Salon 2.0: Baby Hackers Gorge on Twizzlers and Red Bull, Coding Till the Sun Comes Up

mg6174 Salon 2.0: Baby Hackers Gorge on Twizzlers and Red Bull, Coding Till the Sun Comes UpWhen he’s in front of people, Ian Jennings Jablonowski, the 20-year-old hacker from New Brunswick, stands over his laptop like a DJ at a club, feet planted far apart and further out than they need to be, back hunched, arms stretched out. He talks fast and has piercings in both ears and in his lip. His pointy black hair looks like that of an anime character, and the straight-brimmed black hat that sits carefully askew on top of his head does not come off.

Mr. Jablonowski, a junior at Rutgers, drew cheers from his fellow hackers when he bounded to the front of the lecture hall at N.Y.U.’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences on Saturday morning. He had been called to talk about bit.ly, the downtown Web start-up where he interned last summer, for the benefit of the 200 or so young computer science students who had gathered in the building for the second annual HackNY hack-a-thon.

‘We’re trying to use the word “hack” in the sense of curiosity and exploration,’ said HackNY co-founder Hilary Mason. ‘The criteria is how awesome the projects are, not how much money they’re gonna make.’

Founded by a trio of computer scientists last year, HackNY is a nonprofit meant to fertilize the New York tech community by exposing college students to the joys of start-up life. They offer fellowships that place students in N.Y.U. dorms and hook them up with internships at city start-ups. The hack-a-thon, which amounts to a sort of salon for techies, is one of the ways HackNY is trying to reroute talent from Wall Street to the start-up ecosystem by introducing them to entrepreneurs and established CTOs. People come to learn new programming languages, to network and, above all, to code. Whoever comes up with the “awesomest” piece of software at the end of the 24 hours wins.

On Saturday, the hackers were spending the opening hours of the event in the lecture hall, listening to representatives from some 15 start-ups describe how their software could be used for hacking. Later, the students would shuffle to another part of the building; find their places on couches, desks and chairs; and get to work.

Mr. Jablonowski, who won last year’s hack-a-thon with an app that used Twitter and Foursquare to determine the most “influential” person at a given place, carried himself with marked swagger as he demonstrated the bit.ly API on a laptop hooked into a projector. Earlier, when he walked in wearing a stripey V-neck, slim-fitting jeans and white Adidas, he had tweeted, “The king has arrived.”  

After his presentation, Mr. Jablonowski went to the back of the auditorium, rejoining the hackers he would be competing against.

“Don’t distract Ian while he’s hacking,” warned HackNY organizer (and bit.ly scientist) Hilary Mason, who was emceeing the opening ceremony. “If you have questions, you can come ask me.”

After the last presentations, Ms. Mason told the group about the wiki they could post to and the chat room they could join to talk to each other during the hack-a-thon. Then she threw her arms up and cried, “LET’S GO HACK!”

The kids made their way from the lecture hall up to a space on the 13th floor with ample seating and stocked with Cheez-its, Rice Krispie Treats, Slim Jims and Twizzlers. Later there would be burritos; later still there would be Red Bull.

The Columbia kids all packed into one room. “We came together, we like be together,” said Akiva Bamberger, one of three students who worked with HackNY to start the hack-a-thon last year. Clean cut and friendly, Mr. Bamberger explained that the hackers were not just trying to be programmers, but artists.

“When you watch The Social Network, when you see that movie, you see someone who’s actually very creative and just using this as a medium to express creativity, just like other people use writing and art,” Mr. Bamberger said, as people around tinkered on their laptops and consumed snacks. If working in journalism was like going to work as a technologist for a bank, he explained, then being the kind of hacker who would come to a hack-a-thon was like being a novelist or a poet. “They worry about the aesthetic value of what they produce,” he said. “The people who work for finance companies, they don’t have to worry about aesthetics.”

Nearby stood a pair of recent business school graduates who were looking to hire some technical talent for their fledgling Web service. One was holding a folded copy the Financial Times.

Normally Ms. Mason and her HackNY co-organizers, N.Y.U. professor Evan Korth and Columbia’s Chris Wiggins, would have been against such outsiders shmoozing with their students during the hack-a-thon, as the whole point of the exercise was to give computer scientists the freedom to come up with ideas without worrying about how to monetize them. “In tech entrepreneurship, even a lot of hack events tend to be overly commercial, in that they’re designed to produce companies,” Ms. Mason said. “We’re trying to use the word ‘hack’ in the sense of curiosity and exploration and building awesome things just for your own pure enjoyment. The criteria is how awesome the projects are, not how much money they’re going to make.”

Conveniently for these hackers who don’t care about money, computer scientists are in high demand in New York right now. And they know it. 

“We’re at the right place at the right time,” said Max Stoller, who attends NYU. “If you’re a computer science student, chances are you’re getting an email very often from someone trying to hire you.”

Were Mr. Stoller and his friend, Tal Safran, thinking of going to work for banks when they graduated? “Fuck no.” 

During a brief break, Mr. Jablonowski, who was sitting with his laptop (covered in stickers, of course) and wearing a pair of huge headphones over his hat, revealed to The Observer that he was building an alarm clock that would call you and read you the news, remind you of your appointments and go through the most recent posts on whatever sites you like to read. 

The next morning Mr. Jablonowski and all of the other tired kids presented their projects in the lecture hall, in front of a panel of judges that included 4chan founder Chris “Moot” Poole and an investor named Dave Tisch, who is starting a start-up incubator in New York. There were 19 presentations in all. One group had built a multiplayer mobile phone game featuring tanks; another built an app that you can use to connect via text message to a stranger when you are bored or lonely.

Those two projects took second and third place, respectively, when the verdict came in a little before half past 1.

And first place, of course, went to the reigning champion Mr. Jablonowski and his crazy alarm clock, which he sheepishly called “Cockle Doodle Doo.” 

After the announcement, a young man had his father take a picture of him with Mr. Jablonowski. In a postgame interview, the hacker told The Observer that he would try to turn his hack into a real product.

But had he slept? No way!

“All my friends were coming over and they were talking to me and stuff, and I just had my headphones on the whole night,” he said.

What was he listening to? “Trance music. Constant trance all night.” 

lneyfakh@observer.com