Hackathon culture should be a global, cultural phenomenon. We here at MLH are big believers in that. This past year, we started up MLH UK to greater foster college hackathons all across educational institutions in Europe. And soon enough, we’ll hit Asia — but until then, we’ll have to cross our fingers for more people like Kenny Song, a HackNY fellow that’s helping to organize the first big hackathon in China, HackShanghai.
We spoke to him about what’s the situation like in China.
Tell us about yourself.
I was born in Beijing and moved the the US when I was five. I spent much of my education in New Jersey, and in high school I started attending college hackathons (the first being PennApps S13). In fact, Jared Zoneraich held a hackathon at my high school the year after I graduated, hackBCA. I ended up returning to China for university and joined NYU Shanghai as part of its inaugural class.
Is HackShanghai the first hackathon you are organizing?
We’ve previously organized smaller internal hackathons within NYU Shanghai, but HackShanghai is the first hackathon of this scale that we’re putting together. HackShanghai is also the first college hackathon in China, at least to my knowledge. I searched for these kinds of events after arriving in Shanghai, and couldn’t find anything analogous to PennApps and MHacks in the US. So we decided to create our own.
Is there a hackathon culture in China?
Not really, not yet. There are (relatively small) hackathons held by a few tech companies and the concept of hackathons is known in the startup sphere, but it’s essentially non-existent in universities. That’s not to say that it can’t exist – there is no shortage of technical talent in China, and it’s our mission to establish the hackathon culture here.
Has it been difficult to organize a hackathon?
We’ve faced the standard difficulties in organizing a hackathon, but pronounced in unique ways: getting students and sponsors. It’s hard getting Chinese students to sign up to spend 24 hours + travel time to Shanghai for an event that they don’t really understand (though we’ve had a huge influx of international applications). On the sponsor side, it’s hard to convince companies to fund what is essentially an experiment with little precedent in China. It’s similar to what I imagine the first organizers of MHacks faced. However, we’ve had great support from other hackathon organizers, our university, and startups in Shanghai that also want to see hackathons take off.
What are your thoughts on hackathons in Asia?
It’s important for the same reasons it’s important in the US: hackathons mobilize and empower student hackers across the country to think boldly and build innovation. There’s an incredible community of “Hackathon Hackers” in the US right now, and beyond just the pure fun of these events, it’s a unparalleled way to connect the nation’s future technology and startup leaders. There’s no reason that hackathons can’t take off in China and Asia in general; in fact, all signs point to exponential growth, and judging just by the population and demographics here, these events are going to be huge enough to dwarf the current hackathon space in the US.
We hope to catalyze this movement with HackShanghai.