Friday, 4 March 2016

UoB gets hacking!

I caught up with Computer Science student Jack Wearden, co-founder and co-organiser of this year’s ‘BrumHack’ event. On the weekend of March 12th and 13th, 150 coding enthusiasts will gather at the University of Birmingham to carry out 24 hours of hacking!

What comes to mind when you think of ‘BrumHack’? To be honest, when I first thought about it, I thought it was a group of UoB computer science enthusiasts who participated in some form of computer hacking task. Wrong! ‘BrumHack’ is a 24 hour coding project (or, as some may say, a ‘hackathon’). It’s been such a big hit in the past that this will be the fourth (yes, you heard me – fourth!) one of its kind. This time, however, Jack has taken it a step further. Not only will University students from all over the country, such as Nottingham and Manchester be attending but now, students under the age of 18 will also be attending. This will make this year’s ‘BrumHack’ the biggest yet. You don’t even have to be studying a computer science-related degree or even have any relevant experience. ‘BrumHack’ is a free event to attend and all that’s required is a determination to learn about coding! As a result, Jack estimates that around 150 coding enthusiasts will be attending. He recently did a ‘wave’ ticket sale for the event and 50 tickets sold out in just 3 minutes.

        "It's like abstract Lego"
So, what exactly is a ‘hackathon’? Hackathons take place nationwide. At UoB’s ‘BrumHack’, however, participants meet up on the Saturday morning, mingle amongst themselves, with sponsors and then they form themselves into teams. Once in a team, they work together to form a prototype for an idea. It is called ‘coding’ because the technical task, such as designing an app, is split into different components. ‘It’s like abstract Lego’, as Jack put it quite simply. Once these different components are brought together, you have your finished product. The next day, participants present their finished product and are awarded presents by the sponsors. In October 2015’s ‘BrumHack’ event, for example, the winning team created an app called ‘Clarifeyes’. By taking Clarify’s tool a step further, they created an app which described pictures to people with visual impairments. This would ensure they had an enhanced web-browsing experience.  

What I found particularly great about this event was the fact that it was more of a collaborative spirit that a competition. It is the participant’s passion for technology, rather than competitive spirt which drives them. Jack even told me that it’s not uncommon for different team members to help each other out. Some students even take the hacking to the extreme, staying overnight at the University in order to finish their prototype. Is that dedication or what?

How did Jack’s enterprising idea come into being? Jack had attended hackathons at other Universities in the past but UoB had never held one before.  As a result, June 2014 he had discussions with alumni from other Universities who had organised hackathons. Once they realised there were enough students interested in the event and space at the University, he began to seek sponsorship for the event. Sponsorship money would be used to provide prizes, refreshments and technical equipment for the event. The event, however, is mutually beneficial for both the attendees and the sponsors. The sponsors, such as Bloomberg, actually attend the event, so it is a great networking event for the attendees as the sponsors can see the true potential of the students through their hacking work, rather than the usual way of handing in CVs. Some students have even managed to secure placements with the sponsor companies by attending ‘BrumHack’! As the number of attendees increased at each event, Jack was able to reach out further afield for sponsors. A video-time lapse was even produced when seeking sponsors, as it was a more useful way to show what ‘BrumHack’ was about, rather than just describing it.

What enterprising skills has Jack gained?

Jack told me that the skills he has acquired as a result of organising the hackathon is a ‘nice complement’ to his degree. It has given him practical, concrete examples of concepts that he can now apply to his degree. First and foremost, he has acquired leadership skills. Over the hacking weekend, he will be coordinating the tasks, looking after the volunteers, ensuring everyone has the right technical equipment and most importantly, making sure everything runs according to schedule.  It has also equipped him with the vital skills of logistical planning and professional communication skills – he has had had to liaise with the sponsors and University staff members to ensure the hackathon didn’t conflict with other University events. These skills, he told me, cannot be taught to you – you acquire them through actively participating in events like these.

It’s been a great networking event for Jack himself. At ‘Brumhack’ he’s had the opportunity to talk to sponsors, and discuss career paths with them. He now has an invaluable network of professional people to talk to. Furthermore, his placement year was even facilitated through his involvement in ‘BrumHack’. He is now considering a career in developer relations but the diverse range of skills he has now acquired means he feels confident to work in a variety of software engineering sectors.

To top it all off, Jack finds it a truly rewarding job. The event’s high retention rate is a great indicator of more successful ‘BrumHacks’ in the months to come.

 Pavinder Bhangu
- PR Team

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