Maine's first ever student hackathon

CBBhacks, Maine’s first ever student hackathon, is happening this weekend

We’re in an age of consumption, surrounded by consumable content delivered to us by the unconscious and mechanical swipe of a thumb like Pavlov’s dog ringing a bell.

I consume so much content in the course of a day, I often need to stop and remind myself to create. The tug-of-war between consuming and creating is a daily battle, which why it’s nice sometimes to dedicate time to doing nothing but creating.

That’s why, if I were a college student, I’d be traveling to Bowdoin College this weekend to take part in what I believe will be Maine’s first-ever student hackathon.

A hackathon, for those unfamiliar with the term, is an event which brings together people who want to build things and solve problems. They’ve become all the rage. In 2010, there were only a handful of hackathons planned around the globe. Last year, there were 1,500, according to the Associated Press.

Bowdoin’s student-run hackathon is called CBBhacks. It begins Friday night and brings together college students from all over the state. While the CBB stands for Colby, Bates and Bowdoin, students from any school are encouraged to register and attend, according to Zackery Leman, a senior at Bowdoin and one of the hackathon’s organizers. Leman’s co-organizer is fellow Bowdoin student Ruben Martinez Jr.

So far more than 100 students have registered to attend, according to Leman. Many are from Bowdoin, Bates and Colby, but others are coming from the University of Maine and even from schools throughout the Northeast and even as far away as California, he said.

Some hackathons are geared toward only computer programmers, but Leman said CBBhacks is open to all students, whether they’re interested in design or engineering or entrepreneurship.

“In addition to traditional coding and working with computers, we’re trying to have a wider audience and more students take part in the event,” Leman said. “Coming up with a business plan can be just as valuable as coding something.”

The students will gather Friday night and form teams with which they’ll spend the next 36 hours creating … something. Maybe a new mobile app, or a business plan or a mock-up of a new computer hardware product.

The term “hack” or “hacker” often carry stigmas, but the idea behind hacking is not inherently negative. To hack is to be creative in solving problems. In the case of criminals, that could mean illegally breaking into a closed computer network. But for the students who participate at the hackathon this weekend at Bowdoin, it just means building something cool and with promise. Who knows, maybe the seed for the state’s next hot startup will be planted.

The event culminates on Sunday, when the teams present their results to a panel of judges, including Bowdoin faculty and alumni working in the tech field. Prizes include mentorship from Bowdoin alumni, gift cards, a spot in the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development’s next Top Gun class for entrepreneurs, and various tech gadgets, including a Raspberry Pi.

The hackathon was the result of conversations among members of a student-run organization at Bowdoin called the Information Technology Advisory Council, or ITAC, which was created in 2010 to improve the student experience at Bowdoin by leveraging technology. Leman is co-president of ITAC this year. He said ITAC members, some of whom have attended out-of-state hackathons in the past, were looking for a way to bring students together and to build things.

The students were successful in leveraging the school’s alumni network. Alumni such as Alec Berryman, now a software engineer at Google, and Ben Johnson, now director of product strategy at Raizlabs, a Boston-based mobile app developer, will be attending the event. The hackathon’s sponsors include Google, L.L.Bean, HubSpot, Raizlabs, Okta and Health Enterprises Inc.

The event has gained the notice of those outside the Colby, Bates and Bowdoin communities.

“I was so excited when I heard about it,” Don Gooding, director of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, told me.

Besides the excitement about such an event getting more students interested in entrepreneurship, Gooding thinks it could help further integrate the Colby, Bates and Bowdoin communities into the state’s larger startup scene.

“I think it’s a very positive sign that there have been attempts to build bridges to those communities in the past and we’re now starting to see some results,” he said. “I would definitely say this is a significant event in the history of us trying to build connections between Colby, Bates and Bowdoin and the rest of the entrepreneurial community.”

Leman said the hope is the hackathon becomes an annual event, though he won’t be around to organize the next one. He expects to graduate this year with degrees in computer science and neuroscience. He grew up in Massachuetts, but right now he’s thinking about moving to Silicon Valley and applying for entry-level programs at Google or Yahoo, or maybe joining a cool startup. When asked what it would take for him to stay in Maine, he left the door open.

“I’m not opposed to sticking around,” he said. “It really depends on the circumstances.”

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