How I Hacked NY

Some of you might be wondering what it takes to become a hackNY Fellow — a member of the selective New York City based organization of 21st century technology creators. According to the organization’s website, hackNY seeks to “empower a community of student-technologists,” and one of the ways it accomplishes this is through its summer Fellows program, which:

[P]airs quantitative and computational students with startups [that] can demonstrate a strong mentoring environment: a problem for a student to work on, a person to mentor them, and a place for them to work. Students enjoy free housing together and a pedagogical lecture series to introduce them to the ins and outs of joining and founding a startup.

So let’s break it down. You would:

(1) Work for the hottest New York City startups, use cutting edge technologies day to day, and get paid generously while you’re at it

(2) Learn about the successes/failures/necessities of building a company through tech talks and networking, and receive personal mentorship from qualified members of the community

(3) Live in the heart of Union Square (for free!) surrounded by a network of intelligent, talented, and altogether incredible individuals.

If it sounds like the hackNY Fellows program is beyond awesome, then you’re right. I had the pleasure of being a Fellow in the Class of 2015 and a Mentor for the Class of 2016. The personal and intellectual value it had for me was immeasurable, and I am certain that it could similarly impact you, as well.

The questions asked on the application vary slightly from year to year, but as an application reviewer myself, I can tell you that we look for two main themes — community involvement and coding ability. Rockstar programmers who don’t show any interest in helping their communities aren’t the best fit for hackNY. Similarly, super active community volunteers who don’t know how to code aren’t a good fit either.

I’m sure it would be helpful to see the application of an accepted Fellow. Here’s mine! For each question in the application, I posted my answer exactly as I submitted it. May these responses give you guidance.


Tell us about a time you built something awesome in code. How did you choose it? Why did you enjoy it?

When I was accepted to Stanford University for this past summer semester, I took a risk and enrolled in a CS course that took me far out of my comfort zone — Computer Graphics and Imaging. I knew nothing about the material, but I was excited to delve into it. I can honestly say that it was simultaneously the hardest and most rewarding class I have ever taken.

At the end of the semester, we were tasked with building a graphics project of our own choosing and difficulty level. Sometime during the course of the class, I watched Michael Jackson’s music video Black Or White. Closer to the end, there is a segment where people seamlessly transform into other people while dancing. The effect is startlingly impressive, especially considering how different the people are. The magic behind this effect is called “feature based image metamorphosis.” Though I had no idea how to even begin implementing this project, I knew I wanted to build it. It mesmerized me. I grouped up with two other people who loved the idea as well, and we jumped headfirst into the unknown.

I enjoyed the experience immensely! We successfully realized a goal that we were not always so sure would pan out. My group and I started (relatively) from scratch and built a working product that, while not as highly impressive as Michael Jackson’s, could accomplish impressive transformations. It was the first time I had the pleasure of working with a team on such a big project, and it helped me appreciate the pits and peaks of such an endeavor. I was proud to have brought something that existed only as a concept in my thoughts to completion, especially one as visually satisfying and compelling as feature based image metamorphoses.

Tell us about what you hope to learn this summer and why is hackNY right for you.

I have two general goals in mind: (1) learn awesome new things from awesome new people, and (2) build something awesome with those awesome people. Let me be more precise though. HackNY facilitates an experience that allows me to do exactly those two things in a stimulating and exciting way. I want to work for a startup in the early stages of product design. That kind of work fascinates me because it offers a unique perspective on preemptively dealing with design issues and also handling relevant problems as they occur. As a software engineer building features, I have more room to make important design choices than I would later on in a product development cycle. I would enjoy that kind of exploration.

By carefully pairing me up with a suitable startup, hackNY knows that I will have a mentor that can guide me in a project that I would love. I’m a rather independent person, but from experience, I know that I have benefited greatly from having a mentor. Furthermore, I want an environment where I am surrounded by intelligent and creative problem solvers. Unfortunately, my college does not facilitate many interesting interactions beyond those in the classroom, so I find myself making those opportunities myself. HackNY will provide the learning experience that I am hungry for, and I know that I will thrive in it.

Is there a particular technology or industry you’re currently interested in? How come? Where do you see it heading in the future?

Absolutely! Crowdsourcing industries. Over the past decade, I have noticed a growing category of companies that rely on the power of everyday people. They are capitalizing on a revolutionary idea: use a business model that depends on giving individuals the power to build products, offer services, teach others, or create businesses themselves. I witnessed the success of Ebay’s crowd-auctioning, Kickstarter’s crowd-funding, Etsy’s crowd-creativity, Arduino’s crowd-engineering, Spinlister’s crowd-biking, and many others. Each carved its own niche in its own industry, but in my eyes, they were all united. They built platforms for the masses to <insert awesomeness here>. And I do not think this trend is over.

There are still service sectors that have not jumped on the bandwagon. Some may indeed be infeasible if the “activation energy” is too high, but there are others that are either untapped or are in their nascent stages. Since I am a teacher, I have seen and been involved in the vast growth of crowd-education; the Khan Academies, Courseras, and Udemies of the world have revolutionized the field of learning for teachers and students alike. This movement towards crowdsourcing is only beginning. In fact, I have experimented with it myself — particularly “crowd-writing.” I have enlisted the help of writers from all over to contribute their creative efforts. They compose “single sentence stories,” which are then added to a collective pool of such stories, to be enjoyed by the whole writing community. Eventually, this project will culminate in the publication of a book that contains the most compelling submissions.

Discuss your technical skills/proficiencies/languages and experience.

I started learning to program seriously around two years ago. C++ became and remains the language I am most proficient in. The first useful program I ever built was a command line C++ financial application that tracked and analyzed my expenses (and when re-appropriated, also income) over time. Despite its simplicity and poor design, this program was my first real experience with building an application on my own. It solidified the notion that software engineering is a pursuit of creativity and practicality, and it made me realize that I wanted to build software that other people wanted to use.

I eventually taught myself Objective-C through various freely available resources, such as Stanford’s online iOS course taught by Paul Hegarty. I put my new skills to use after I started playing online chess more often and needed a better way to organize my downloaded chess games. I wrote a command line Objective-C program that renamed en masse and automatically sorted my game files. I wrote some other small applications on my own — a Bingo game for an event I ran as a dorm RA, and a messenger application and Tic-Tac-Toe game for a set of technical interviews.

I took a Microprocessors and Embedded Systems course last year, and I learned about how electronics worked and how to program Arduinos. For my final project — one that I had to conceive, plan, and construct completely on my own — I recreated a physical version of the popular Tone Matrix: http://tonematrix.audiotool.com/. This past summer, I studied away at Stanford University and I took a course in Client-Side Web Development. I learned HTML/CSS and JavaScript, and I had some exposure to the jQuery library. I plan on applying these new skills at some hackathons in the near future!

During my junior year of college, I was hired as an official tutor for the Computer Science department and as a Teaching Assistant for an introductory level C++ course. I left those positions as a senior and joined a private enrichment program in Manhattan; I am currently on track to teach an introductory programming course consisting of Scratch and C++ to students ages 12–18. I’ll also be a research assistant next semester studying the speedup of map algebra functions that will run on GPUs instead of CPUs.

When you’re not coding, what do you like to do for fun?

I consider myself both a performer and an academic.

I have been a dancer for over 15 years — exploring ballet, ballroom, and modern dance over different spans of my life. Although I put dance to rest around two years ago to focus on school, I have still continued in the “performance” direction. Most recently, I landed the role of Claudio in my college’s production of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. It was my first ever acting role on stage. I auditioned on a whim, and it turned out to be a wonderful success. Indeed, Claudio will likely not be my last stint as an actor.

Moreover, I am the current head and cofounder of my college’s Moot Court Team. Moot Court is an academic, legal activity that simulates Supreme Court argumentation. As advocates, we examine important constitutional questions as they relate to fictitious, but highly realistic cases. I’ve tackled controversial topics like GPS tracking, compelled speech, powers of the President, and others. Moot Court is an immensely satisfying activity for me, because it simultaneously builds my ability as an extemporaneous public speaker and as a constitutional analyst. In fact, this past weekend, I competed at a regional qualifying tournament and placed in the top eight Moot Court teams in the Northeast region; I’m headed to the National Tournament this January! People find it hard to believe that I derive genuine enjoyment from Moot Court, especially since I do not plan on going to law school (at least anytime soon). Nerd and proud, what can I say?

We’re looking for applicants who are restless builders. Please provide links and a brief description of at least two code samples in the language of your choice. We greatly prefer code you wrote outside of class — open source projects, side projects, hackathon hacks, professional work, etc. That said, if you have school projects that you think are exceptional, we’d love to see them.

FeatureBasedImageMetamorphosis

https://github.com/simonayzman/FeatureBasedImageMetamorphosis

FeatureBasedImageMetamorphosis is a tool-kit for the creation of metamorphosis animations based on common features between images.

Hotspots

https://github.com/el2724/hacknySpring2014

Hotspots is an intelligent geolocation analysis tool that determines trending events in the immediate geographic area by using the Twitter, Instagram, and FourSquare APIs.

ToneduinoMatrix

https://github.com/simonayzman/ToneduinoMatrix

The ToneduinoMatrix is an Arduino-based adaptation of the Tone Matrix, a popular online music application that allows the user to loop combinations of notes.

ChessGameOrganizer

https://github.com/simonayzman/ChessGameOrganizer

ChessGameOrganizer is command line based organizer of chess game files, specifically .pgn files. It allows downloaded games to be automatically sorted on common criterion (e.g., games where the user played white) and also to be sorted on user-specified custom criteria (e.g., games where the user played black and had an ELO rating between 1500 and 1700, and the opponent won and was Magnus Carlsen).

Please share anything else you’d like to share about yourself.

I highly look forward to being a hackNY fellow!


Itching to become a Fellow, yet? Go apply!