Facebook’s Hackathon returns to Waterloo

15:10 Jan 17, 2013 · News · By Amanda Guderian

  • Clockwise from left: Mark Schenn, Leigh Pauls, and Adam Kabbeke demonstrate their winning hack, the Pebble Mouse, which allows a Pebble watch to be used as a computer mouse. Akash Vaswani (not pictured) was the fourth member of the team.

    Photo Courtesy Selena Ma
  • Photo Courtesy Selena Ma
  • Photo Courtesy Selena Ma
  • Photo Courtesy Selena Ma
  • Photo Courtesy Selena Ma

Equipped with nothing more than 24 hours, a hardworking group, and a kernel of an idea, participants of the Facebook sponsored Hackathon set to work Jan. 19 to 20 to create their own technological innovations. This year’s Waterloo Hackathon saw around 300 participants, set up in groups of up to four people. It was the largest recorded turnout for a Waterloo Hackathon, and according to Facebook university recruiter Timothy Tieu, it was one of the largest turnouts to a Facebook Hackathon event ever.

For the past four years, Facebook’s Hackathon events have been a main attraction for Waterloo students with a passion for speedy innovation and creation. Among those students is two-time winner of Waterloo’s Hackathon, Akash Vaswani. Along with his group mates Leigh Pauls, Mark Schenn, and Adam Kabbeke, Vaswani created this year’s winning invention: the Pebble Mouse.

The Pebble Mouse is a program that enables the soon to be released Pebble watch to be used as a mouse for any computer interface. The Pebble watch can work with an iPhone or Android phone; it was also created by a Waterloo alumnus.

The idea for the Pebble Mouse came from Pauls, who worked for Pebble during a co–op term. All group members had an equal part and defined role in the creation of the Pebble Mouse; Hackathon was an outlet used to spawn Pauls’ idea to fruition.

“[The Hackathon’s] basically an event where you can get together with a team and work on something you consider cool,” Vaswani said.  “Rarely do you get the opportunity to just create something in one day.”

Vaswani and his team gained more than the thrill of creation. In addition to this year’s first place prize: Jamboxes, the team will take their invention to California. Winners are given luxurious accommodations, a tour of Facebook headquarters, and an introduction to Mark Zuckerburg himself. They will then compete against the other winning inventions from Facebook’s worldwide Hackathon events to determine the global champion. Over the past few years, Waterloo students have set a good track record with Facebook Hackathons. Last year, Waterloo students won the world title.

“People at Waterloo have experience at really good jobs,” Vaswani rationalized.  “The winning teams from the past years have all been from Velocity, and it may have something to do with that. People are actively working on projects throughout the year.”

“The biggest and most obvious reason is the coop program. Students are pulling knowledge from experience, not just schoolwork,” Tieu agreed. Tieu also cited the amount of diverse and innovative programs at Waterloo as a contributing factor to Waterloo’s previous Hackathon success.

Facebook hosts their own internal 24 hour Hackathons, which have led to functions such as chat, the use of videos on Facebook, and mentions (when a user links someone’s name to a post). Hackathons have been a part of Facebook’s culture for a long time.

“Hackathons have been going on ever since Facebook was founded. It is something we value a lot and kept as a tradition,” Tieu said. “We brought Hackathons to universities four years ago, to meet students of the same mindset and bring Facebook culture to them.”

In accordance with this culture, Vaswani described the event as being “less competitive than collaborative.” Participants walk around and help each other solve problems with their inventions. Facebook also brings engineers to the event to help participants create things they have thought of but don’t necessarily have the capability to create on their own.

Hackathons are used as an outlet for participants to work towards achieving their aspirations. For Vaswani, the combination of Hackathon, Velocity ventures, and UW’s coop program have helped him achieve his previous goal of visiting Palo Alto and working in the valley. His current aspiration?

“Working for a startup that makes a lot of money,” Vaswani said.

With two Facebook Hackathon wins and another win from a Perimeter Institute Hackathon, Vaswani’s adherence to UW’s trademark innovation should help him realize his goal.

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