The following interview was originally published in the HackNY FieldGuide for the tenth hackNY hackathon where hackNY celebrated the graduation of its fifth class of hackNY Fellows. To mark this occasion, the class of 2014 sat down with hackNY co-founders and co-presidents Chris Wiggins and Evan Korth to discuss what brought them together.
Want to become a hackNY fellow this summer? Checkout apply.hackny.org.
CW: Between 2001 and 2008, the NYC economy just kept growing. Back then, internships with banks were pretty common. It was the default location for bright young minds in NYC to start a career. Students that didn’t know what to do would go into banking because everyone else was. In the middle of all the change in the NYC economy, I thought it was the perfect time for NYC engineering faculty to lead a counternarrative. I really wanted to help keep kids off the street – Wall Street. Around that time, Nate Westheimer from NYTM told me I should talk to Evan Korth at NYU.
EK: Our different backgrounds brought us to the same place. I became a professor, well, the way most people do — I was a sports agent for 8 years. For most of the 90s, I represented female basketball players. I started before the WNBA so we sent our players all over the world.
Even as a sports agent I found I was always writing programs to solve problems in our business. I’d been passionate about programming since I used my money from delivering newspapers to buy a computer when I was 11. It was a TRS-80 with 16k RAM and no hard drive. I mostly stopped programming around 14 or 15 for a bunch of years, but it was missing from my life. I went back to NYU to get a masters in CS for fun. I built software for a company as part of a class; then got hired by that company in 1999. It was sold in 2000 at the tail end of the dotcom bubble.
At the time I had a fear of public speaking, but was given the opportunity to teach a programing class in PASCAL, and that’s when I fell in love with teaching. So I started teaching full time but still consulted a bit with startups around the city. I also started being the faculty advisor for several student groups at NYU. Startups weren’t popular at all then. The image of startups was damaged quite a bit when the bubble popped. Our enrollment dropped. The dominant story about tech jobs was that they were being outsourced overseas.
That changed when the economy collapsed in 2008 and momentum started turning back towards people wanting to build new companies again. By early 2010, we both thought there was an opportunity to do things differently — to build something lasting in NYC. First, we could improve the connective tissue between academia and the startup community. Second, we could help foster a community of people with a love of building, who aren’t just doing startups for the money. Both these things might help make the community more resilient.
CW: We read and thought a lot about what happened/happens in Silicon Valley. Everyone has different stories about why Silicon Valley happened. Each group X says “it was the groundbreaking people of X”. I’m an academic so I credit the academics, they were the earliest to move things, in 1930’s in Silicon Valley, and it created a tight talented network of engineers sustaining the SV ecosystem. Look at the story of HP: one of their first customers, Disney, was another former student of Professor Terman. When Shockley Transistors went down, there was a strong network of engineers, who could go to Fairchild, and then they left and formed Intel.
We realized we can help engineers find each other, build a community, and then get out of the way. Really a lot of the best programs from my technical background were in this style. And as an educator, I think that’s really the best thing I see happen in higher ed — the opportunity for talented students to find out that there’s other like-minded talented students, to learn and bring out the best in themselves and each other. It’s a very different kind of learning from reading a book, or watching a video, or even from solitary coding.
EK: Within weeks of meeting, hackNY was founded. Two months later, we held the first hackathon — the first student hackathon ever. There we announced the summer intern program which quickly became the summer fellowship program after we received sufficient funding from the Kauffman Foundation to provide housing. The pitch was “we’ll save kids from the Street.”
As for school advice, do one thing well. Kick ass at what you love. At hackNY, we look for students who love to build no matter what major they choose. We want to build a resilient network, regardless of the economics of the day. We want to empower people who enjoy building. We would like to see a community of people who are good at what they do and share what they love with others in the community.