Two professors and a data scientist met in January last year over milkshakes, but it was with a sense of urgency. “We felt like we needed to do something as soon as possible, if not sooner,” said Chris Wiggins, an applied mathematics professor at Columbia. “There was starting to be an increase in New York City startups and the startups felt like they didn’t have access to good coders. We didn’t want the startup scene in New York to choke before it could really flourish.”
Their answer was hackNY, a nonprofit that helps students hook up with fellowships at local startups like Bit.ly, Aviary, OKCupid and Knewton. HackNY is one of the most prominent efforts to draw hackers to the city, and it’s on track to double its enrollment this summer. More than 100 startups have already applied to get fellows, and Dr. Wiggins said hackNY hopes to place 20 to 30 students with them.
The other professor was Evan Korth, who teaches computer science at NYU, and the data scientist was Hilary Mason of Bit.ly. HackNY’s advisors include Chad Dickerson, CTO at Etsy; Chris Poole, founder of 4chan and Canv.as; Victoria Stodden, statistics professor at Columbia; and Nate Westheimer, executive director of New York Tech Meetup.
The persistent economic doldrums made it easier to preach the gospel of startup life to students and recent grads confronting the depressed job market, the group found, making this an especially effective time to talk to students with programming skills looking for work in New York City.
“If you know how to do computer science, you can always just go to Wall Street,” Dr. Wiggins said. “After 20 years of people going to Wall Street… we wanted to give them an alternative narrative: ‘Another option is to go do soemthing awesome with your engineering skills!’ A year ago we felt like, we don’t know how long it’s going to be before Goldman and Morgan Stanley start hiring people crazily… but now is a moment when students are thinking in a much more diverse way about their possible career options in New York City. Now is a good time to build something lasting and sustainable so when the market starts hiring at full force again, we have a sustainable and robust program.”
HackNY fellows work at startups for ten weeks, supplemented by a series of talks by local tech luminaries. Startups pay the fellows $400 a week and they are offered free housing in an NYU dorm. The 2010 fellows came mostly from the Northeast, but the program is open to students all over the country. One 2010 hackNY fellow, Clement Huyghebaert, was hired by his host startup, Buzzfeed; he recently pushed a major feature, a search engine for memes.
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