My Reason For Throwing SteelHacks

And why you should care.

Disclaimer: This is my first ever blog post, so my writing might be choppy.

A little bit about me

I’ve been around computers for as long as I can remember. My dad is an embedded software engineer, and he’s had me using computers pretty much as soon as I could figure out what the alphabet was.Growing up, I used computers like any other kid: games, email, games, and games (did I mention games?). I never really had an interest in programming, or building computers. I had a basic understanding of BASIC (get it?), and I could use the marquee tag in HTML! I just really liked the air force game that was on my computer at home. In fact, I wanted to be an air force pilot through much of elementary school.

Middle school came around, and I realized I loved science. Chemistry, biology, and geology all were really fun and excited, and computer science was just something my dad wanted me to do. He even gave me a book on C# and told me to read it all. There was no way in hell I was going to do what my dad wanted to do! Middle school rebellions don’t make much sense, as it turns out. All through middle school I wanted to be a doctor.

It was the summer after 8th grade, and high school was staring me in the face. For the first time in my life, I actually picked up that C# book and read it. A lot of it didn’t make me sense, soI asked my dad for an easier read. Naturally, he gave me a book about wireless networking with C++ (thanks dad). Giving up on books, I turned to the Internet. I started picking up Visual Basic, and soon had mastered that. I had no idea of any theory, but I started picking up Java and knowledge of data structures as I started 9th grade. Through the rest of high school, I learned Java, C++, some C, as well as CS theory. I was hooked. I loved making the computer do anything I could imagine. I soon started combining my love for biology and chemistry with computer science, and was lucky enough to partner with the Department of Biomedical Informatics at the University of Pittsburgh.

Accurate representation of me throughout high school.

College came around, and I entered as a sophomore majoring in Computer Science, armed with experience from DBMI and a burning desire to learn more. I went to Pitt, naturally (and also because Carnegie Mellon was expensive as hell). I was so excited! Time for me to finally focus on CS and only CS. Time to join a million CS clubs and a bajillion programming competitions and make something of myself.

The Shock

Well, it turns out Pitt is not the school you want to go to for a million CS clubs and a bajillion programming competitions. Pitt is an amazing medical school, but CS is not a main focus at all. In fact, we were overshadowed in CS by our neighbors across the road (CMU) in every way possible. The year I joined was in fact the first year of Pitt’s first CS club! I was so shocked. I did not expect to not have any CS related activities to do at all.

The Problem

Most students that go to the University of Pittsburgh for CS don’t go there because they have an inherent love for CS theory. They go instead beacuse CS is a good paying job, and they can pursue their other interests once they have a stable job. I can only name about 20 people at Pitt that genuinely care about CS, and everything that goes along with it. Compared to CMU, where every CS kid was highly self-motivated, knew 3 different programming languages as a freshman, and had fully developed GitHub profiles, the game at Pitt was completely different.

Of course, this is not to say that Pitt doesn’t have great CS classes. Our professors and lecturers are among the best, and most motivated people I have met in my life. But something had to be done about the student attitude toward CS.

The home to Pitt CS. Image courtesy of @PittCSGSO

What Changed Me

Luckily, I had joined the CMU Class of 2018 Facebook page, and I saw a post about PennApps. Through a long series of events, I ended up going to MHacks IV for my first hackathon.

MHacks IV’s logo.

I was absolutely blown away. People from other colleges were insanely talented. Here were 1,200 people hacking away, building crazy things with ten different types of hardware, drones, machine learning algorithms. I got to hack a Tesla! This was insane. These were people who cared deeply about computer science. This is what I imagined my ideal college to be like!

I didn’t win anything at MHacks IV, but I learned what just over a 1,000 CS and engineering students could do in 36 hours (almost anything, given enough Red Bull). I was hooked. I wanted all of this at Pitt. And I wanted it now.

The Solution

Dave Fontenot gave a great closing ceremony at MHacks IV, where he encouraged each and every one of us to start our own hackathons. “Change your community,” he said. So that’s what I set out to do. The leaders of Pitt’s Computer Science Club are among my best friends, and people that I know to be truly motivated by the pursuit of CS knowledge. With them, the CS Department, and lots of late nights, we organized Pitt’s first MLH sanctioned hackathon: SteelHacks.

SteelHacks 2015

SteelHacks set out to motivate Pitt’s CS students to “create cool stuff for the sake of creating cool stuff.” We organized the hell out of SteelHacks. We got over 500 registrations over the world to attend our event. However, we closed SteelHacks 2015 to just students from the Pittsburgh area, to give Pitt students full priority. We had decent turnout, with 120 students showing up and creating cool hacks. These students got full access to MLH’s Hardware Lab. For a lot of them, it was the first time seeing a Spark Core, or an Oculus Rift. They used them to their full potential. Hacks created included a virtual Etch-A-Sketch via two Myo arm bands, a hack to automatically create soothing sounds by reading brain waves with a Muse band, an iOS app to find all events happening on campus, and many more cool hacks that I was blown away by.

I saw for myself CS freshmen come to SteelHacks unsure of themselves leaving confident in their ability to create a website, an app, or even a hardware hack. And I was proud. We had started something that couldn’t be stopped: cultural CS change at Pitt.

The Future

I realize a lot of this article may sound cynical, but I love Pitt and Pitt CS. I have so much faith and belief in the talent held within the walls of Sennott Square. I solely wear Pitt gear to every CS event I go to, to represent my school.

My friend, Shef, and me, representing Pitt at the Google Games.

CS at Pitt will take off, and that is something I will make sure of. I love CS, and I want that love to infect each and every student I meet.

SteelHacks 2016 is already being planned. It will happen on February 19th-21st at Pitt’s William Pitt Union. SteelHacks 2016 will have a biotech theme. If you’re a college student reading this, please come! It will be one of the most memorable events of your life, regardless of if you are CS, Engineering, Business, Medical, or any major. As for my goals to change the culture of Pitt CS, this is how I’m going about it. One hackathon at a time.

Here’s what I want SteelHacks 2016 to achieve:

  • Bring a love of CS, engineering, and making to Pitt students
  • Showcase Pittsburgh’s biotech talent
  • Show the world that Pitt is an amazing CS school
  • Give participants an event where they learn, collaborate, and have fun for 36 hours.

Pitt’s CS community hasn’t changed yet; not by a long shot. But we started someplace, and we’re getting there. It may take time to build momentum, but once it starts, I have no doubt Pitt can be one of the nation’s best CS schools.

Pre-register for SteelHacks 2016 at http://steelhacks.com

Ritwik is quite possibly the worst writer this side of Western Pennsylvania, but he loves Pitt and can be found in his room looking at stack traces and ignoring comma splices.