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Queen’s students earn ticket to Global Hackathon Seoul

[Hive Developers]
The team of, from left, Michael Layzell (Cmp'16), Jake Pittis (Cmp'18), Erik Pilkington (Cmp'18) and Max Bittker (Sc'16) are headed to the Global Hackathon Seoul after taking top place at Hack Western with their program Hive. (University  Communications)

Sometimes simplicity is the best strategy.

Queen's in the World

Of course, a good team and a lot of hard work also help and that is what powered four Queen’s University students to first prize at Hack Western last month.

Max Bittker (Sc’16), Michael Layzell (Cmp’16), Erik Pilkington (Cmp’18) and Jake Pittis (Cmp’18) took the top place at Hack Western – a weekend event known as a hackathon, which brings together teams of technology-minded people who try to take an interesting idea from start to finish over the course of the weekend.

The team’s project, Hive, is a programming game where players write code to control the behavior of virtual ants. The game works on two levels – as an artificial intelligence (AI) competition and a fun environment for new coders.

What gave them the winning edge, the team says, was that at the end of the weekend they had a finished, polished product geared toward their audience that was readily available via the internet. Fellow attendees could pull out their mobile devices and play the game while the team was presenting.

“People can play the game themselves, which is cool, because AI is an awesome thing which is usually considered very difficult to get into," says Mr. Layzell. "But with Hive, it's really easy to create a simple five-line AI which still acts in a very ant-like way.”

The game concept not only spoke to the audience, but had the team hooked as well. Once they had the first ants moving in the early stages of development they couldn’t wait to take the ants to the next level.

Another important factor was that the team members are all friends, having met through Hack Nights, an informal group that meets on campus at Queen’s. Knowing their individual strengths and skills they divided up the responsibilities and workload accordingly. And while sleep isn’t a priority the team took turns taking naps throughout the weekend or getting food, while others continued the work.

By pushing their boundaries they learned some valuable lessons. But it also took a toll. Several team members struggled with colds afterwards and catching up on sleep.

“One thing we noticed is that in period of 36 hours, if you are steadily working as a team you can get so much work done. The amount you can get done is comparable to weeks and weeks of work on a more normal schedule,” Mr. Pittis says. “The hope is that the benefits of having this dense cluster of interesting things going on outweigh the costs of having to deal with the aftereffects.”

They also learned more about themselves through the event.

“I definitely learned a lot about how to deal with bigger projects because most of the stuff I was doing was for my own purposes and now, (at the hackathon) I have to collaborate with other people and look at their code and understand  it,” Mr. Pilkington says. “It was more difficult, definitely.”

Looking ahead to Global Hackathon Seoul, set for July 29-Aug. 1, the team is excited about the possibilities the event provides, bringing  together approximately 2,000 hackers from around the world.

“It’s not going to be prize-oriented, it’s all about collaboration and ideas,” Mr. Bittker says. “The Global Hackathon is more focused on collaboration and sharing ideas and bringing in people from all over the world. That’s one of the great things about hackathons – they bring people together from all sorts of universities to the same place with a common goal almost.”