Purdue Hackers are innovators, not 'crackers'

01-08-2014

Author(s): Tim Brouk



For dozens of students in the Department of Computer Science, “hacking” is no longer a dirty word.

Members of the Purdue Hackers club, these students’ mission is to reclaim the term “hacker” to its once positive meaning.

“I do believe, with the help of clubs like Purdue Hackers, that the term ‘hack’ can be reclaimed and re-framed in a positive light,” said Michael Clayton, Purdue Hacker and Computer Science senior. “It will likely take time, having been portrayed negatively in many movies, but as the hacker culture grows — so does the awareness of what that culture actually entails.”

According to Purdue Hackers, the term “hacking” was coined decades ago when a programmer made a breakthrough. The new code he or she created was called a “hack.”

But quickly the hacker term started its negative decline in the 1980s thanks to movies and real life criminal activities. Mainstream media called these rogue programmers who broke into government security systems or stole credit card numbers from businesses as hackers. In 2014, young computer scientists like Clayton have had enough. A hacking lifestyle is a positive one.

“Purdue Hackers' goal of fostering a culture where Purdue students can come together, share ideas and collaboratively work on insanely cool technology projects is what drew me in to the club,” he stated.

Forged in August, Purdue Hackers has quickly grown. The club’s email list contains more than 100 Purdue students. About 40 percent are Computer Science students, another 40 percent are Electrical and Computer Engineering majors and the rest of the programming-savvy students come from a wide variety of departments.

Hackers who use their talents to break into systems are dubbed “crackers” by Purdue Hackers.

The club meets weekly for tech talks or a healthy schedule of “hackathons,” 24-hour programming parties where apps and programs are created and sometimes finished in one all-night session. The best creations receive prizes.

Boilermake, a 36-hour hackathon featuring hundreds of hackers from around the country, is Purdue Hackers’ Super Bowl. The event is set for Feb. 6 to 8 at the France A. Córdova Recreational Sports Center.

While Boilermake will be the club’s biggest event in its history, Purdue Hackers’ showed well at MHacks, the nation’s largest collegiate hackathon, and the organization has hosted several Hackathons so far. On Nov. 22 and 23, Purdue Hackers occupied The Anvil, a sleek, modern, new workspace in the basement of the office building just west of Purdue campus. About 50 programmers convened in the area before breaking into small groups to collaborate on digital ideas. Some lone wolves also worked on their individual ideas.

Purdue Hackers brainstorming

Fueled by pizza, candy, chips and drawers full of instant noodles, the computer geniuses worked feverishly into the night and wee hours. When morning came, some slept while others pounded away on their laptops.

For breaks, some Purdue Hackers gave presentations on hot-button topics like “What Is an API?: How to Retrieve Data from the Web.” “API is an application programming interface which is a way people expose data for others to use,” according to Purdue Hackers president Luke Walsh.

After the dust settled, the weary programmers stood up in front of the few dozen who still remained and revealed their 24-hour creations. With a large screen, wall-mounted TV displaying the code and graphics, the Hackers explain their creations and take questions from fellow Hackers.

On Nov. 23, several new apps were created or at least started – from one app that helped in selecting classes at Purdue to another that could enhance Snapchat users’ experience.

“One of my friends has some great advice for hackathons,” stated CS sophomore Scott Opell. “ ‘Sit down, hammer out an idea, get some rough time estimates, then cut everything in half.’ It’s so easy to get lost in your ideas and forget that you only have 36 or 24 hours to execute them, and no matter how good you are, things never work out as planned. Whether Snapchat bans your account 20 minutes before a presentation, or you run into a bug that takes you 14 hours to figure out and fix, something always goes wrong.

“Going into a hackathon, I am usually frantically trying to hammer out an idea of some kind. I don't really feel nervous or anything like that, just excited to dive into something and make something cool. Afterwards, I'm still riding the ‘hackathon high’ for a few days. Its this feeling that you made something really cool, and knowing that if you wanted to and had enough time, you could make anything.”

At typical hackathons, a panel of the more experienced Hackers and popular vote judge hacks. Winners receive cash and software prizes.

The Hackathons are also a recruiting tool for high school hackers. Chad Stucky from Benton Central High School in Oxford, Ind., attended the Nov. 22 hackathon, with much enthusiasm. While he lives in a rural area of Indiana, Stucky is familiar with hacker culture and creation.

“My dad pushed me into this type of stuff and I’ve been around it,” said the teenager who also works in web application development for Spensa Technologies. “I just hope to have a good time and to get something working, hopefully.”

The future is bright for Purdue Hackers. CS and ECE students are frequent collaborators, which helps fuel potential world-changing ideas that are Boilermaker born.

“One of our goals long term is getting more talk and collaboration between the departments,” said Grant Gumina a junior in Electronic and Computer Engineering and treasurer and charter member of Purdue Hackers.

Purdue Hackers in action