By Dael Norwitz
What do computer hacking, Bollywood and cricket have in common? They’re all passions of Rutgers University programming student Varun Shah. On an average night, the 21-year-old can be found writing Bollywood film reviews for his website bollywoodtothepoint.com or designing a new app while watching cricket matches half a world away.
While just a senior in high school, Shah designed and sold his first app, Whack-That-Mole, to Nokia. Now, the programming major and teaching assistant dedicates much of his time to the Rutgers Hackathon Club. As a club member, Shah participates in all-night hackathons across the country at top universities such as Michigan, Princeton and Yale.
I sat down with the eclectic Shah to learn more about his past and present projects, and to gain new insights into the world of colligate hacking.
In high school, you designed an app for Nokia. Could you tell us a little bit about it?
Sure. It was called Whack-That-Mole. It was similar to the boardwalk game Whac-A-Mole. I designed it as just something for fun. Then, one of my cousins who worked at Nokia really liked the concept, and then for one of their test phones that was upcoming in Europe they planned to make it a default app that came pre-installed.
Did it actually make it onto Nokia’s phones?
It ended up on the Nokia N9. It was only sold in Europe, and it was a test phone. I learned a lot from that.
They actually flew you to Finland, right?
Could you tell us a little bit about that experience?
Of course. So, I was in high school. I wasn’t expecting anything like that — I was just designing this app for fun. … [My cousin’s] boss actually contacted me [and told me] that they liked the app and they wanted to buy it. Then they told me to come to Finland, and they’d fly me and that everything was paid for, which, as a senior in high school, is pretty big news. I obviously accepted that offer after talking to my family, and I was flown there. I stayed there for five days. Finland is a beautiful country. It was a good experience.
What was the experience of being in Nokia headquarters like?
Obviously, you have to change gears to be more professional, and I had to buy suits and everything… It was something new and unique, and it helped me later on when I needed to sell my app ideas to other people or businesses.
I was interested — I liked messing around with computers — and if I could make something that could tell the computers what to do, that was even better.
So, how did you initially get into programming?
It started in 10th grade, back in 2009, and programming was less popular than it is now. I was interested — I liked messing around with computers — and if I could make something that could tell the computers what to do, that was even better. I made my first app, well computer program I should say, in Visual Basic in a high school course. Then I learned C ++ and Java and made different programs and saw what I could do, and I loved it. Senior year, I did an independent study in Android development, and that’s where I made my app. My teacher from high school was really one big aspect of why I got into programming because the way he taught things made them exciting.
What was his name?
Frank Iannucci. I’m still in touch with him today.
In addition to designing apps on your own, you are a part of a hacking club at Rutgers. Tell us about that.
So, this “hacking” isn’t what the National Security Agency is targeting. This is a good cause. Let me define “hacking” and “hackathon”: It is a way for programmers to display their skills and what they can make, what cool programs or software they can make within a certain time period — and most hackathons are about 18 to 24 hours, with some even being 36 hours. What you do is go to other schools, or even stay at your school, and you work with a team, and within the time limit you come up with something amazing. There’s companies sponsoring this and you could end up with an internship or job offer by the end.
How many people are in your club at Rutgers?
When I joined there weren’t even 100, but right now it’s quite huge: there’s about 300 people. And at the last hackathon, there were over 1,000 people.
When the club is not at a hackathon what do you do?
We meet every Monday and Friday. The more experienced people come up with a new concept or something that is not taught in class – because what you learn in class in a typical computer science degree is the theory, but you don’t get a chance to apply it as much. Then when you go into the real world, you are confused because you’ve never done half of these things. You know the concepts, but you’ve never applied them. What we try to do is give them a new insight as to what they can do with the skills they have and just teach them things that are not taught in the classroom.
Like web design — that’s not something that’s taught. You just explore and learn and mess around with things.
It’s chaotic. People rushing around. In the middle of the night, you’ll see everything is calm. But, when it first starts, everyone is pumped up, excited. They want to get things done.
But I guess a regular club meeting is much less fast-paced than a hackathon?
Yes, of course. So, at a hackathon, you are working on a huge project, but at a meeting we are trying to give people tools. You learn about software and talk about what’s in the news and upcoming technologies. When you go to a hackathon, you are going to explore those things.
Could you describe the room at a typical hackathon?
It’s chaotic. People rushing around. In the middle of the night, you’ll see everything is calm. But, when it first starts, everyone is pumped up, excited. They want to get things done. So, you see people talking to companies who are sponsoring the hackathon and getting ideas. There’s a ton of mentors who walk around the room, and if you don’t have an idea they lead you — they guide you. You see people walking around looking for a team. There are workshops at the beginning to get you settled. After that, things are calmer. You see people with their headphones on just coding like mad. Then, the next time you see people jumping around is when they announce food.
Then when it’s night, let’s say around 3 or 4 a.m., you’ll see half the people sleeping at random [places]. I’ve seen people sleeping in the bathrooms. It’s pretty hilarious. Then you have to be careful you don’t trip over people who are sleeping.
Could you describe the frantic pace of a hackathon where you only have a small amount of time to design a project?
I can tell you about how I go about doing it. I know my first hackathon I had no idea what to do. I was like, how could I ever come up with something huge in 18 hours? I joined a team and what I noticed was you have to plan everything out in the first few hours, and if you are new, chances are you spend time downloading new technologies. You have to divide up [the work] based on who has what skills and program separately and then combine ideas later on. The hardest part is staying awake all night. It usually starts in the afternoon and goes until the next day and there’s no time to sleep.
Have you ever fallen asleep?
Yes, I have. I’ll admit that. Sometimes, it’s hard when you are going to hackathons back-to-back weekends — it’s hard to maintain the pace, but the good thing about hackathons is that you get free food and drinks, along with the experience.
What’s it like being surrounded by hundreds of people typing lines and lines of code?
What I try to do when I’m bored or can’t think of how to proceed with my problem is I try to walk around and look at the things people are doing. That’s something I noticed is more important than completing a project: networking and figuring out what other people are working on. You take more out of that than the hackathon itself.
How many hackathons have you been to?
I’ve been to about 10 to 15 hackathons.
I’ve been to every single Rutgers hackathon [since starting college in 2012]. Recently, I went to the Princeton hackathon and then I went to MHacks, which is at Michigan. Let’s see, I’ve been to HackNJIT, HackTCNJ, HackMIT, HackYale…
What hackathon would you say was your favorite?
I’d probably say Yale was my favorite. It was a long one. It was 36 hours. The main thing was that it was well planned. Everything was organized, and they had a fun element to it. At night, there was a rap battle, which was pretty fun.
Do you think your projects have been pretty successful?
Yeah, but most of them are unfinished because I like perfection. It’s always hard to get something perfected [within the 18-hour time frame], and the main thing I learned from hackathons is that it’s better to get an idea out rather than completing it.
Do hackathons have a winner?
Yes. There are top prizes. There’s usually first, second and third. And then all of the companies that are sponsoring it give their own prizes.
What’s the best you’ve ever done?
We’ve come in the top three. Third place. That was pretty nice.
Which hackathon was that?
And how does Rutgers as a whole generally do at these hackathons?
There’s a thing called MLH, Major League Hacking, and what they do is rank schools based on how they’ve been doing, how many people are going, what spots they come in. Rutgers is actually pretty good, usually top five, if not the top three.
Do you think going to these hackathons helps to create connections between students from different universities who normally wouldn’t spend time with people from other schools?
Definitely, there’s a lot of potential when you’re at a hackathon. You are definitely networking a lot with others, and you meet new people, and you get to see what’s being done at other schools, and you get to learn from them what they’ve done and what they are working on. You can bounce ideas off each other.
It’s not really what you know — it’s what you share.
Do you think there’s much difference between the average programming student at different colleges?
No, I mean the concepts are the same, right? It’s all about what you take away from it at the end of the day. I’ve seen people at community colleges do amazing stuff. It’s not really what you know — it’s what you share.
And what you do with it?
Now that the school year and hackathon season are almost done, what are you working on? What are your plans for the future?
So, right now I’m actually working on an app that integrates the Rutgers bus system. Rutgers actually has an app that will tell you bus times. Because Rutgers has four campuses, it’s hard to figure out how to get to class on time. So what I’m doing with my app is I’m pulling what time the buses are coming to what stops and figuring out [basic pieces of information people need to know]. The first two are pretty simple: you get the routes of all the buses that are running and what stops they arrive at.
I’m also interning at iCIMS, a talent acquisition company. They make talent acquisition and HR software. I interned there summer 2014, fall 2014, and I’m also interning there summer 2015. I developed internal projects that basically help developers.
Where do you see the tech industry going in the future?
The tech industry is obviously booming. Every single company, even little businesses, needs a software aspect to them. Specifically for software developers, there’s always going to be jobs open, but if everyone plans on going into computer science, that’s not going to help. I’m also a teaching assistant for the Intro to Computer Science course at Rutgers, and I’ve seen the size [of the class] increase. The year I took it, it was 300, right now it’s 700. I see more and more people failing because they want to take it because it’s in the news, and they think they can do it, but it is not something everyone can do. You really have to apply yourself and have an interest for it.
In addition to software design, you also do a little bit of website designing?
And you have your own website. Could you tell us about it?
Two years ago, in 2013, because I love Bollywood movies, I created a website. I got the idea from the fact that my friends are always asking me what new movies there are, what they can watch, and what’s good and what’s not. I was like, “Why not just create a website that gives them all the information?” That way, one, I get to explore my programming skills, and two, I got to build something amazing. It’s called bollywoodtothepoint.com.
How often do you publish new content?
Generally, the day a new movie releases, I watch it and publish a review.
How many reviews have you published so far?
Over 100 within two years. Around 120-ish. You can expect usually one movie a week, sometimes two.
How much traffic does your website get?
I checked last week and there are close to 15,000 unique hits. So, it’s gaining popularity. In the first year, I think I got 7,000 hits, and just in the next six months, it doubled.
I think that’s it, what are you planning on doing now? Going home and catching more cricket or programming?
I actually watch cricket and program at the same time. Can’t sacrifice your passions.