This past weekend, I went to TartanHacks, Carnegie Mellon’s brand new 24-hour hackathon. Though the event was technically CMU-only, the organizers graciously invited eight students from Penn to partake, as a sign of goodwill and hacking-unity. Six of us made the trek.

TartanHacks went very smoothly–I could hardly believe it was a first-time event. The hacks were impressive and everyone really got into the spirit of it.

So I couldn’t resist the temptation to compare TartanHacks to our 48-hour PennApps—though it feels a little like this:

I will also admit that I slept through a significant portion of TartanHacks (a sign of weakness in a computer science student, I know, but a necessity when recuperating from illness, as I have been). But I got a pretty good idea of what was going on.

So, who did what better?


TartanHacks was held in CMU’s Gates-Hillman Center, which was finished in the past couple years and is, in a word, beautiful. It’s gigantic and very well suited for a hackathon, with lots of space to spread out and a very nice auditorium (which even has binary-patterned seat cushions!).


This is not the Towne Building.

PennApps, on the other hand, is crammed into the hallway of Penn’s Towne Building, which was built in about 1820. Though marble is nice, the facility was in no way designed for a hackathon. There’s a noticeable lack of power outlets and the whole place is just kind of cramped. The tables run end to end all the way down the hallway, making it difficult for anyone who has to sit against the wall (although it feels rather festive to crawl under the tables on hands and knees at 4 in the morning).

Winner: TartanHacks


PennApps uses a lightbulb with dark flames coming out of it. Though the notion (“ideas on fire”) is pretty cute, a Scotty dog with a wrench is even cuter—and doesn’t run of being mistaken for “lightbulbs possessed by dark forces” or “lightbulbs running away” (see below). It’s pretty clear who’s on top with this one, even if I’m not sure what that dog is doing wearing ski goggles.

Clear Winner: TartanHacks


Disclaimer: I didn’t actually go to TartanHacks’ “How to give a demo” talk. I was asleep. But I read some of the slides later, and they made me sad.

The big problem there was that whoever gave that talk instructed people not to do live demos. The argument was that live demos so often fail—a reasonable thing to worry about, but counter-productive when the whole point was to show off your product.

The result of this was that many teams had elaborate PowerPoint slides but barely had time to show off their app. Eventually the organizers intervened, and the demos improved, but this was definitely a problem for the first several demos.

In contrast, PennApps’s “How to give a demo” talk has been given by Twilio’s Rob Spectre, who really hits the important points and is notoriously funny, to boot. (You can find his presentation here.)

Winner: PennApps


TartanHacks was very awkwardly timed for outside visitors. The Penn students’ arrivals were dictated by bus schedules, which meant that we arrived either many hours early or several hours late. (A couple Penn students arrived at about 3 AM, 9 hours into the 24 hour event.)

Of course, PennApps’ start-timing is not significantly better—but late-comers are penalized much less, because they have twice as much time to smooth out a late arrival.

If TartanHacks wants to expand beyond CMU, they’re going to have to rethink their timing.

Winner: PennApps


TartanHacks included an award called the “First Penguin Award.” I guess this is becoming an engrained part of CMU culture—it was coined by the beloved late professor Randy Pausch—and it’s a great idea. The term comes from penguins, who are notorious from pushing one poor individual into the water to check for predators before they all jump in. So the First Penguin Award goes to the hack which was the most daring. Who volunteered to be the first penguin in the water?

PennApps’ “special” awards are mostly API-based. Who had the best use of sponsor-X’s API? Though it’s a good way to get people experimenting with API’s, something akin to the First Penguin Award would celebrate experimentation on another level.

Winner: TartanHacks

I can hear you protesting now: “But Tess! There are so many other important aspects of a hackathon! What about the quality of the free tee-shirts?!”

Well, the truth is that there are many aspects that I can’t comment on, either because I wasn’t there yet—I missed all the free tee-shirts—or because it’s just too apples-to-oranges-y. For instance, hack quality isn’t easy to compare between the two. So you’ll just have to start going to them so you can see for yourself.

Next on the docket: HackNY, in March…



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