Photo of Ryan DavisRyan Davis really, really loves hackathons. So much so, that in the past year, she participated in events at Oregon State, UC Davis, Santa Clara University, Stanford, UCLA, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Virginia.

But hackathons weren’t always a passion.

Currently a student in Oregon State University’s online postbaccalaureate program in computer science, Davis earned her first degree in art from the University of California, Berkeley. After graduating, she started working in the animation industry, doing contract work for Industrial Light & Magic and Pixar. She even worked for Microsoft in their Mixed Reality Capture Studios, creating holograms for the HoloLens.

In those roles, she worked closely with engineering teams, which opened her eyes to a different kind of career that involved graphics. She was captivated.

“It was not only that they were using cutting-edge technology,” Davis said. “I realized that I could take my artistic skills and combine them with computer science to go further not only in a career, but also explore computer graphics and computer vision,” she said.

Jumping in

So she set her eyes on the goal and took the plunge. Davis, who lives in San Diego, California, enrolled at Oregon State in 2019. She dipped her toes into the hackathon world by joining the OSU Hackathon Club, which is mainly run by the online postbacc computer science students. The club holds quarterly online BeaverHacks, which are open to all Oregon State students and alumni.

To broaden her horizons, Davis decided to explore hackathons outside of Oregon State as well. “I was looking for projects that could augment my resume and get practice with computer science that wouldn’t be tedious,” she said.

Although it was at the other end of the state, Davis participated in an in-person hackathon at Santa Clara University just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “That hackathon showed me that I had so much to work on – not only with improving my coding skills, but also with working on a team, using version control properly, and keeping up with younger students,” said Davis. (Davis herself is only slightly older than a traditional undergraduate student.)

Like many people, Davis hit a bump in the road during the pandemic, which slowed her progress toward getting her computer science degree. To push herself over that bump, she chose to participate in as many hackathons as she could, starting with a virtual competition at UC Davis.

“I didn’t even finish my project and I was way out of my comfort zone, but I still learned about OpenCV, which was new to me” Davis said.

Since going it alone hadn’t worked, she decided to join a random group at a UCLA hackathon. Unfortunately, the team didn’t necessarily meld, but this did not diminish Davis’ focus.

Persistence pays

“I didn’t let those past two hiccups stop me, and I got really excited when I was accepted to Stanford’s TreeHacks,” she said. At this event, Davis chose to work with another randomly-assigned team because Stanford provided hacker mixers where participants could meet up before the event. It was here that Davis met teammates Mitchell Kuppersmith from the University of Michigan, Nancy Zuo from Carnegie Mellon, and Jieying Yang from the California College of the Arts.

“We were all really chill and we decided that we just wanted to do something cool and learn some stuff and if we win some prizes, that’s fine,” Davis said.

The team created a virtual reality game called Catiator that uses hand gesture recognition to help teach American Sign Language. For her part, Davis leveraged her art skills, creating the 3D graphics. Though she had less of a role as a developer than she would have liked, she learned how developers and non-developers can work together to achieve a goal.

The team won the hackathon’s Moonshot Prize for the “craziest, most out-of-this-world project.” In addition, their project won the Best Hackathon Project, which earned them an invitation to Pinnacle, known as the Olympics of Hackathons. Only 50 teams from the winners of the world’s largest hackathons receive invitations to participate in the event, which will be held in fall 2021.

Fresh off their win, Davis, Zuo, and Kuppersmith joined forces again for Carnegie Mellon’s TartanHacks and built IntARnet, a social media app that uses augmented reality. This was Davis’ first foray into mobile development.

The team won the event’s grand prize.

Bolstered by their success, the team, plus one of Kuppersmith’s friends, signed up for University of Virginia’s HooHacks and developed IARp, an exercise app that incorporates artificial intelligence in a role-playing game. Spoiler alert: they won the Best Art and Gaming Hack, the top prize for their division.

Looking forward

Because the hackathons have all been held online, Davis has never met her teammates in person. But their synergy is obvious and they plan to continue working together in additional online events.

Davis encourages other students to participate in hackathons as a way to improve their skills. “There are a lot of people who are hesitant about hackathons, but people shouldn’t let their backgrounds or experience deter them,” she said.

And those hackathon skills can appeal to employers. Davis’ success in hackathons helped her obtain a remote internship at Intel, where she works on user interface design and development on computer vision projects.

“Being able to see this area of computer science in action is really spurring me to finish my degree because it’s showing me that my combination of art and computer science makes me very employable,” she said. “My goal is to have a career that will make people’s lives easier.”

— Gale Sumida