Last weekend I attended my first hackathon—or, as I described it to my friends, an orgy of programmers. Envision 100 students crammed into a computer lab on the 12th floor of Mudd for the ultimate nonathletic test of endurance. Sponsored by the Application Development Initiative, the event kicked off a weeklong series of tech-savvy events called DevFest. For 24 hours we stared at our computer screens, downed can after can of Red Bull, and coded.
Initially I was skeptical about even showing up. Were my programming skills up to par? I certainly didn’t want to be dubbed a n00b off the bat. I wasn’t even sure if my web development project counted as hacking, since as far as I knew I wasn’t breaking and entering into any cryptic databases. Soon enough, however, I realized the essence of any hackathon is less about the skill and more about the energy. Everybody was thirsty not just for caffeine, but for something new. Most of the chatter around me didn’t involve Java Syntax and superclasses—they were all using Rails, anyway—but sexy startups and novel ideas. Talk to any of the hackers and they would ramble about the half-dozen web applications on their plates and the startup or two that they’re developing on the side.
Like these enterprise-minded techies, the broader realm of entrepreneurship is often misconceived. After spending half a day with the future of this industry—yes, I wimped out around midnight—I believe it’s time to clear up these misconceptions.
Here’s a shocker: Entrepreneurship exists east of the West Coast. Let me rephrase: It doesn’t just exist. It’s hot. Despite Palo Alto’s official reputation as Silicon Valley, the entrepreneurial mindset is alive and kicking beyond the Bay Area. New York City is no exception. The startup scene here has literally made a name for itself—Silicon Alley—and has paved the way for major venture capitalists and incubators like DreamIt Ventures and Betaworks to call New York home. Once-budding companies like Yelp, Gilt, and ZocDoc have found successful roots here, taking advantage of the strong business and engineering talent among the city’s eight million people. It is talent like this that Mayor Michael Bloomberg aimed to attract and cultivate with his competition to bring a new engineering campus to New York City. Despite losing, Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science can use the prospect of Cornell’s government-subsidized invitation to the city to step up its game in Manhattanville, bringing the Alley even closer to the Valley.
This tech bug isn’t a strictly coastal phenomenon. The city of Austin has been a leader in Texas’ successful high-tech industry. Known for its “Silicon Hills,” Austin is home to a strong mix of local startups as well as large multinational companies such as Fujitsu, Siemens, Nokia, and Samsung. Even Washington, D.C., usually viewed as a one-track political hub, is holding up in this wave of tech startups. D.C.’s private sector as a whole is doing particularly well; last year the area had the most Inc. 500 companies in the country, claiming 10 percent of the magazine’s list of fastest growing private businesses.
One such D.C. business is ROCS (Responsible Outgoing College Students), which was founded by two college students in their dorm room. This brings me to another misconception—one that I almost wish were wholly true—that you should work for an established company before diving into your own startup. While I strongly believe in the crazy notion that a few years of experience in the “real world” can provide critical perspective before you enter the startup bubble, this path seems to be less common today. More and more students are jumping into startups, either as employees or entrepreneurs, right after college—if not during it. This is especially convenient if you’re dying for “Your Name, CEO” to be stamped on a business card already.
There is just as much, if not more, risk attached to startups now than ever before. But the adrenaline rush is also greater. From Silicon Valley to New York, Texas to D.C., tech startups are transitioning from a scene into an industry of their own. Entrepreneurship is sexy. Today, the response to “I’m an entrepreneur” is not “You’re unemployed,” a la “The Social Network,” but something more inquisitive.
The next time you think of a neat new paradigm or gadget, don’t just shrug your shoulders and brush it off; jot it down, Google it. Everyone around you is pregnant with ideas, but not everyone is willing to brush off their misperceptions and take the risk. Because I’m calling this right now: All it’s going to take for the next big thing is a computer screen, some Red Bull, and just a bit more than 24 hours.
Arvin Ahmadi is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in computer science and political science. He is a Spectator online staff developer. Tech Etiquette runs alternate Tuesdays.