Student makes mark on New York ‘hacker’ scene

WCU student Randall Hunt (second from right) and other HackNY Fellows have a discussion after an evening lecture.

Western Carolina University computer science student Joseph Randall Hunt has been making his mark on the New York “hacker” scene in recent months, and he’s not done with the Big Apple since a job with a software company located there will be waiting for him after his graduation from WCU.

The WCU junior spent the summer in New York participating in the prestigious HackNY Fellows internship program, and he capped off that experience in October as a member of a team of students that captured the third-place award in the fourth annual HackNY Hackathon, a marathon application-building contest.

Hunt graduated from high school in Hawaii in 2009 and, having spent part of his childhood in the Raleigh area, decided to return to North Carolina and enroll at WCU in the fall of that year.

Known as “ranman” in the Hacker League, an online organization for hackathon organizers and participants, Hunt points out that a “hacker” as it refers to him and other like-minded computer programmers is someone who is involved in software development for positive purposes. It does not refer to individuals who break into computers and computer networks to cause problems.

Hunt spent last spring semester working as an intern with the maps team at a NASA research center in California, and after applying for and being chosen for the highly competitive HackNY internship program, he headed to New York in late May to begin work for the start-up social network company Fondu. He was one of 35 students from 17 universities chosen to participate in this year’s HackNY program, which provides a stipend and housing at New York University.

Hunt spent the summer converting Fondu’s “back-end” software from one system to another. The internship ended Aug. 13, but he continued working for the company remotely through October. “The internship was a huge blessing,” he said. “I had a wonderful summer.”

In addition to sponsoring the internship program, the nonprofit HackNY organizes student hackathons to introduce students to fellow members of the hacking population and to demonstrate their skills for executives from New York start-up companies. Hunt went back to New York to participate in the HackNY Hackathon held Oct. 1-2 at NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

Some 250 students from 30 universities organized into teams to find out which team could create the best computer application in a 24-hour period using at least one application programming interface from a New York-based start-up company. The hackathon began like “a big political game, with hundreds of students running around trying to find a team to join,” Hunt said. He collaborated with two students from NYU to work on an application, but when the project became too big for three people, the team brought on three other members – two students from NYU and one student from the University of Waterloo.

Hunt said he relied on caffeinated soft drinks to stay awake for the 24-hour competition. The hackathon ended with the students presenting their projects to a panel of judges. “LoCreep,” an application created by Hunt and his teammates that provides female users with special phone numbers to give to undesirables in place of their own, won the third-place award.

“That Randall did so well in such a competitive contest is quite an accomplishment and reflects well on his skills as a software developer,” said Mark Holliday, WCU professor of computer science.

Hunt went back to the Northeast in November to help give a presentation about the prize-winning application at the New York Tech Meetup, a big meeting of software company executives.

Hunt said the skills that enable him to compete with Ivy Leaguers at New York hackathons are a result of the practical understanding that WCU’s computer science program has given him. “The computer science program here is ridiculously good,” he said.

Hunt’s time spent rubbing elbows with the elite of the New York software world already has paid off with a job at the start-up company 10gen. He will begin working for the company next June after he gets his bachelor’s degree in computer science from WCU.

Hunt said he hopes to eventually go to graduate school, and then pursue his goal of teaching at a university. “My professors here at WCU have been good role models,” he said.

For more information about WCU’s computer science program, go online to Mathematics and Computer Science Program page.