Student-run "hackathon" draws competitors from around the country

Students seated at long tables look towards a speaker on a stage in the distance.

Credit: Janet Fang / Major League Hacking

Over 450 students built websites, apps and more in just a day

What do you get when you put hundreds of tech-minded students in a room for 24 caffeine-fueled hours? Apps. Lots of them.

Saturday, March 2, marked the start of San Francisco State University’s third annual SF Hacks, a student-run “hackathon” where teams competed to put together fully functioning websites, mobile apps and more over a 24-hour time period. SF Hacks is the largest university hackathon in San Francisco, and this year’s was the best-attended yet, drawing over 450 student competitors from across the country and Canada to SF State’s Student Life Events Center.

“Our group’s mission statement is to get SF State on the map as an engineering school,” said third-year SF State computer science student Michael Swanson, a co-organizer of SF Hacks. “We have a lot of great engineers here.”

The creations of hackathon competitors are pieced together from pre-existing packages of software (or “hacked” together, an act that gives the competition its name). In SF Hacks, those building blocks were provided by companies like Google, Lyft and text-messaging platform Twilio, all of which were among the sponsors of the event alongside SF State’s College of Science & Engineering and the College of Business.

The grand prize went to an SF State team for their app Twiggle. A creative combination of code from Google and Twilio, the app allowed users to search the internet using text messages in the absence of Wi-Fi. Other top-placing entries included everything from an image-analyzing tool to help doctors make diagnoses to an app that made use of speech-to-text software to streamline classroom notetaking for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

The high-octane competition put several kinds of creativity on display. Software-minded students conjured apps out of code while business majors helped plan and execute the projects, and on some teams communications students gave the creations some visual polish. By Sunday afternoon, each team was able to show off a finished product.

“When you do a hackathon, you start a project and finish it in 24 hours, so you get the whole feel for a project,” said Madeline Schmoll, a senior at SF State majoring in computer engineering and a co-organizer of the event. “Companies really look for that ability to comprehend everything that’s going on within the scale of the project.”

Schmoll, Swanson and a team of six other SF State students handled all of the logistics for SF Hacks, from securing a venue to fundraising for a five-figure budget and feeding hundreds of competitors. As an added bonus, sponsoring organizations put on workshops during the competition, including a web development lesson from Macy’s employees and a Google interviewing prep workshop.

“I am immensely proud of our students who worked so hard to make this happen,” said SF State Professor and Chair of Computer Science Arno Puder, the faculty advisor for SF Hacks. “It was exhilarating to see the enthusiasm and energy of students working on their projects.”

The Twiggle team walked away with a $500 dollar prize — but for many SF Hacks competitors, the money is secondary to the experience. “The important thing is that you put together this great app or hack that looks really good in your portfolio,” explained Swanson. “Not to mention that many of the people judging your apps and our sponsors are tech companies looking to hire talent.”