It’s the second day of PennApps Spring 2014, one of the largest student-run hackathons in the world, and Sam Moore has just gotten into college.
Earlier in the day, his mother had called to say that they got a “huge envelope” from Penn State in the mail. Moore said it was great news, especially because before today, he wasn’t sure if he was going to go to college.
That’s because Moore, a local high school senior and self-taught programmer (he first started tinkering with computers in the second grade), was recently hired to work full-time at a Philly start-up. It’s in stealth mode, so Sam won’t tell us who it is. Employment isn’t exactly new for him—Moore had a retail job throughout high school—but this is the first time he’ll be working as a programmer.
Now, he’s weighing the benefits of a university experience against the path he’s started to carve out for himself. He’s only 18. His high school, Downingtown East High School, only offers two computer science classes, and according to Moore, students don’t learn anything meaningful in them.
If you really want to learn to code, he said, “you gotta look elsewhere.”
That’s why he’s spending the weekend away from home, at the PennApps hackathon, among 1,000 other student programmers. And this year? About 40 of those are high schoolers like him, some of them flying across the country to be here.
‘All my friends go to hackathons’
Roughly 40 high schoolers registered for this year’s PennApps, compared to last year’s 10, said Brynn Claypoole, a Penn junior and the director of the PennApps executive team.
Claypoole said that the increase in interest and attendance is due in large part to the high school students themselves. Those few students who came last year created an online Facebook group, invited their friends and friends of friends into it, and self-organized to get to this year’s competition.
On Saturday night, around 9 p.m., the youngest PennApps participants have just held a meet-up. The teens take a break from coding to eat Popsicles and mess with the auditorium’s speaker system. Kids who just met in the past hour excitedly exchange phone numbers.
Danish Shaik, a 16-year-old high school junior from Cupertino, Calif., doesn’t remember how he heard about PennApps. He just knows that “all my friends go to hackathons.”
Danish has been teaching himself how to code since the 7th grade, and now he’s been to eight hackathons so far. But according to him, PennApps is supposed to be the most well-organized and have the best hackers.
It’s Shaik’s first time at PennApps. Does it live up to the hype?
“It’s awesome, dude,” he said. “There are a bunch of really talented developers here.”
The only negative that he could think of was the spotty WiFi throughout the Towne Building.
Shaik said he can really feel the hacker community here at PennApps, and by extension, at Penn. “I’m definitely going to apply [to go to undergrad here],” he said.
Highschoolers who hack into Snapchat just because they can
By attending hackathons before they graduate high school, programmers like Moore and Shaik have already reaped some of the benefits of attending a large university — like networking with industry honchos.
Ash Bhat, a junior from Santa Teresa High School in San Jose, Calif., is a first-timer at this year’s PennApps — but he’s been to 23 hackathons in the past 12 months.
Bhat is the youngest coder on a team of computer science freshmen from UC Berkeley. The guys have traveled and worked together before at various hackathons. Bhat and his friend Siddhant Dange won best hack using Leap Motion at the SF Code Day. And afterwards, the two got to have dinner with the executive team of Leap Motion.
But that’s not the coolest thing that Bhat has done, he says.
Bhat said his team used several VPNs so that Snapchat couldn’t monitor their activity, flag it as suspicious and “shut us down.” Then, they sent friend requests to the 4.6 million SnapChat users in their database via bots — a lot of bots — and breaking SnapChat’s CAPTCHA.
At the end of the weekend, CEO of Snapchat Evan Spiegel showed up at the competition. According to Bhat, Spiegel first congratulated the team and then said “I hope all your requests are failing.”
Then he left the boys with his email address — not the worst thing they could receive after revealing major security flaws in an app used by millions.
They hacked into SnapChat just to see if they could, Bhat said. The challenge was foisted onto him by a mentor or a hackathon organizer and he decided he would do it. That’s the narrative behind most young self-taught programmers. And the rewards so far have been great.
Moore was also at HackTech this year, and his team won an award from the Whisper App for best use of their API. He and his friends were invited back to their headquarters, where they met more Whisper team members and had a dinner. Moore said it was something “out of The Social Network.”
At the demo, Moore also met Dave Fontenot, the founder of MHacks—a hackathon at the University of Michigan—and something of a public figure in the hacker community.
Fontenot, who regularly travels to hackathons as a mentor, had this to say at PennApps: