The HackLife Diaries

By Alya Rehman | February 15, 2016

One CS student, his Prius, 9 cities, and a new hackathon every weekend

Jonathan Grant took his Prius and his CS skills on the road for a semester of hackathons. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Grant

Week 1: Take the Risk

Car packed, money cashed, tank full, computer ready.

Jonathan Grant, a USC Viterbi senior in computer science set off on his life quest one September 2016 morning and hasn’t looked back since. For almost three months, Grant lived in his car, driving across the country, spending every weekend on a different college campus. Sounds like the MTV version of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” doesn’t it? Except Grant wasn’t seeking some bizarre college-hopping adventure. He was competing in hackathons!

Let’s establish something first before anybody quits Coding 101 for an “Into The Wild” adventure and hackathon glory. Grant didn’t just abandon everything for the trip going around crashing hackathons for leftover Subway sandwiches. He planned out every detail with spreadsheets and maps, admission tickets to every event and a very carefully optimized wallet. He is, after all, an engineer. With a formal notice of temporary leave for USC Viterbi, stamped and signed, he was ready to roll. He did do a Chris McCandless thing by keeping a vlog of the entire journey, however.

Hackathons are proving ground and participating in one wasn’t a novel idea for Grant. He got a taste of the circuit in his freshman year of college at HackPoly, California Polytechnic State University’s annual Hackathon in Pomona. It was there that he discovered how hacking “could change your life” he said. He had found his calling in computer science and transferred from CalPoly to USC the following year.

“I could barely code, but I had so much fun learning,” Grant said. Now, four years later, and a lot more experienced after serious coding classes in the Department of Computer Science, Grant wanted to learn like he had never learned before.

Week 2: Team up with total strangers

Hacking is creative problem solving. It brings together like-minded people who want to dive head first into problems.

Groups of two to five individuals form around a project, such as building a game, or creating new data visualization. Participants bring nothing but their laptops, lots of snacks and caffeine, connect to power and Wi-Fi, and get working against the clock. Sometimes the clock is set for 36 hours. The team that emerges victorious at the end of it all wins swag and bragging rights. But the real prize is the community that is formed.

Grant formed powerful and unusual bonds with coders from across the country – strangers that he had spent three sleepless days with toiling over a problem he now called friends.

“Instead of focusing on finding good programmers, I focused on who I was going to be working with. I went up to people and figured ‘ can I be friends with this person? Can I be best friends with this person?” went Grant. The teams that he built as a result were so strong he was reluctant to leave them.

Grant is first to admit that not every project is a good hackathon project. It has to be something attainable and with impact. At each event, he toyed with code to create apps like Blindfold – an app to send you Ubering on a random food restaurant exploration at the touch of a button or a VR game where you punch balloons of a politician’s head or an anti-cyberbullying program which turns hate messages into positive messages and cat photos.

And through the sweat, tears, and yell of success when 3 a.m. hits and everything begins working, Grant knew he found his passion, over and over again. Every day was a new team, a new moment to work to the absolute limit, and even win some awards along the way.

“What I learned  at a hackathon is that you should think super, super high, like the coolest thing you can think of, and build the worst version of it that works, and then once you get there, add over it.”

After months of traveling, sleeping in cars, parking lots, and couches and staying up all through the weekend to create, Grant decided it was time to end his journey. He finished his last hackathon of the season in Illinois and returned home, marking one big item off his bucket list and documenting everything he’s learned since.

Now, he has pushed further into expanding the dream of programming in an internship and is currently in his final semester at USC.

Season ended, dream fulfilled, a lifetime of friendships just beginning.

“People really motivate you, and when you meet the right people and when you’re happy, it’s just crazy,” Grant said. “But it felt like time to come home.”

Share This Story