UC Berkeley computer programming club hacks its way to first place in Bay Area competition

Alice Oh/Staff
Hackers @ Berkeley hosts a programming competition against Stanford.

With a simple brush of his hand, Sharad Vikram commands his computer to open iTunes, and with another smooth gesture, music begins to play. Vikram deftly demonstrates the clever contraption that won first place at a recent Cal-versus-Stanford programming competition in an epic battle for hacking domination of the Bay Area.

Within the competition’s 24-hour time limit, Vikram and three fellow UC Berkeley freshmen manufactured a computer trackpad using just a few wires, a circuit board, aluminum foil and a piece of notebook paper. The real kicker, though, is that users need not actually touch the trackpad to use it — a simple, yet innovative technique that utilizes basic smartphone technology for alternative uses.

“We’re not making any product,” Vikram explained of his group’s creation. “Our goal is just to show that anything is possible.”

The freshmen — Vikram, Achal Dave, Gerald Fong and Siddhartho Bhattacharya — are members of Hackers @ Berkeley, a new campus club hoping to bring the joy of computer programming to their techie peers.

Contrary to popular belief, a hack is the clever result of technical tinkering, not, as many believe, an act of online malice.

To those in the club, hacking is practically an art form.

Yet it is an art that must be practiced, and so the club organizes weekly workshops where tech industry specialists and fellow students with knowledge to share speak to eager computer science aficionados.

The club also hosts increasingly well-attended all-night hackathons — feverish competitions of technical wits to create the most interesting, innovative, or unique creation — and hack-jams, which are condensed versions of the competitions.

Vikram and Fong are members of the club’s executive board, which aims to look beyond the theory they learn in the classroom and promote entrepreneurship and innovation.

“Leave the problem sets behind — come here to hack,” said executive board member Eric Zhang. “School teaches (students) theory. We want to prepare them to build their own things.”

In addition, Hackers @ Berkeley hopes to give the campus a name in the outside tech community and has already made great strides towards that end. The club has hosted numerous industry veterans at their teaching workshops, and its hackathons have been sponsored by a variety of companies including GitHub, an online hosting service for software development projects, and Twitter.

At the most recent hackathon, organized jointly by Hackers @ Berkeley and a sister club at Stanford, Vikram and his team led Cal to victory in a thrilling showdown between the two Bay Area academic powerhouses.

The group not only fashioned a standard trackpad out of minimal materials, but they changed the game entirely, recreating their paper trackpad then fashioning it into a cube, essentially allowing individuals to use the device like “a crystal ball that can control everything,” according to Vikram.

Their creation won the team $4,000, a replica Star Wars lightsaber and a ceremonial axe marking that they metaphorically hacked the competition.

Today, Hackers @ Berkeley continues to reach out to students like Vikram and Fong — those who may not know anything about the art of the hack but are eager to create cool new things for the sake of creating cool new things.

“Our major goal right now is to get more from the industry … to get our name out into industry,” Fong said.  “Now that we have (started to get) the industry behind us, we can create much larger events.”

The club held its first meeting last October and has since gained enormous recognition from students and tech companies alike.  With more than 400 members, including a significant minority that regularly attend workshops, the club has had an undeniable effect on the campus computer science community.

Rodney Folz, a leadership team member, said he knew the club had made a difference when people at the last competition complimented him on the club’s work.

“We provide opportunities for them to build things they didn’t think they could build before,” he said.

Sara Grossman covers research and ideas.