Students Converge on Detroit for Record-Breaking Weekend Hackathon

After 36 feverish hours, the third MHacks event had finally reached its culmination late Sunday afternoon at the Qube in downtown Detroit, and this was the scene: Multi-colored towers of sleeping bags and pillows; plates of partially eaten chicken and broccoli casserole; a graveyard of empty water bottles and pop cans. Hundreds of bleary-eyed students hunched over their laptops, crammed into every corner of the Chase Building’s cafeteria.

The participants gathered to hear which of the final seven teams would earn first, second, and third-place honors in what organizers called the nation’s largest student hacking event to date.

Twilio’s Rob Spectre served as the uber energetic emcee for the final presentations, and he kept things rolling so that the approximately 1,300 attendees could head down to the lobby and start meeting their buses for the long trip back to the 70 colleges and universities that were represented in the competition.

“How many people slept this weekend?” Spectre barked at the crowd. Two or three tentative hands went up out of the sea of hackers. “You’re weak!” he thundered with a grin.

MHacks III, hosted by the University of Michigan student groups MPowered Entrepreneurship and Michigan Hackers, kicked off on Friday night. From there, participating students spent the weekend developing new apps and devices for a chance to win the $5,000 grand prize or other sponsored prizes from companies like Bloomberg, Yahoo, Evernote, and Apigee. Some non-tech companies, like Walgreen’s, had also brought their APIs to the student hackers to give them a chance to make company-specific apps.

It’s a big deal that some of the world’s most talented coders and developers had converged on Detroit, of all places, to flex their creative muscle—many of them visiting the city for the first time. MHacks student organizers said they intentionally chose Detroit over Ann Arbor as the place to host MHacks III, with the goal of showing kids from outside of Michigan a glimpse of Detroit’s emerging tech scene and the entrepreneurial possibilities therein.

Before the winners were announced, Jeff Lawson, the founder and CEO of Twilio and a University of Michigan alum, took to the stage. Part recruiting exercise and part sermon, Lawson told the crowd of participants that they were “Software People,” and they were the innovators from which the next great ideas would spring forth.

“When I was in school, there was no open source operating system or hackathons,” Lawson said. “You’re so fortunate to be doing it now. We are going to win, because the time for Software People is now.”

Lawson recalled something he once heard Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos say: Amazon was a software company that just happened to make boxes appear at customers’ doors. “Being a software person is a mindset, not a skillset,” Lawson added. “You see the world through the lens of what software can accomplish.”

Lawson praised companies like Uber, Square, Google, and Facebook for changing user expectations by providing a consistently great customer experience. “Those that adapt the quickest will survive,” he said. “Every single industry will become a software industry. We’re going to be doing amazing things because we’re rebuilding the world through the lens of software.”

So what did these young Software People build over the course of MHacks III? A crowd favorite during the Sunday afternoon demo was a semi-automatic nerf gun that was able to track its target and accurately shoot every soul brave enough to stand before it. Another team of hackers won second place by creating a Quidditch video game by rigging a broomstick. Coming in third were two scruffy looking young men, one wearing an “I (Heart) Fat Blunts” t-shirt, who created a suitcase that harnessed the motion of its rolling wheels to charge cell phones and other devices.

But the winning team, made up partially of high school students, created Workflow, an iPad app that allows users to dictate and save tasks. For instance, one action might consist of “take a picture, edit the picture, and share the picture.” Users can name and save the task, creating an icon that can be moved to the iPad’s homescreen so the action can be repeated in the future with one click. The winning team looked a bit overwhelmed, but promised to keep iterating on their app.

Between presentations by the seven final teams, sponsoring companies announced prizes for their favorite hacker teams. Representatives from ADP got up on stage and said they had just opened a new office in Detroit and would soon be hiring, and they told the kids in the room to go to the company website for details.

I spotted a young man with a nametag that identified him as an MIT student immediately call the ADP homepage up on his tablet. If he hadn’t participated in the weekend’s hackathon, I wondered, what are the chances he would have given a tech career in Detroit a second thought?

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