“Do You Even Hack?”: An Interview With Hack McGill

Though the word "hacker" has acquired a negative connotation over the years, at McGill, the hacker community (of the non-illegal variety) is alive and thriving (Wikimedia Commons user Bleakgladfly / Wikimedia Commons)
Though the word “hacker” has acquired a negative connotation over the years, at McGill, the hacker community (of the non-illegal variety) is alive and thriving (Wikimedia Commons user Bleakgladfly / Wikimedia Commons)

Last semester, the word “hackathon” popped up on my Facebook newsfeed – a lot. Apparently, more than one of my friends traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts in early October to participate in what is known as “the best hackathon in the world” at MIT. One of these people was, in the weeks leading up to the hackathon, posting about his struggles learning to code. How could this person go to a hackathon – at MIT, no less – without knowing code?  What exactly is a hackathon?

Some information can be gleaned from the hackMIT website. At their hackathon, “web, desktop, mobile, and hardware projects” and any computer-related hacks are welcome. Like any competition, there are judges that evaluate the projects “based on creativity, technical difficulty, polish, and usefulness.”

Immediately, it is clear that these hackers and their projects are not of the malicious type. The word “hacker” has acquired a certain pejorative meaning over the years and has been used to refer to programmers who look for weaknesses in computers and networks with malicious intent – for example, a person who finds a fault in a bank’s security protocol will likely be referred to in popular media as a “hacker.” In the eyes of some, these individuals are more accurately referred to as “crackers.” It became immediately apparent to me that this branch of the hacking community is quite different from more typically “underground” or illegal activities; after all, you wouldn’t expect programmers who specialized in attacking vulnerabilities to be sponsored by some of the biggest names in the Internet economy.   Case in point: the 2013 MIT hackathon was sponsored by eBay, Facebook, Dropbox, Twitter, and Pinterest, as well as more established hardware companies, such as Boston Scientific and GE.

To get an idea of how McGill students have become involved in this culture, I went to meet with one of the founders of HackMcGill, Mark Prokoudine. Boasting over 550 members on their Facebook group, they have begun to host weekly Hack Nights and began hosting sponsored Hack Nights in early November. They are also in the process of organizing “Canada’s largest hackathon.” It certainly doesn’t look like a group that just started in August, but less than half a year later, here they are; clearly, HackMcGill has found a niche in McGill’s campus culture. “There’s kind of a missing [computer science] community at McGill,” Prokoudine told me. “We looked for it and it wasn’t there, so we decided to start it ourselves.”

And start it they did. They are supported by professors, the founder of CodeJam (a former McGill student), and they mentioned that even the administration seems enthusiastic. Best yet, their success shows that they are supported by students. Prokoudine told me that the group welcomes everyone – even students that don’t know a parser from a pick-axe can join in! While there are also plenty of online resources available for beginners, Prokoudine pointed out that the best way to learn is to just “come out to hack nights, come out to hackathons.”

All year, Hack McGill will be coordinating trips to a plethora of hackathons, doing cool things with code, and working on projects in a supportive and unique environment. Since the group just started, no members have yet taken their experience into the workforce, but as computer science and collaboration skills are emphasized in both education and employment, it seems likely that the environment of a hackathon – and the environment of HackMcGill – may be just as valuable as the work that comes out of it.

For more information about HackMcGill, check here.

UPDATE 10:23 PM: A previous version of this article misspelled Mark Prokoudine’s surname and misidentified Boston Scientific. The Abstract regrets the error.

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