energy.
Do you have to be experienced in programming or coding to participate?
Quinlan: One of the really cool things about hackathons is that you don’t need to train for them. Just this weekend, I was at an event where the winners learned to code during the event itself. Obviously, it helps to be able to code, but there are a lot of ways to learn the skills necessary for a hackathon. Really what you need to do to prepare for a hackathon is to be willing to learn and try new things.
Botsford: I have some friends who have seen the process, and are taking on teammates who otherwise might not show up because they lack experience or are scared to try something new. And that’s what I love most. That’s why I wanted to organize a hackathon in the first place.
Quinlan: Also, different team members take different parts of a project. Teams will figure out what skillsets each member has: Some students are better at the front-end part, creating the user-interface, while other students are better at the back end or processing side. Ultimately, students work with one another’s strengths to make their project happen.
It seems like you incorporate many skills when you compete—coding, pitching, design, communication. Is there a direct career path for people who thrive in a hackathon environment?
Botsford: Hackathons translate really well into start-ups. If you are good at this, you are often really good at making the first product for a startup. [One of the prizes offered at HackCU is a guaranteed interview with Boulder’s Boomtown Accelerator, which helps individuals and companies turn their ideas into businesses.]
What’s next for hackathons at CU?
Quinlan: On a personal level, I am from Boulder—Boulder native born and raised. I have always wanted an event to happen in Boulder! I am really excited to see the community come out. This is MLH’s first event in the Mountain West area, and we are eager to do more. You see a bunch of people come into the room, and realize that there are 200 people who have the same interests that you do, and are just as excited to be spending a weekend building something. It is really exciting to be able to foster this.
Botsford: We are definitely hoping to do this annually. We have one guy on our team who is a sophomore—he is our hope and dreams for continuing this tradition. Someday, we would love to do an event like this in the fall too.
HackCU takes place April 10 to 12 at University of Colorado Boulder. Attendance and participation is free, but you must sign up online in advance.