“I know this is going to sound cheesy, but DevFest actually changes people’s lives,” said Dina Lamdany.
Lamdany, SEAS ’15, is a member of the Application Development Initiative and one of the organizers of the initiative’s fourth annual DevFest, a weeklong series of seminars and workshops on software development that starts on Feb. 1 and culminates in a 24-hour hackathon.
It seems that students this year have responded with a newfound enthusiasm. Whereas around 200 people registered for the past two DevFests, this year, over 700 have signed up as of Jan. 30.
“Honestly, our biggest challenge has just been finding a space that we can use for a prolonged period of time,” Nate Brennand, SEAS ’15 and another organizer, said.
In past years, DevFest had been held in the small, cramped Computer Science Lounge in Mudd. But through an unlikely connection with Business School professor R. A. Farrokhnia, ADI was granted Watson Library in Uris Hall for the final hackathon.
Farrokhnia was teaching an interdisciplinary design course last year at SEAS when he found out that most of his students were ADI members.
“I was very impressed, [and since then] I’ve been meeting regularly with the ADI board, enquiring about ways I could be useful to them,” he said. “I’m very keen on creating collaborative efforts between the schools on campus.”
While DevFest participants will be competing for cash prizes, Lamdany and her co-organizers say the emphasis is not on results, but on building community—especially among people who haven’t had extensive coding experience.
“A lot of hackathons, they’re these very big, very elaborate affairs, and they can be very scary if you’re not already a part of the tech scene,” Zack Newman, CC ’15 and another organizer, said. “We hate the idea of a barrier to entry—it’s really important to us that we be welcoming to anyone, whether or not they’ve programmed before.”
“The main goal is not just a set of finished products but a stronger CS community,” Lamdany said.
Chris Wiggins, a SEAS associate professor and co-founder of hackNY who acts as ADI’s faculty adviser, is hoping DevFest will foster collaboration on a more personal level as well.
“It’s about peer education—which is important particularly for something as dynamic as coding languages and platforms,” he said. “A lot of times it’s just more efficient for students to teach each other.”
Wiggins, who will also sit on DevFest’s panel of judges, believes hackathons like DevFest will only continue to grow in importance and popularity.
“Every year, more and more students are realizing that the ability to code is, if not central to their careers, at least very important to being fully informed about their day-to-day world,” he said. In that respect, “ADI has done a great job reaching not just committed programmers but with community building and outreach as well.”
The first ever DevFest, held in the spring of 2011, was organized by Columbia alumni Zack Sims and Ryan Bubinski, both CC ’11, who went on to start the popular website Codeacademy.
Ultimately, according to Brennand, “it all boils down to getting people to build things and to be part of a community— because that’s what hacking is.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated this year’s event as the ‘third’ annual event. It is actually the fourth annual event. A previous version of this article also misstated the number of people signed up this year. Over 700 have signed up, not 450. Spectator regrets the errors.