A Conversation with HackPrinceton Directors (Part 1)
We sat down with David Fan ‘19 to discuss what it’s like putting on HackPrinceton, one of the biggest entrepreneurship events on the Princeton campus. Along with his co-director Nathan Alam ‘21, Fan leads a team of 30 organizers to coordinate the 36-hour hackathon, or marathon software and hardware product development events. Founded in Fall 2011, HackPrinceton will be seeing its 14th iteration this spring March 30-April 1. Applications will open for Princeton students soon at hackprinceton.com. Read Part 2 with Nathan Alam '21.
Can you briefly describe what HackPrinceton, or what a hackthon, is to those who may be unfamiliar?
Fan: “HackPrinceton is a biannual 36 hour hackathon in which hundreds of students from around the country and world come together and work to build novel software plus hardware projects. The idea is that we give people free space, food, and mentorship resources to work for 36 consecutive hours on an important idea that they might not otherwise have taken the time to work on. We also provide fun events, free swag, and prizes!”
What roles do you see hackathons playing in the Princeton community?
Fan: “Hackathons encourage people to think critically about how their knowledge and skills can be leveraged to solve pressing problems, and this awareness is requisite for being a global citizen. Sometimes, the things we learn in class get abstracted away, and it's difficult to find time to think about how concepts can be applied and built upon. Hackathons also allow people from different academic disciplines and personal backgrounds to collaborate, which diversifies perspectives and facilitates better learning. Sometimes, it is difficult on campus to meet and talk to people who are different from you, and hackathons provide a valuable opportunity for these interactions. Finally, hackathons provide a relatively pressure-free environment for people to make mistakes, get uncomfortable, and take risks, which I think is super important to nurture. Boldness and resilience are qualities that have allowed Princeton alumni to collectively make a large impact on the world. We are the next generation!”
What interested you in becoming a director? What is most rewarding aspect?
Fan: “I felt there was a lot to learn in terms of managing a large team and finances, and was excited by the opportunity. I founded the Science Olympiad invitational tournament (scioly.princeton.edu) on campus during my sophomore fall, which was an extremely rewarding and challenging experience, and wanted to see how leading a mature, well-established organization was different. The most rewarding aspect of directing HackPrinceton is getting to mentor fellow peers and work with very high quality people. My fellow organizers are some of the most driven, smart, and kind people I have met, and last year I made a lot of friends through being on the organizing team. I also enjoy seeing people grow personally and technically, and it means a lot to me whenever I can facilitate that process.”
What are some challenges you've faced organizing such a large scale event?
Fan: “There are a lot of potential failure points, so you have to think proactively, make contingency plans, and do a lot of logistical optimization in your head. You also have to be ready to adapt quickly because certain things are out of your control and may not go as you hope. An example is Princeton's fire code which doesn't allow people to sleep in non-residential buildings overnight. To combat this, we devised an entire hosting algorithm that matches hackers from outside of Princeton with Princeton students, so that they have a place to sleep at night. Finally, there are a lot of people involved and you have to keep a clear mental map of what everyone is working on, their progress, potential blocking points, as well as take the time to get to know people personally and develop relationships. This takes time and deliberate effort.”
Is there anything new or different that your team is planning for the spring hackathon? What are you most excited about this time around?
Fan: “Thematically, this spring we want to focus on encouraging people from different backgrounds to work together and solve multidisciplinary problems. Part of the plan is to get more workshops that introduce people to interesting problems that computer science people might not be aware of, or care enough about.”
Do you have any advice for new hackers? Or students from non-CS disciplines?
Fan: “The activation energy for learning how to write programs, develop applications, and think algorithmically is high, but it's very doable and worth doing. Everyone was once a novice, even giants like Mark Zuckerberg! Computer Science has the broadest potential to make an impact on other fields.”