For some the mere mention of the word conjures up a frenzied—even frightening—tableau: the frantic clattering of keyboards, Chipotle wrappers and Red Bull cans strewn about, and, in a corner, the next Mark Zuckerberg (and associates) spitballing a newer and better app for stalking your exes.

The laptops, the over-caffeination, the geek speak—sure, it’s not for everyone. We get it. But if you’re the kind of person who just nods nervously when your computer scientist roommate gushes over her latest digital victory, or who read the recent New York Times trend piece on the growing campus tech phenomenon and just felt...tired, don’t run for the hills just yet. Because, as it turns out, hackathons aren’t just about tech wizardry (and exhaustion)—at least not here at NYU.

NYU Stories sat down with Ross Kopelman—president of the NYU Entrepreneurs Network, chair of the Student Technology and Research Committee, and grad student in biotechnology and entrepreneurship at the School of Engineering—to clear up some common myths and misconceptions about these brainstorming marathons. Surprise number one? You don’t have to be a programmer to participate—and in fact, sometimes the boldest ideas come from non-tech types.

We considered no question too basic, and in the process learned about some very cool, very tangible products (imagine a gadget that summarizes your emails for you, or a virtual proofreader who corrects your grammar when you’re not writing in your first language) that have come out of recent hackathons at NYU.  

photo: portrait of Ross Kopelman

What is a hackathon, anyway?
It’s where a bunch of different people come together to work on a particular problem for a limited period of time—usually 24 or 48 hours. The topic could be anything—how to improve technology at NYU, making apps to make the world more accessible for people with disabilities, or even fighting Ebola—but the end goal of the hackathon is to come up with a prototype, something tangible to present at the end. There are usually judges, who choose winners to receive prizes. “It’s not so much about executing the idea as finding it and crystalizing it,” Kopelman says. “You can throw out the bad ideas, highlight the good ones, and at the end of the day you really come up with some innovative solutions to these problems.”

And why aren’t you allowed to sleep again?
Because you’re supposed to focus on the job at hand! And because you want to maximize the time you have to collaborate with people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. “Getting a diverse group of people to work together long-term is challenging,” Kopelman explains. Our lives are filled with distractions, we take on too much, and our attention spans are short. By limiting the project to, say, 24 hours, it’s easier to get people to really put their heads together. In a place like a university, Kopelman says, “People in one department usually don’t hang out with people in another, but if you force those diverse groups to hang out for 10 hours, great things come out of it.”

But what does a hackathon look like? What happens there?
“In the beginning, it’s pretty hectic,” Kopelman explains. “Everyone’s excited. There are prizes to win and there’s an opportunity to make a difference. At first there’s a lot of networking as people are looking to build teams—it’s almost like dating.” Then, once each team has settled on an idea, it’s off to work—divide-and-conquer style. Coders code. Designers design. Somebody has to work on the presentation itself. And yeah, there’s a lot of coffee. “There’s some scrambling at the end,” Kopelman says. “In the morning you get a snack, and you’re excited, and also exhausted.” Then it’s time to present to the judges, who declare a winner. 

photo: a group of NYU students behind a table

What—if anything—makes an NYU hackathon unique?
“I think there are probably too many hacakthons, and not enough support afterward,” Kopelman says. “If the organization hosting doesn’t offer support they’re not really fulfilling the mission of the hacakthon.” Here at NYU, HackNYU events—designed to provide the NYU community a chance to make life better, easier, and more connected throughout the universities campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai—are a joint venture supported by the Student Senators Council’s Student Technology and Research Committee and NYU’s Information Technology Services. In plain English, that means that if you come up with a winning idea for how to improve the everyday NYU experience through tech, there’s a good chance you’ll get help from administrators in implementing it for real, while you’re still here to see it. There’s even a new Campus Coding Collaborative being built—a physical space where students, faculty, and administrators can work together on pressing tech problems.

What if you’re not an engineer or a computer scientist—not someone who knows how to, you know, make stuff? Is there room for an English major at a hacakthon?
Yes, plenty of room, Kopelman says—you need visionaries with big ideas, as well as people who can lead a team, in addition to those with the technical expertise to bring the group’s plans to life. In fact, Kopelman says, some of the best NYU hacakthon teams have been those that included students who were studying philosophy or history. “Why? Because they bring perspective that a solely technical person might not have. They’re able to see possibilities for the applications of technology in the real world.”

Real world applications like what? What have hackathons done for me lately?
The main campus first-prize winner at HackNYU’s recent NYU Global Hackathon (on April 17) was edu.chat—an app that allows students and faculty to communicate on the go, complete with file-sharing and built-in NYU info (about events and more). “We live in an age where we live and breathe by our cell phones and yet there hasn’t been an obvious way to connect back to the university through your phone,” Kopelman says. Until now. edu.chat hits the iOS app store on Tuesday, May 26—right in time for the first summer session—and an Android version will be available in early September.  


Read about more winning—and practical—ideas that have come out of NYU hackathons in a roundup over at HashtagNYU.


See the winning projects from April’s Connect Ability Hackathon, hosted in honor of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.


And watch a video about how hackathons make NYU better and more efficient: