The Birth of the Cortex


One of the large themes encompassing MHacks IV was challenging yourself to learn something new, and helping others do the same. It didn’t matter if you had experience with Android before iOS, or wanted to dive straight into iOS as your first mobile experience. Cortexes were spaces where this should happen.

So what is a Cortex?

They’re concentrated spaces where there’s a high probability that looking left and looking right show you people working on similar technology.

All of the cortexes at MHacks IV were not successful, but the iOS and Android cortexes, representing sizable populations of hackers, made collaboration easier according to accounts from many hackers.

One hacker came up to me during MHacks and asked where she could get a question about iOS development answered. She was stuck, and since it was 3am, couldn’t ask the Apple folks to help her out. I took her to the iOS cortex, where I asked:

“Who here can answer a question about iOS dev?”

Hands shot up.

Tons of hackers in this room knew iOS, and could answer her question. My job was done. She was in a room full of people who could answer her questions.

Many hackathons are huge events, and events are becoming more comfortable with their size. Schools running their first hackathon are starting out at >1000 hackers, and experiences like MHacks in their fourth iteration have found the 1000–1300 hackers to be a preferable size. In events these large, resources are everywhere. But I’m not talking about sponsors— because each hacker isn’t just building a hack on their team, they’re also community members willing to help. Mentors surround you. Help could be the hacker next to you.

Fun fact:

Over two-thirds of hackers who registered for MHacks IV said they were willing to spend a portion of their time at MHacks mentoring other hackers.

This is huge.

Two hackers work through a bug in their hack. (Credit: Joseph Xu, College of Engineering)
You don’t get this because it’s a hackathon. You get it because this is a community.

You don’t get this because it’s a hackathon. You get it because this is a community. No one was born knowing how to hack, and many hackers who consider themselves experienced remember their first hackathon and know how it feels. Which is why they take time to spread that magic.

The Best of Both Worlds

Cortexes make huge hackathons feel smaller, because each room can take on its own personality and feel. The iOS Cortex, as pictured in the cover photo, turned the lights off creating an awesome vibe for focus (and sleeping). We plan on expanding on the customizability of spaces at future MHacks. At big hackathons, you get tons of resources, career opportunities, epic experiences and a huge platform to share your hack on. At smaller hackathons, you get quality mentorship, easier access to resources (including sponsors) and more intimate networking experiences.

With cortexes, you get both.

Each room functions as a smaller hackathon, with all of the perks of a huge 1000+ person experience as soon as you leave the space.

Mentorship at MHacks can always be better—a few of our initiatives aimed at first-time hackers were weak or failed entirely. However, we believe cortexes are the next step in bringing hackers with similar interests together, and creating stronger senses of community and friendship between hackers.

What did you think of the cortexes at MHacks? I’d love to get your feedback and incorporate it into MHacks V.

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