The birth of the Rutgers tech scene

I co-wrote the following piece with Tyler Gold. The text alone can't do it justice, so I encourage you to check out the full issue of Rutgers University's newspaper dedicated to the tech community.

“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 part 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 fifth-year 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 cry from the vibrant and passionate one that characterizes Rutgers today,” Maltz wrote. “When I started, Rutgers computer science was a disparate collection of students who scarcely got together in groups larger than four people.”

When Maltz published his article 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 April 12’s HackRU, the University’s largest recurring tech event, is at more than 900 developers, said HackRU Director Sam Agnew, a School of Arts and Sciences junior studying computer science.

That’s a far cry 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 carry 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.

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 growth-stage 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: 24-hour programming marathons, now better known as hackathons.

“During my sophomore year, I 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.

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, according to his friends. 

“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. “He has so much energy. 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.”