Hack U sets foot in Bangalore: Coverage from IIIT-B, December 4-6, 2009

After two successful Open Hack days in Bengaluru, better known as Bangalore, it was about time for a University Hack Day. The chosen college was the International Institute of Information Technology, a Deemed University, popularly known as IIIT-B. Yahoo! has a strong presence in Bangalore, and IIIT-B is well known here for its vision, "to contribute to the IT world by focusing on education and research, entrepreneurship and innovation.". So, hosting the first ever Hack U in Bangalore at IIIT-B was a good choice.

Earlier this year Hack U was conducted in IIT Delhi and IIT Mumbai. IIIT B gave a real warm welcome to all Yahoos, literally, because the air conditioning in the conference room had gone for a toss :). Jokes aside, it was amazing to see students turn out in huge numbers for the Hack U kickoff. They walked in all charged right after a grueling exam, which took us by surprise. Exam hangover and this bunch of students? Nah!

Prof. S. Sadagopan, a very well known and respected person in the industry and academia, flagged off the event with his pep talk. He said that coding and creating something useful and innovative is close to playing God, and as future developers, Hack U provided a great platform for the students. The mood for the Hack U was set by Paul Tarjan who used pictures and Hack examples from previous Hack U events around the world to inspire the students. Students were introduced to the Yahoo!'s tech support crew and many of their questions about the program, registration, etc. were answered.

There was not much talk that night, we never wanted to hold all the students in a room especially after their exams. Yahoo! had arranged a DJ on campus for everyone to just unwind and unwind they did! When we first saw the dance floor, it looked pretty sad. But within a few minutes, the students shed their inhibitions and filled the hall. Remixed Bollywood hits, electric atmosphere, food, and fun made a fitting start to the Hack U.

Next morning, talks on various Yahoo! technologies were kick-started again by Paul. He described the difference between Hacking and Cracking. His energy and enthusiasm seemed to rub off on the students. The wizard hat that Paul wore was a nice touch. Paul showed how to mix and match various technologies to create something innovative. He emphasized that developers must always look to learn new programing languages and always be willing to experiment. He said a Hack idea can be anything that is bothering you and you want fixed.

Philip Tellis followed Paul with his YUI talk. He spoke about how easy it is to do fantastic presentations with the YUI libraries. He managed to demo a few hacks and sample code. His approach was to tell students how great presentations can be done with very little code. During his talk, I was busy hacking up a sample demo for my talk on getting data for any hack from the Internet. Student hackers respond well when examples and code are shown.

After a small break, we continued with talks on YQL, Pipes, and BOSS. I did the YQL and Pipes talk, and showed many examples using these tools. I had managed to mashup YQL, Pipes and YUI to show some of the pictures from Flickr with HackU tags. A lot of students were interested in the cool user interface that Pipes provides. They all were equally impressed with the ease of use of the YQL interface. I pointed out that any resource on the Web is a potential data source. Using examples on how to scrape a page and fetch useful data from it, I demonstrated the power and simplicity of YQL. Throughout the presentation, students asked insightful questions which won them cool Hack U t-shirts. Some students even answered questions.

Saurabh Sahni followed up with a talk on BOSS. He showed various hacks that used BOSS effectively to solve some search related problems.The Hack U timer went off at 1:30 pm after a quick lunch. The Hack Timer was put together on the spot by a member of the crew. Paul had a couple of deep dive sessions and Arnab Nandi covered the Yahoo! GeoPlanet APIs and FireEagle. Since the event was in Bangalore, we had great support from many Yahoo! engineers who volunteered to come on a weekend and interact with the students. Most of us were moving around the campus and spoke with as many students as we could, to understand their ideas and help them with API documentation, code samples, and idea improvements. It was fantastic to see many students serious about ideas and eager to learn new technologies. Many ideas were around the social networking space. A lot of students wanted to know more about YQL and Yahoo!'s other APIs Yahoo!. Many worried that their ideas had already been implemented.

In general, students were surprised when we kept telling them that any technology could be used in their hacks, that it didn't have to be restricted to Yahoo!. A couple of student teams had multiple hack ideas. The buzz around the college was really great. And every Yahoo participant seemed to enjoy the interactions.

The discussions went on into the night. We all initially thought that the students would be exhausted after exams, but energy levels and interest was truly commendable. Many student teams had ideas around Yahoo! Mail and how to use mail to promote social networks. One of the winning hacks involved having templates for Yahoo! Mail that would make it easier to pre-define a set of mail text. There was another hack for tracing friends' locations in a map via emails sent between the sender and his/her friends. 45 hacks were registered and some 30 demos were presented.

The Top 3 hacks were My Collect, Hack on Update, and MHack. Other hacks that walked away with prizes included Ripples and Flickr Memory Game. YQL, Flickr, Maps, PlaceMaker APIs, and BOSS were among the most popular technologies used by students during their ideation and hacking. After speaking with many in the Yahoo! crew I can gather that the students needed a lot of help when it came to web technologies. Many did not know the Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP (LAMP) stack or JavaScript. This might explain why YUI was not among the most popular in this event.

Overall, I think it was a great experience both for the students and the Yahoo! crew. The college facilities were really good and the help staff was supportive. I think that IIIT B has set a new benchmark for student involvement and enthusiasm for Hack Us in Indian universities. The YDN giveaways: stickers, start-up kits, and t-shirts were a hit among students.

A big shout-out to Saurabh, Rajagopal, Nikhil, Rajesh, Arun, Jayasurian, Harsha, Arnab, Mithun, Gopal, Natarajan, Tom, Arun, Kiran, Prajwal, Suren, Paul, Philip, and other members of the the Yahoo! technical crew who spent a good part of their weekend helping out and discussing ideas with students. Some of them also had useful inputs for this post.

Yet another successful Hack U in the Yahoo! kitty, and the sixth in 2009.

2010 here we come!

Subramanyan Murali
YDN Evangelist, Platform Engineer, Hacker