hackNY's Christopher Wiggins talks startups and hacking

This week's Eye has an interview with Zach Sims, co-founder of Codecademy. But there is more than one startup that has come from the Columbia Campus. Today we present an interview with Christopher Wiggins, an associate professor of applied mathematics at the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Professor Wiggins has helped Columbia students and students from around the world engage in New York’s burgeoning startup community through his work with hackNY, a nonprofit initiative he co-founded in 2010. Check out the full interview after the jump.

How does hackNY help students to join New York City’s startup community?

hackNY’s mission is to educate students about the New York City startup community and to empower them to join that community either by working with a New York City startup or by founding their own startup. hackNY attacks this problem through two main programs. The first of these is the hackNY Fellows program, which is a structured ten-week internship program during which students work with great New York City startups during the day, and in the evening attend a pedagogical lecture series where they hear lectures from some of New York City’s best founders and best investors. The second thing hackNY does is once a semester we throw a hackathon. Hackathon is a 24-hour coding event, which brings in literally hundreds of students from multiple Ivy League schools, Carnegie Mellon, MIT—scores of different universities—to come to New York and build new applications on top of the technologies of New York City startups.

Our goal is to educate students about the fact that there are startups that want these students desperately, startups that afford opportunity for hard engineering problems that demand technical mastery and allow them to experience the sort of autonomy and purpose of working in a small team. Part of working on a small startup is making a difference---shipping code that goes live on the same day and creating something that’s going to be viewed, in principle, by anyone on the Internet.

How did you get involved with the New York startup community?

By benefit of having many former students go into New York City startups and having them come back to me and say how much they enjoyed their careers. And, at the same time, having many students go into other careers—former students who majored in applied math that went to Lehman Brothers, Citigroup, law school—and say, “That sucked.”

Mayor Bloomberg has expressed his desire for New York City to surpass Silicon Valley as a center for technology entrepreneurship. What role do you see Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion and Cornell’s Roosevelt Island expansion playing in realizing this goal?

The future of tech is probably going to be decided by the time either of those things moves an inch. I mean, Cornell is not going to put a shovel in the ground for another four to ten years, so by the time those things are actually online and making a contribution or not, the whole landscape is going to be different. By the time Cornell is here, Mayor Bloomberg will be on to some entirely other career and New York City will have changed character as much as it did from 2007 to 2012, or maybe more.

Is there a certain kind of startup looking to work in New York City rather than elsewhere, like Silicon Valley?

Silicon Valley, for certainly more than half a century, has had one dominant industry. New York City is not like that. New York City has many economic sectors. It’s famously the world capital of financial services. New York is also the capital of media, one of the capitals, if not the capital of fashion, it is one of the capitals of advertising. There are all these different sectors in New York City, and so startups that choose to focus in New York City for business reasons often do so because they are at the intersection of or leveraging some other sector that is very well developed. So there are plenty of ad-tech startups, fashion-tech startups, and of course media-relevant startups in New York.


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