14 min read

Flying 9000+ miles to spend a weekend @ PennApps, USA's largest student hackathon.

The good, the bad, and the ugly of PennApps XX, my first (and biggest) US hackathon experience.
Flying 9000+ miles to spend a weekend @ PennApps, USA's largest student hackathon.

Mandatory Backstory 🔙

In 2018, right after the end of my Google Code-in trip, my friends were chatting excitedly about hackathons (programming marathons where you build/hack stuff).

They told me about PennApps, the first & largest college hackathon in the world, hosted in Philadelphia, USA, but unfortunately, I had missed the application deadline. Then I learnt about Hack the North- Canada's biggest hackathon- which I applied to... and got rejected.

Missing out on two of the biggest student hackathons in the world... hurt.

Some of my friends were luckier and managed to get accepted. Of course, they did not miss the chance to share wonderful photos of their experience with us measly rejects and rub salt into our wounds 🙃 /s

On the bright side though, thanks to their flex, I learned that hackathons in America were next LEVEL. Then again, everything there is next-level–be it food portions, height, houses, 'friendliness', or sugar/caffeine intake–but I digress.

My hopes and motivations were now renewed. The prospect of being among so many cool people was enticing, and as a (past) hackathon organizer, I wanted to see how things were done in good old 'Murica, where the hackathon culture is most rampant.

Watching this video in particular magnified my hackathon lust.

So come July 2019, I applied again. I got my results back in late August...

... and I was selected to be one of the 1200 hackers spending the 1st weekend of September at the University of Pennsylvania!😁

I was excited, really excited, but I couldn't get my hopes too high: travelling 9K+ miles isn't exactly cheap, so I'd still need sufficient travel reimbursements. But I'd gotten none!

I sent them an email asking about it, and I was informed that I didn't request any travel reimbursements while applying, which was very odd, because I remembered being very careful with my application. I later found out that another participant also had the same issue.

Anyways, upon bringing it up, they reconsidered and offered $150, which unfortunately made up for <10% of my flight costs. I wasn't going to hop on a 24hrs+ journey halfway around the globe for just one hackathon. Consequently, I had to wait for my Hack the North acceptance...

...which thankfully I did receive this time! With a ~50% ticket reimbursement too! All that was left was to (convince my parents to) get my plane tickets 😁

Getting There ✈

For this trip, I had the luck of travelling in Air Mauritius' new plane, the Airbus A350-900. It was less painful than last time, with plenty of legroom and nicer in-flight entertainment.

Ample legroom!

There was no free Wi-Fi though, which a hostess told me was discontinued shortly after the plane was added to their roster. Instead, it cost ~5 USD just for social media access during the (11-hour) flight. I don't understand how hard it can be to include the Wi-Fi when your tickets cost an average of 360+ USD, Air Mauritius.

Anyway, the 8-hour Delta flight from CDG, France to JFK, New York wasn't that bad either– except for their halal meal: that prepackaged vegetarian tortilla wrap was absolutely terrible!

After getting through NY's crowded customs, we jumped on a bus to Philly, then finally Uber-ed to our Airbnb- about 32 hours of gruesome travel in total! 🙂

(Thurs)Day -1: Surprise 🎊🍜😴

This Airbnb turned out to be quite special: a) "It's basically in the hood", as my Uber driver told me, and b) three of my housemates were from Vellore Institute of Tech, India, and had also flown in for PennApps!

After a much-needed shower, it was time for dinner, so I cooked some Apollo noodles while my housemates heated their Maggi packs in the microwave. We caught up on each other's lives while slurping noodles. Once done, jetlag and my bulging stomach ensured that I couldn't do anything else that night, so I crawled back into my bed.

(Fri)Day 0: Check-in and the first of many sleepless nights

As I looked at UPenn out of our Uber, my first thought was, "wow, pretty bricks". The whole campus was beautiful, with stunning brick buildings.

Benjamin Franklin had good taste 😛

We got checked in and connected to the (momentarily shabby) Wi-Fi. I went to have a look around, but I got lost- one of the many times that weekend. After making a couple laps around the building I finally got back to where I started.

By then the sponsors were all here, so I went to collect some goodies. I noticed Awake chocolate being distributed at the Major League Hacking stand, and promptly fell in love with it. Caffeine and chocolate? Sign me up!

Alas, somehow I managed to lose about half of the swag I just collected while walking around. PennApps team, for the next edition, I suggest distributing name tags along with the thousands of identical swag bags being carried around!

My mood was lightened by a lovely lady distributing delicious popsicles; chocolate was my favorite, but I also liked watermelon lemonade- or as I like to call it, Waterlemon.

By now it was time for the opening ceremony, so the thousands of hackers walked to the beautiful Irvine Auditorium under cloudy skies.

After we got settled, the directors of PennApps were up first, and they delivered a very warm welcome. Then we had UPenn's dean, who was likeable, but also trying very hard to be hip. He highlighted the importance of hackathons and appraised the role young hackers play in tech.

Finally, the two co-founders of Venmo were up on stage. Iqram talked about how they started at UPenn and eventually came up with Venmo, while Andrew Cortina managed to give the whole hall an existential crisis through his no-BS intellectual speech. I was awed and came to immediately like the guy.

After the opening ceremony, I went off to find the Venmo guys and had a very enriching chat with them, as I got to hear their opinions on various subjects. They invited me to join them at their Q&A session, which turned out to be very fun and insightful.

I noticed dinner–classic Margherita— being served on my way to the Q & A, but after seeing the thousand-head-long line, I decided to stave off the hunger and come back at after the session. Big mistake.

Keeps going...

The PennApps team had severely underestimated the hackers' appetite- by the time I got out of the Q&A, the piles of pizza boxes were already empty. So we had to wait another 25 minutes for the reorder to arrive, but that also ended up being insufficient. In the end, I had to make do with a single slice of pizza (we were denied seconds) and some Doritos. In hindsight, it's clear that my expectations were quite stupid, but lesson learnt, I'll be bringing my own food next time.

Next up, there were a couple of ongoing talks, but none of them looked interesting, so I went to have some marshmallows instead.

I wandered around, making conversation. I had to start working on a project, and quick, but honestly I had no idea where to start- in fact, I just wanted to have fun here- and so I decided I'd meet some really cool people instead. Some were into biology, some were into AR, and still others were working on even more ambitious things. There were students from all sorts of schools, with a few flying in from India, Canada, & Dubai. I loved the quirkiness of these people, and how quickly they formed bonds with each other. I even met a super cool vlogger from Rutgers!

Finally, it was time to sleep, so I headed to the Auditorium where the internationals were sleeping.  I found a huge box filled with airbeds;  some of them were decent, some were slightly dirty, while others looked plain repulsive. I picked up the best one I could find, inflated it, and laid down on it as I scrolled my phone.

The Auditorium

Fifteen minutes later, right after everyone had settled down and the lights were turned off, my bed suddenly deflated. I groaned and tried to make myself comfortable- in vain. I ended up sleeping on the cold floor with caffeine still coursing through my veins.

Satur(day) 2!

My day started when some guy's alarm started ringing interminably at 6 am. I cracked open my eyes with much effort. I freshened up, tried to look less like a zombie, and went for coffee. I was joined not much later by Simar, the guy who set the alarm, and we quickly became friends. We talked about our plans and he introduced me to the rest of his team. Their project seemed fun and I wasn't doing much, so I "mentored" them, helping them out with Git and whatnot.

For lunch, we had subs, which were, quite frankly, not much more than eatable. We went for a talk about machine learning, but that ended up being suuuper boring, so we moved to one about VR, but that was equally monotonous. It seems odd to me that companies would spend so much money on hackathons, but then send speakers with barely any public speaking skills or ambition.

After having marshmallows (again), I went to take a shower at the gym, and was kind of freaked out by the common room.

Soon it was time for dinner. As this was the 20th edition of PennApps, delicious cake was being served!

We went for a final session before bed, where a guy sporting a man bun (I think) gave us pitching advice. It was a fun interactive talk, unlike the previous ones.

This time, I tried choosing a bed that didn't deflate within 15 minutes. At first it didn't... but then I rolled just a bit too hard and propped myself up using my elbow and it started deflating :) So I tried sleeping perpendicular to my bed and placed my head on Simar's bed (who was right next to me, and squarely passed out at this point) to make it a bit more bearable.

Sunday: Pitch and Wrap

Simar and I started our Sunday with a walk. The air was fresh, freezing and super crisp. Philadelphia turned out to be quite nice actually.

For breakfast, we had donuts and Kellogg's strawberry cereal.

We went back to work and finished up the slides as it was almost time for pitching. Along the way I spotted this really cool robotics lab, that I unfortunately do not have any good pictures of :(

Pitching time! The projects were all set up in a single long aisle. I'd found some that were quite interesting.

Among them was Navig8, a peer to peer communication platform that allowed people to communicate without the use of cellular or Wifi. Through collaborative support (i.e people helping other people), they could evacuate efficiently in a building or area hit by a disaster. Another one was SML, by a very bright team, which could convert code from one language to another.

For lunch, we had subs again, and Simar introduced me to a cool guy from Stanford, which made for some really good conversation 😃

Eventually it was time to go to the Irvine Auditorium again for the winner announcements. At the end, they threw some surprise swag at us, which was rather fun.

We took some last minute photos, and then packed our stuff before going home.

I couldn't help but feel a bit cynical as I thought about how little of this weekend actually resulted in good ideas and execution, despite the thousands of dollars spent, even more so when you consider the toll the event has on your health due to no sleep and excessive caffeine/sugar consumption. But hey- I had a great time.

Final Thoughts

Overall, PennApps was very memorable for me. If I could do it again, I would. Here's what I'd do differently:

  • Bring my own sleeping bag and food
  • Prepare something beforehand for my project- plan out how we'll build at the very least, and have my development environment/tools ready to go.
  • Talk to even more people
  • I wish I had taken more pictures and notes- even the most mundane details- because after one year, my fickle memories have faded away. Writing this after so long has seriously been hard, as I really had to wrack my brain to figure out what went down during those 72 hours.
  • Drink less coffee, and ensure I don't have any plans in the days following the weekend so I can properly catch up on food and recharge my social battery

And if I was organizing PennApps, here are a few things I'd consider:

  • Spend less on swag and focus on the improving the basics- good/real food and sleeping materials. As Maya Angelou said, "people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
  • Distribute name tag stickers, so that bags/packages aren't swapped or lost.
  • Tone down on caffeine and sugar
  • Vet the talks a bit more strictly. There's only so much time during a weekend, and it would be a pity if our participants spent it drooling while a guy presents a talk he prepared the night before.

I'd like to thank the PennApps team for offering me this precious opportunity, which has certainly been eye-opening for me- a kid from a tiny island- and has allowed me to make many friends I wouldn't have otherwise due to geographical boundaries.

I think the value of hackathons lies not in the prizes, but in the sense of urgency they create and all the awesome people brought together by the same goal.

In other words, hackathons are simply a networking event. Use it as such and have fun.

I look forward to the next PennApps!

Photos are from my own album (feel free to add any you might've snapped!), PennApps FB Album, and the slack channel. Extra resources: Data Analysis, Vlog.
Also, PennApps XXI applications are now open.