HELLO, WORLD. A celebration of the Rutgers tech community TYLER GOLD
TechTalk Page 2
April 10, 2014
More than 150 students, faculty and local community members in attendance for the second edition of the RU Tech Meetup at the Cove in the Busch Campus Center in the fall of 2013. TYLER GOLD
The birth of the tech scene at the University Nis Frome and Tyler Gold Staff Writers
When we started covering the tech scene at the University in September 2013, we didn’t really know what we were getting into. Believe it or not, one of our initial fears was that we wouldn’t have enough content to fill a weekly column. As it turns out, the opposite was true. We were flooded with pitches, ideas and stories — all
of which were worthwhile. As we dug deeper into these stories, we uncovered a narrative that was much larger, spanning several years. Through our tech column, we had been unintentionally chronicling the emergence of a young but bustling tech scene. We were inspired to inter view some of the students and alumni who were involved in the formation of this community. This is their stor y.
Wayne Chang presenting his robot, Navi, at the RU Tech Meetup in the Busch Campus Center in February. MARIELLE SUMERGIDO / ONLINE EDITOR
The self-driving, intelligent robot, Navi, created by IEEE Rutgers. TYLER GOLD
A student works on a computer science project in the CAVE on Busch campus. TIAN LI / ASSOCIATE PHOTO EDITOR
April 10, 2014
TechTalk Page 3
The tech renaissance begins “It just happened all of a sudden … a whole cultural shift that took a life of its own,” said Sesh Venugopal with the excitement of someone who truly believes he is par t and parcel in an ongoing revolution. Venugopal, the director of Introductory Undergraduate Instruction in the Department of Computer Science, has been a professor at the University for more than a decade. He’s also the founder of Flipdclass, a new digital teaching platform that he has piloted in some of his classes. Venugopal admits that just five years ago, he could hardly name a student working on technology projects outside the classroom. “I knew of a few students working on open source projects, but it was mostly these guys doing their own thing,” Venugopal said. “I would not have called it a community.” Then suddenly, something changed. Students are still as engaged as ever in taking their courses and getting degrees, Venugopal observes, but they’re also working on side projects that they believe are just as — if not more — important than their coursework. In perhaps the first blog post to truly do so, graduating fifthyear Jonathan Maltz captured the metamorphosis of a once fragmented, rag-tag group of
hackers into a coordinated “powerhouse” community of more than 350 active students. “Back when I first declared my CS major three years ago, the community was a far cr y from the vibrant and passionate one that characterizes Rutgers today,” Maltz wrote. “When I star ted, Rutgers computer science was a disparate collection of students who scarcely got together in groups larger than four people.” When Maltz published his ar-
“There needs to be this constant influx of passionate people to take over leadership or all of this will eventually crumble” SAMEEM JALAL Software developer at Facebook
ticle in the winter of 2013, the Rutgers Hackathon Club group on Facebook was just 350 strong. Six months later, that group has ballooned to more than 750 members with active conversations day and night. But growth in the community isn’t confined to the digital sphere. The latest count of students registered for Hack-
RU April 12, the University’s largest recurring tech event, is at more than 900 developers, said HackRU Director Sam Agnew, a School of Ar ts and Sciences junior studying computer science. That’s a far cr y from the meager HackRU in 2011, at which only 10 people completed projects, said Devon Peticolas, a class of ‘13 alumnus and a computer science major. Come May, there will be few students left at the University who can remember a time before there was a robust technology scene on campus. But alumni and graduating students are acutely aware of the fleeting nature of campus organizations and remain cautious about the sustainability of their legacy. Sameen Jalal, a ‘13 alumnus and now a software developer at Facebook, said an impressively high bar has been set for underclassmen and incoming students seeking to carr y on the torch. “There needs to be this constant influx of passionate people to take over leadership or all of this will eventually crumble,” Jalal said. They’d be wise to study the roots that made this renaissance a reality in the first place. Continued on Tech Page 4.
David Zafrani (top left), Kaushal Parikh (top right), Sam Agnew (bottom left) and Mike Swift (bottom right) lead the tech scene at Rutgers. NIS FROME / TYLER GOLD./ MARIELLE SUMERGIDO
Students gather in the CAVE at the Hill Center on Busch campus to learn, do homework and just hang out. TIAN LI / ASSOCIATE PHOTO EDITOR
April 10, 2014
LOTS OF LIKES A graphic of the rapid growth of the Rutgers Hackathon club on Facebook. The group has ongoing conversations and has seen a growing interest from students outside of Rutgers and even highschool students. GRAPHIC BY ADAM ISMAIL / DESIGN EDITOR
Every generation has its heroes “I was getting closer to graduation when I realized that I needed some real skills,” said Abe Stanway, a ‘12 alumnus. So Stanway, who had already completed the requirements for his philosophy major, decided to take his self-taught programming skills to the next level. He decided to double major in computer science and began working on a project with a former employee for Yahoo. “He wouldn’t stop talking about this new summer program called hackNY Fellows,” Stanway said. The rest is history. Stanway was soon accepted into the hackNY Fellows program, which places promising student developers at growthstage startups in New York City. “There was a cool factor aside from just learning about technology,” Stanway said, reflecting on the experience nearly five summers ago. He met famous entrepreneurs and investors and was pulled into the New York City community. Stanway excitedly told his friends about the program, and it snowballed from there. Devon Peticolas, one of many students that Stanway introduced to the program, said the influence of hackNY Fellows and the New York City tech scene trickled down to Rutgers. “All of the sudden, everyone decided they wanted a cool internship at a startup instead of working at a bank,” Peticolas said. “People would come back in the fall with a bunch of different experiences and ideas.” At the same time, another
group of students were spending their weekends doing something that at the time could only be described as absurd. “My freshman year, there was nothing at all,” said Vaibhav Verma, a fifth-year computer science master’s candidate. Frustrated by the lack of community, Verma recruited promising developers from his classes and discovered his passion: 24hour programming marathons, now better known as hackathons. “During my sophomore year, I
“I remember going to hackNY and being speechless. I just wanted to bring that excitement to Rutgers.” VAIBHAV VERMA Graduate student
must have gone to over 10 hackathons in the year,” Verma said. “That doesn’t sound so crazy now but back then it was. We would try to go to every single one we could find.” Sameen Jalal was one of Verma’s earliest recruits. “Me and Vaibhav tried to start what you see here today,” Jalal said. “Back then, no one in class knew what a hackathon was, let alone went to them.” In the fall of 2010, Verma and Jalal competed at one of their first hackathons, hackNY, which
was run, obviously, by none other than the same organization that managed the hackNY Fellows program. Here the plot thickens. Verma and Jalal met up with other Rutgers students and hackNY Fellows, Ian Jennings, Mike Swift and Stanway. “All the other students were from schools like Princeton, Brown and MIT,” said Jalal. “It was very intimidating at first.” But intimidation was soon replaced by confidence. “Ian Jennings won that first hackNY hackathon,” Swift said. “He was basically the flagship hackNY Fellow.” Jalal and Verma worked on a hack together called “Text Roulette,” which they explained was Chat Roulette for texting instead of video chats. Even though it was one of their first major hackathons, the duo managed to win third place. Seeing Rutgers students compete and win at hackathons alongside Ivy League students made them realize those students were no smarter than Rutgers students, Stanway said. “We refused to accept a second-class status,” he said. Verma was driven by a different passion, but with a similar intent. “In my mind, it was never about making Rutgers a powerhouse. I remember going to hackNY and being speechless. I just wanted to bring that excitement to Rutgers,” he said. The problem was that Verma had no place to bring that excitement back to — at least not yet. Continued on Tech Page 5.
April 10, 2014
Tech Page 5
No place like home “We looked at all these events happening, and we thought it would be really great to have an environment that was built for this community,” Sesh Venugopal said. So, along with Lars Sorensen of the Laboratory for Computer Science Research, Venugopal redesigned and repurposed a computer lab on Busch campus’s Hill Center, turning it into the Collaborative Academic Versatile Environment. And so the CAVE was born. “A lot started happening when Vaibhav [Verma] and Sameen [Jalal] took over [the nearly defunct] Undergraduate Student Alliance of Computer Scientists and made the CAVE their home,” Venogopal said. “They pushed it really hard.” While Verma took on the position of USACS president, Jalal became the events coordinator and worked to make the dream of a hackathon at the University possible. He and a small group found some sponsors and a space and threw together the first HackRU. Even though fewer than 100 people showed up and only 10 presented completed projects, Jalal was ecstatic. He said the event was the first time the Rutgers tech community came together. Verma said growth at first was slow but consistent. Everyone who came to the first event invited their friends to the second event, then
to the third. Eventually it created a domino effect for attendance. Verma’s energy soon became the stuff of legend. “Vaibhav deserves so much credit for what happened — if you spend any time with him he’s like go, go, go,” said Jonathon Maltz, a fifth-year graduate student. “I wouldn’t say he willed it into existence, but his passion for making it happen brought USACS from nothing into what’s happening now.” Mike Swift, the founder and commissioner of Major League Hacking, which publishes the official collegiate hackathon standings, doesn’t think the rapid growth of the tech community on campus is a coincidence or at all surprising. Looking at the Major League Hacking standings, the top 10 teams all have their own physical space, Swift said. But even the CAVE and HackRU could barely contain the excitement brewing in the developer community. Always looking for another hackathon fix, Swift created the now enormous and active Facebook group for the Rutgers Hackathon club. As of now, nearly 750 members have joined the group. “At first it was me and about three other people,” Swift said. “Now it’s huge, but forever it was about finding more events to go to.”
The time had come Faculty and students have tried to make sense of the Tech Renaissance in an attempt to pinpoint the levers and pulleys behind the scenes. Their efforts aren’t in a vacuum — they want to better understand the nature of the environment so they can sustain it. Sesh Venugopal underscored the importance of a student-centric, grassroots effort. “First, you need a critical mass of students, and you need leaders. Only then can faculty support you and get you connected with the industry,” Venugopal said. “It’s very much an incubator type of environment. It has to come from the students’ sense of passion — then everything else will align.” Why here, and why now? Ten years ago, this kind of environment could not have happened, Venugopal said. He looked at recent trends in technology as factors that have been precursors to the community’s growth. The mobile aspect of technology has sped up the process. Phone apps bring the consumer closer to the technology than ever before. “Now you have your little phone and on it you have all these programs and apps, that’s what made it so personal,” Venugopal said. Vaibhav Verma shared a similar perspective. Five or 10 years ago, laptops weren’t as prevalent as they are today, he said. A laptop can function as a workhorse that can move from place to place with the same developer. The growing prevalence of mobile technologies became fuel for the fire, enabling many more engaging events that accelerated growth of the community. Gerard O’Neill, a class of 2013 alumnus and a software designer for Etsy, said some of the events held
were interactive tutoring sessions like “Hacker Hour” and “Code Red” in the CAVE. After noticing the growing adoption of smartphones amongst students, David Zafrani, a School of Arts and Sciences fifth-year graduate student, founded the Rutgers Mobile App Development club. Zafrani was soon put in touch with Chris Dilks, who the University had previously paid to develop a mobile app for studying and sharing notecards. Dilks, a class of 2013 alumnus, became the club’s vice president and began teaching mobile development for Android devices. Fewer than 10 people showed up at their first meeting, but the following semester saw a line out the door of more than 100. “The idea of being able to build and publish an app that others could download and use got people really excited,” Dilks said. From there, the club grew organically to more than 200 active members in a little over two years, he said. Nevertheless, most believe technology only played a supporting role to something much more important. Jonathan Maltz said the technology existed when he was a first-year student, but the leadership did not. “It wasn’t until you had people who started to make use of all this technology that others began to gravitate toward that passion.” After all, that’s how Maltz caught the bug. “At first, I wasn’t even all that passionate — I hardly coded on my own, but if you look at my portfolio now, it tells a completely different story,” Maltz said. “Because of this community, I’m primed to be someone who’s really engaged in technology. It’s a cycle that feeds on itself and hasn’t looked back.”
MAJOR LEAUGE HACKING Rutgers placed second in the 2013 Major League Hacking ratings, following University of Maryland. Last year, Rugters earned 217 attendance points and 661.66 merit points. GRAPHIC BY ADAM ISMAIL / DESIGN EDITOR
TechTalk Page 6
April 10, 2014
Tech Tuesday: Year in review
Laptops on display at Rutgers tech store Kite + Key, located on Livingston campus. TYLER GOLD / OCTOBER 2013
A Rutgers alumnus, Ian Jennings, created a browser plug-in that lets a mobile phone control websites like YouTube or even act as a remote for a presentation. The Daily Targum inter viewed Jennings about his inspiration and goals for Mote.
administrator for University Housing and oversees housing and development for Livingston campus, including the tech retail store. “Our mission is to suppor t them and be a par t of the renaissance of integrating technology into education and our lives.”
education in the digital age
October 29, 2013 Kite+Key opened Oct. 10 as the first tech retail store on Rutgers campus authorized to sell Apple products. It of fers a variety of gadgets and accessories at standard prices with built-in student discounts. “At the end of the day, technology is so integrated into ever yone’s lives,” said Michael Pelardis, a senior project
November 5, 2013 Inspired by online courses and learning programs like Khan Academy, Sesh Venugopal, director of Undergraduate Computer Science, and Vaibhav Verma, a computer science masters candidate, created the star tup Flipdclass. Flipdclass combines YouTube videos with quizes at dif ferent inter vals to test a student’s understand-
It’s been a busy first year for Tech Tuesday. We’ve covered ever ything from student-created star tups to University-funded cancer research. We’ve written rants about net neutrality and the entrepreneurship scene at Rutgers. Below is a collection of our favorite stories from the past year:
Tech Meetup tripled in size, garnering an audience of more than 150 students, faculty, and members from the local community. Mike Swift, ‘12 alumnus, spoke about the impor tance of a suppor tive community in the programming world. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” Swift said.
ru Tech Meetup
BROWSER remote control app
September 17, 2013 The second bi-annual RU
Kite + Key is the first and only tech retail store on Rutgers campus authorized to sell Apple products. TYLER GOLD / OCTOBER 2013 ing of what was just shown. It was piloted at the University in Venugopal’s own introductor y computer science classes, among others.
entrepreneurship at Rutgers
November 19, 2013 Star ting a company in college, and at Rutgers in par ticular, is incredibly dif ficult. And knowing how easy it could be to star t a company here with the right resources only highlights the dif ficulty. For entrepreneurship to take hold on campus, all the necessar y players, including students, will have to make a commitment. Daniel Borowski, former BuzzFeed intern, joins the Tech Tuesday team at The Daily Targum. NIS FROME / FEBRUARY 2014
Cancer Institute awards grant for app November 26, 2013
Rutgers alumni, all of whom spoke to The Daily Targum about what it was like to have their star tup purchased by a large company.
Former Buzzfeed intern helps Tech Tuesday take off
February 18, 2014 Just a year ago, ar ticles in The Daily Targum about technology initiatives were far and few between. Today, “Tech Tuesday” regularly exposes projects developed by students, professors and members of the local community. Due to the popularity of this column and the numerous technology projects wor thy of coverage, “Tech Tuesday” loosely adheres to Moore’s Law, adding more writing capacity ever y
18 months. Geeky jokes aside, we’re happy to already introduce the third writer to this burgeoning column, a School of Ar ts and Sciences junior majoring in computer science, Daniel Borowski.
Septmeber 24, 2013
The Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey was awarded a $3.2 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to develop and test a program that aims to study and help improve the health management needs of cancer sur vivors. Her research includes developing a smar tphone app for cancer survivors, which aims to make patient-doctor relations smoother and more ef ficient.
Mashery acquires Hacker League
December 10, 2013 Big news for the Rutgers computer science community: Hacker League, a platform for powering hackathons that was conceived of at a hackathon, was acquired by Intel-owned Masher y. Hacker League was created by three
March 25, 2014 The open internet is in danger: big cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner want to make the internet like, well, cable. If they have their way, we could someday live in a world where internet users have to buy websites in packages, like cable spor ts channels or HBO. Imagine paying an extra fee on top of their regular Internet plan to have access to sites like YouTube, Twitter or Facebook!
Popular services like Netflix are in danger of being disrupted by cable companies if net neutrality disappears. MICHELLE KLEJMONT / PHOTO EDITOR / PHOTO ILLUSTRATION
April 10, 2014
TechTalk Page 7
Daily Targum previews documentary: ‘Software is Eating Rutgers’ Tyler Gold Staff Writer
After chronicling the bir th of the Rutgers tech scene and speaking to more than a dozen students and faculty involved, I asked myself a basic question: what are the fruits of their labor? I created a shor t documentar y that takes a look at three projects - all created and organized by University students - that illustrate the impact of this tech renaissance on not only Rutgers but the state of New Jersey as a whole.
An app for anyone
The Rutgers University Mobile App Development club, RuMAD, has been working with faculty to create an app for the 250th anniversar y of Rutgers. I sat in on one of their meetings to get an idea of what happens behind the scenes and learn about the scope of the massive project. According to faculty members involved in the program, the ability to use student developers is a major benefit to the University. Students provide a unique and highly relevant perspective that cannot be matched by private consulting firms. It turns out that they’re also a lot cheaper. Members of RuMAD have been contracted to develop apps for the Daily Targum, Rutgers Day, Rutgers Gardens, the Rutgers Graduate Student Association, the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, and other local businesses.
Hacking on a larger scale
HackRU is the Rutgers’ biannual hackathon, a 24-hour programming marathon. For the first time ever, it’s being held
in the Rutgers Athletic Center, the same place where the basketball team plays. After eavesdropping on their final planning meeting, I inter viewed a few of the HackRU organizers. Their passion was literally tangible, and I could tell that they don’t do this for the credit or power - they do this because they love it. HackRU has emerged as the cornerstone of the computer science community, upon which ever ything else is built. It’s both a rite of passage for University newcomers and the premier platform for exper ts.
A giant among men
Finally, I had the pleasure of speaking with Mike Swift, a Rutgers alumnus who recently sold his company Hacker League, which he founded as a junior with two fellow students, to Intel-owned Masher y. Hacker League provided a platform that powered hundreds of the nation’s largest hackathons. Swift has helped organize ever y single HackRU and spoken at ever y RU Tech Meetup. In my eyes, he’s the glue of Rutgers tech community. Swift is a coder-turned-evangelist currently spreading the gospel of hacking to aspiring developers across the world through his new star tup, Major League Hacking. MLH is the of ficial collegiate hackathon league of which, Swift is the commissioner. The documentar y will premeire at the University hackathon HackRU at the LouisBrown Athletic Center on Sunday April 13.
Nis Frome presents his team’s design for the Rutgers 250th anniversary at the RU-TV building. TYLER GOLD
Stills taken as a preview of The Targum’s upcoming documentary “Software is eating Rutgers.” TYLER GOLD / MARIELLE SUMERGIDO
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY TIAN LI / ASSOCIATE PHOTO EDITOR
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