‘Comic-Con for Programmers’
April 11, 2017
By Matt Hawkins
Graduate computer science student Afreen Rahman entered her first two hackathons to gain programming experience. She left weekends at the University of North Carolina and Michigan State University with awards and experiences she never expected as a first-time competitor.
The hackathons brought together students for a frenzied, sleepless weekend of programming. Students brainstormed and attempted to develop programs and applications from scratch in the short window. They worked on projects for companies such as Amazon, Google, Ford, Cisco and Deutsche Bank.
Rahman won the overall competition at UNC’s Pearl Hacks and took top honors in two categories at MSU’s SpartaHack. Her work focused on new applications, known as Skills, for Amazon’s Echo smart speaker system and a Bitcoin security-inspired system to register refugees.
“These events were like Comic-Con for programmers. If you’re a programmer, you want to be there,” she said. “I hoped for the best, expected the worst and came away with more than I could’ve asked for.
Rahman wanted to challenge herself but didn’t quite know what to expect at her first events. She found collaborative, yet competitive groups of collegiate programmers eager to show off their creativity for brand-name employers.
“This pushed my limits,” she said. “It forced me to think in new, abstract ways and helped me see what’s possible with technology. I saw things I never thought I could do, but now I realize are possible.”
Hackathon participants networked with prospective employers throughout the competitions. Technical experts assisted students throughout brainstorming and development processes while job recruiters introduced companies to interested students. By working closely with Amazon staff at SpartaHack who helped navigate technical challenges, Rahman made valuable connections for her future.
“It was valuable to have mentors there,” she said. “Even though it wasn’t a formal interview, I got to know Amazon staff and show my skills in a way I wouldn’t be able to do through the traditional job search.”
Competitions also introduced Rahman to the lengthy process to submit programs for public use. In addition to meeting high quality control standards, she learned to navigate advertising, branding, copyright and legal matters with product development.
Rahman returned to campus and continued entrepreneurial programming by developing more technology for the Echo. In addition to the voice-activated Facebook program she took to competitions, she developed a program that reads Muslim prayers and another that recites random humorous “alterative facts” for laughs.
“Before these hackathons, I was just coding in class,” she said. “Now, when I put a program on the market, I know the higher expectations and hoops to jump through. I’ve set myself apart as a valuable team member by showing my creative spirit and knowledge of the production process.”