Coders excel in national competition

On Saturday, Nov. 8, thousands of students across the world took part in Code Day, an intense 24-hour event where teams create apps, develop games or launch ventures overnight. The experience is meant to encourage more people to learn programming and show just how big of an impact one can make with these skills.

Past participants in Code Day have gone on to create venture capital-funded startups, get hundreds of thousands of downloads in app stores and more. 14 students from the St. Olaf Computer Club, otherwise known as the Association for Computing Machinery ACM, drove up to PowerObjects, a software company in Minneapolis and the regional host for this year’s Code Day.

The PowerObjects office was full of high school and college students alike, setting up their workspaces and warming up for the 24-hour programming marathon. Code Day kicked off officially at noon with participants coming up to pitch ideas and assemble teams. There was a vibrant energy in the room as everyone excitedly got started building their projects with no time to spare. There were participants from all skill levels, ranging from absolute beginners to seasoned experts.

“It was quite inspiring [to be surrounded by all those experienced people and] to see everyone helping each other out,” Nadia El Mouldi ’18 said.

St. Olaf students split into two teams. One team’s idea was to build a “Caf Buddy” app for mobile phones. Jacob Forster ’16, a computer science, math and physics triple major, came up with the idea one day while having dinner at Stav Hall.

“I wanted to make something that people would be able to use so that if they didn’t want to, they wouldn’t have to eat alone in the Caf,” Forster said. “The idea was that if you wanted to get a meal and you can’t find someone to go with you, the Caf Buddy app would randomly match you up with someone going at the same time.” He said he feels that every St. Olaf student could benefit from this app.

“I think we often get into our friend groups and sort of cling to them like there are no other options out there,” Forster said. “I wanted to make an app that would make it easy for people to branch out of their current friend group and meet new people.” Forster had been considering this idea for a while, but had never had the opportunity to implement it. That’s exactly what Code Day is for: providing a space where young programmers can make their ideas and dreams a reality.

Making an app overnight is far from easy,but the participants felt that the experience was certainly worth the effort.

“The best thing for me was getting to work with the rest of the ACM team members for a whole 24 hours straight,” Forster said. “You would be surprised how much you can learn about people when you are thrown in a situation where you all have to work together and constantly help each other to make things work.”

The other team from St. Olaf was largely made up of first-year students who saw the event as a learning experience.

“I wanted to meet people who shared the same interest, and I wanted, as a beginner, to know how these kinds of events worked,” El Mouldi ’18 said. Justin Pacholec ’18 had similar expectations.

“I went to Code Day to learn how to create something out of nothing but an idea,” Pacholec said. “My favorite part was learning how to code in HTML. Only one person out of six on our team had ever coded in HTML before, so that was great learning experience for all of us.”

Their idea was building a Web app that helped users write poetry. Dubbed “Stanza: Elegant Expression Made Easy,” the app is a simple but useful creation. As writers build their poems, the app shows a list of words that rhyme with the previous sentence, and the list changes dynamically and automatically as the poem grows. What started out as a small Web experiment made purely for learning turned into a fun app that made it easy to write poetry and made the words flow intuitively, so much so that the group ended up winning “Best App.”

The app’s simple nature allowed the students to finish early and they spent the remaining time polishing it and adding features. The judges cited its elegant design as one of the reasons that it won first place.

“We’d love to see this more fleshed out, maybe even adding different rhyming modes, or a haiku mode,” said judge and CEO and Founder of PowerObjects Dean Jones.

The Caf Buddy app received honorable mention.

“I personally found it very interesting,” Jones said. “I’m definitely excited to see where you can go with this. I can imagine a future system to match people up based on certain likes.”

Forster and his team have no plans of stopping. They currently have a working prototype and are hoping to expand and release it.

“I envision and hope that it becomes an app that is used commonly here in order to branch out and just meet new people and experience new viewpoints here at Olaf,” Forster said. “I can imagine freshmen using the app to meet new people or current seniors, fully entrenched in their friend group, using it to have a great dinner at the Caf with someone who they may have never met before or always wanted to meet.” Forster said he believes that the app could really make an impact.

“Unless you are in a lot of activities or sports, it is often not easy to meet new people here at Olaf because we are all so busy. So the one thing we have in common is that we all eat,” he said. “Of course, you never know if the person you eat with could become the person you end up eating with for the rest of your life.”