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Hackers gather for program design

Local hacker Adrian Perez frequents “hackathons,” where others like him spend an intense 24 hours designing and producing programs for all sorts of products and companies. At the end of their work period, each hacker team presents their programs for the rest of the hackathon attendees and corporate sponsors. (Courtesy of Adrian Perez.)

On a typical Saturday, Adrian Perez, a computer science student at San Jose State University (SJSU), might be pulling an all-nighter surrounded by computers, tables, chairs, and power strips. In the same room, people doze off in makeshift beds of folding chairs and surrounded by food and drinks. Perez is a member of the Bay Area’s rising hackathon community.

The hacking that Perez does isn’t the kind of hacking we hear about on the news. These hackers don’t try to break into people’s computers and steal their identities or create viruses to destroy their tech products. These hackers create computer programs and applications.

Hackathons are events where programmers and software designers gather to create a new program within a weekend. The programmers and designers often work in teams to create the best product possible within the time they’re given. Some hackers will stay awake for a full weekend perfecting their program.

A hacker takes a nap under one of the tables at the hackathon, partially sponsored by Amazon.

Companies such as Google, Yahoo!, DropBox, Amazon, and AT&T have sponsored hackathons in the past. Food and drinks are usually provided. Some hackathons are free, while others require a fee to enter.

Perez attended his first hackathon in the summer of 2011, but didn’t regularly attend them until this past summer. Since then, he’s mingled with programmers for startup companies and web sites that made it big.

“In a way, I guess I idolized people who are working in the whole startup world,” Perez said. “Getting to brush shoulders with people who make things like Tumblr, Facebook, 500px, and other sites that I love was just such a cool thing.”

Perez said he enjoys the idea of creating something in a day, or even a few hours.

“Just the notion of creating something in the span of 24 hours is astonishing,” Perez said. “Some of the hacks that get presented look like polished products that have been in the making for months.”

Sri Sreedharan, a fellow SJSU computer science student who has known Perez for about a year, has gone to four hackathons. He went to three of the four hackathons with Perez and worked with him on a team.

“Working with Adrian is great,” Sreedharan said. “We have great chemistry and it’s easier to collaborate with someone you get along with. This is especially true when working in time-sensitive situations.”

The majority of Perez’s life revolves around tech; he even opts to make mobile apps in his free time. His interest in computer science began as an early teenager, with his interest in computers going back even further.

“I’ve always been interested in computers, which is where it is all rooted,” Perez said. “My first computer was back in 1994. Ever since then, I’ve pretty much lived in front of the computer monitor.”

The entrance to the hackathon main hall.

Despite now being in his early 20s, he remembers a different time of technology from when he was
a kid.

“I was also on the internet before most, as well,” Perez said. “GNN (Global Network Navigator) was my ISP (Internet Service Provider), running Netscape Navigator. Memories of when computers were beige.”

Sreedharan said that the best product he and Perez worked on together at a hackathon was an application (app) they called Fancy That.

“The app was basically designed to help people decide on what to wear,” Sreedharan said. “It just came to us randomly, actually. We were at the hackathon, trying to decide on what to create and were throwing out random ideas. Eventually, we landed on that.”

Perez’s first app was a portal to his blog, which he called “shameless and self-promoting.”

“I also have a business card ap, which is an app with contact info and a short bio about me,” he said.

Perez has also developed programs for BlackBerry and Windows. He created an app for BlackBerry’s PlayBook tablet and is currently working on a client for a photography service on Windows 8. Though he doesn’t get paid for his work, he receives some form of compensation.

“Right now, I’m leaning towards web and mobile applications, but if something else comes along and captivates me, I just as easily could end up somewhere else,” he said.

As for his future plans, he plans to follow the path technology takes him.

“I’m sort of a jack of all trades, ace at none — yet — so I’m sort of just trying to find my niche,” Perez said. “The tech industry is surprisingly vast so who knows where I’ll be in a few years. Tech moves fast and you’ve got to keep up with it, and I have this sneaking suspicion that I will be doing just that for a good while.”