A Reflection by Usmann Khan
“It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world.” — Chaos Theory
When I came to Purdue in August of 2014, I was lost. I’d been away from home before but never for months on end like I would be this time around. That, combined with the fact I didn’t know a single person here, meant that I really had no idea what I was doing.
I figured that there were three things I had to work on: Keeping my grades up (Something I often failed to do in high school), making friends, and getting involved. The first one was easy enough to plan for. Then it was time for the next two. Sure there was our freshman orientation program, BGR, but it would turn out that our assigned group would cease to keep in touch. There were classes, but how are you supposed to meet someone in a lecture where everyone is focused on taking notes or avidly Facebooking? And how was I supposed to “get involved”? There were so many different club callouts everywhere and for everything. I had no idea what to do.
So I did everything.
I signed up for every single thing I thought I was even a little bit interested in. Walking around campus I saw club callouts posted in every direction. It seemed like every club on campus was vying for our attention (Turns out: it’s because they were). So my list grew: Purdue Hackers, Ultimate Frisbee, MSA, The EDM Committee, SASA, ACM, and the list went on.
The one thing that I’d seen around but never took action towards was BoilerMake. Now I wasn’t 100% sure what a “hackathon” even was. If anything it was a place for superstar upperclassmen to make incredible things; definitely not a place for a freshman with nothing but a couple of Android apps under his belt. After all, why else would you go and code for 36 hours?
I was wrong.
It turns out that only two of those callouts resulted in anything I kept up with. The rest of them I’ve since dropped entirely. But that’s why you check out everything, because you never know what you’re really looking for.
I found what I was looking for after I met a floormate of mine from my dorm, Marty Kausas.
He came up to me one day and asked “Hey, you know Android right? Want to be on our team for BoilerMake?” I was still in my “fuck it ship it, do whatever comes up” mode so I said yes.
Since applications for the event had long closed, he told me he’d do his best to get me in. I didn’t know it then but that was the “chaos theory butterfly” that led to the typhoon.
BoilerMake was a complete whirlwind of wonder and surprise. Our team was comprised of Me, Marty, Harris Christiansen, and Kayli Robison. Once I got in, we entered with the idea of making an Augmented Reality app for things like interior designing and the hope that we’d win something. When we walked in, I was astounded. I was surrounded by brilliant people from all across the country, working on all sorts of awesome things. Experience levels ranged from people who’d never written a line of code to crazy 10x hackers and not a single person felt out of place. The next 36 hours were spent learning more than I ever could from a class, talking with people I’d never otherwise get a chance to meet, binging on coffee, melting down, burning out, restarting all over again, and having the time of my life.
The craziest part? We won.
Not first place or anything, but top 10! I never even thought in the slightest that we would, but we did.
Attending BoilerMake led to everything that happened next. I went to WildHacks and failed. Hard. I was flown out to PennApps and got to see a city I’d never had the chance to visit. I went to the Thiel Summit in San Francisco and hung out/connected/partied with drop-out entrepreneurs, top tech company recruiters, geneticists, and a whole slew of others. I joined the BoilerMake exec board (eventually as treasurer) and became a Purdue Hackers Organizer, two things that as a shy incoming freshman, I‘d only dreamt of. I gained a whole new group of friends, certainly a far cry from my friendless self back in August. I went to HackIllinois (and won 2nd!). I had companies fly me out for some of the most brutal interviews of my life. So much more has happened since, but it can almost all be attributed to the conversation about BoilerMake I had in the dorms that day.
So, try everything. 90% of those things won’t stick with you, but that other 10% is the butterfly whose wings will flap and turn your whole life into an incredible typhoon.