Photo: (Left to right) Hack the North co-founders Kartik Talwar, Kevin Lau and Liam Horne during the hackathon’s closing ceremonies at the University of Waterloo on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015.

Hack: to write computer programs for enjoyment.

For a word that sounds so uninviting, it’s ironic that the act of hacking can bring people together, often to do amazing things.

Hack the North held its successful second annual hackathon last weekend at the University of Waterloo, bringing together more than 1,000 students from across the globe to build over 36 hours.

 

Kevin Lau, Kartik Talwar and Liam Horne, co-founders of the event, first met in October 2013. The three University of Waterloo students attended the inaugural meeting from a random Facebook group they came across. The meeting was intended to brainstorm creating a hackathon in the region. Out of the 50 who RSVP’d, only 15 showed up.

Having attended hackathons in states including Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan, they wanted to answer the question: why doesn’t Canada have something like this? Horne, Lau and Talwar, along with Vishal Mathur, Nima Vaziri, Matthew Kuzyk, Victor Vucicevich, Valentin Tsatskin, Sean Young, and Jean Wu—the original founding team—joined forces.

“We’ve seen the magic, how much people learn, how much they’re able to get out of it; people who have been hired, people who have started companies out of these hackathons,” said Lau, a third-year systems design engineering student at the University of Waterloo.“It’s an extraordinary environment for people to learn a lot and build themselves up personally and professionally.”

The group realized there should be an equivalent event in Canada, and the University of Waterloo was the perfect place to host it.

“If no one else is going to do it, why can’t we do it?” said Liam Horne, member of the Thiel Fellowship and Chief Technology Officer at a local startup, PiinPoint.

The next year was comprised of long nights and Google Hangouts. The trio formalized the process to create the hackathon – the first of its scale in Canada – without any event planning experience.

“We just kind of winged it,” said Horne. “But it worked really well and now we know how to do it, for the most part, although we’re still learning.”

Juggling between studying for midterms, cramming for final exams and preparing for co-op placement interviews isn’t out of the ordinary for University of Waterloo students. Add planning Canada’s largest international hackathon, and it’s hard to imagine how the organizing team, now made up of 40 dedicated volunteers, pulls it off.

“Hack the North is just the cherry on top,” said Lau. “It’s probably in the thousands of total hours committed. We lose sleep from time to time and exams are always stressful, but it’s definitely well worth it.”

When shipments of food and swag from sponsors started rolling in and people started working together in the University of Waterloo Engineering 5 building, they realized all their planning was turning into something real.

“That all becomes surreal,” said Horne. “I like to take a step back and take that all in, but it’s a feeling that never really goes away.”

The team essentially hacked the process of creating and running a successful hackathon along the way.

“You know what you want to make, you know what the end goal is, and somehow you need to figure out how to get from start to finish,” said Lau. “You do that by being very scrappy, being very hands-on, asking questions, and looking things up. That’s what hacking really is.”

The first-annual Hack the North took place in September 2014 and was a huge success, followed-up by another great event this year. But the group is convinced this is just the tip of the iceberg for Hack the North. To them, the goal of the weekend is to jumpstart interesting, beneficial outcomes, whether a hacker lands a job with a hiring sponsor company, or a judge ends up hiring or funding a team.

“Although it seems like a two-day event, the goal is that we want to see how this will affect someone’s future,” said Talwar, a fourth-year physics student at Waterloo. “Five years from now, someone here could have had a head start on something they wanted to do, and hopefully we’ll get to see that. It’s a really long experiment in that sense.”

One of the things they decided to do different from last year was open some of the tech workshops up to the public, delivered by sponsors like Microsoft and Facebook.

“Because of our capacity we can only accept 1,000 people into the hackathon, but we had over 4,600 applicants. For us it was a great way to still give back to the community and give this learning opportunity to other people,” said Lau, who is driven by the opportunity to educate others.

For Horne, it’s the love of seeing all their hard work, plans, and networks come together and the experience of it all.

“That’s why I’m doing Hack the North, because I care about the experience that all these people get that I got at other hackathons. It’s really the community effect that makes Hack the North the best, and that’s why I do it.”

 

About The Author

Samantha Clark
Media Relations Associate

As a Media Relations Associate at the Communitech Hub in Kitchener, Ontario, Sam is passionate about the Waterloo Region community, entrepreneurship and technology. She is a graduate of Conestoga College with a bachelor’s degree in public relations.