Events May 29, 2013

The Hackers Behind Greylock Hackfest: Alexey K.

Alexey Komissarouk dishes on his experience starting PennApps



We cap off our amazing series featuring the Hackers Behind Greylock’s Hackfest with Alexey Komissarouk. A recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, Alexey was responsible for starting PennApps’ growth into the premier East Coast hackathon it is today.

Below, Alexey shares his experience for starting PennApps, gives out old-man advice (no to red bull, yes to sleep) and talks about what motivates him to hack. Most recently, Alexey has been working on Boomerang Calendar, a Gmail plugin that fixes the pain of coordinating meeting scheduling, and, a guide and list-serv for Bay Area interns.

What was the first web project you ever built?

Back in my sophomore year, a bunch of upperclassmen organized a three-week intro to PHP event which they were calling PennApps (the hackathon format came the year after). A few friends and I used it to learn web programming and mySQL.

We ended up building an alternate UI to University of Pennsylvania’s Course Review system.



It definitely looked like it was designed by engineers, but did a lot more (ranking a class within a department) than what the school had at the time.

I ended up writing about the experience, if you’re curious.

What tech or language are you are most excited about it & why?

I’m with Ritik M, on Meteor.JS fan. Meteor seems like the most clear and obvious successor to Rails as the go-to web development framework for the modern web.

Integrating an external login like Facebook or Github is a single line, hosting is easier than heroku (meteor deploy <app_name>), and your pages are reactive by default, which means if (for example) you’re looking at a list of blog comments and a new comment got added by somebody else, your page will update itself accordingly. Without you doing any more work.

So, yeah. I’m a (very biased) fan.

Who have you been most inspired by in technology?

Facebook’s Zuckerberg is pretty cool. There’s this interview of him, somewhere, where he says that Facebook the idea didn’t necessarily need to be a company, but it made the most sense to make it one because that was the best way to attract great talent and compensate them accordingly.

Which at first glance, that statement can probably be misconstrued. But then you look at Zuck’s background and you realize that in High School, Microsoft tried to buy his music recommendation-thing, and he walked away from a million dollars. And there was this time, early on, where Microsoft tried pretty hard to buy Facebook for 15 billion dollars, and he said no. So he gets some credibility in my book about “it’s not about the money.” If somebody offered me 15 billion dollars for something I had created, “no” is a pretty hard thing to say.

So I take Zuck at his word when he says that a for-profit company was just the best way to make Facebook, the idea, into a sustainable, thriving, useful thing. If you look at his first couple of years at Harvard, and before, he was always building things — not because they were profitable somehow,but because they were kind of cool and he got a sense that they should exist, and he’d be willing to give them a try.

That’s a kind of almost naive, beautiful way to think about start-ups. Most companies get started because somebody sees a market opportunity, or does some customer development, or something. Zuck was just working on something that he felt should exist, and figuring it out as he went along. Facebook was a side-project-turned-project-turned-startup. That happens very rarely, but I think a lot of the really great ideas companies (Github would be another one) comes from such opportunities.

For that reason, I respect Zuckerberg. He embodies the new generation of the hacker ethos to me better than anybody I can think of.

What are you up to these days?

Heh. I started a company out of college with a few other Penn alumni. Apparently start-ups are hard. I ended up leaving in January, and ended up taking a 6-month break to freelance and figure out what I wanted to do next. So far the fruits of that labor have (mostly) been Boomerang Calendar’s new scheduling feature and InternProject.

Can you share some of the reasons behind founding PennApps?

I came to Penn in 2009 after 3 years of military service back in Israel. Penn is great, but start-ups weren’t really a thing in CS. I had spent lots of my time in the army devouring TechCrunch and getting so excited to become a part of it when I came to do my undergraduate degree. Penn CS didn’t have that. I figured I’d see how much I could help change that.

There had been a low-key event in the previous year called PennApps. We decided to first, transform it into a hackathon and second, make it a really big deal.

A lot of CS students were very skeptical about hackathons. “Why would I stay up all night and do all this random extra work? I have enough homework as it is.” We had to make it worth their while, which we did by signing Facebook and Google as sponsors and offering a $2,500 first prize and free food and drinks throughout the event. We also shared resumes with our sponsors. Today, people show up to the hackathon because it has a reputation as an awesome event and it’s clear that hacking is a valuable and fun thing to do. That was definitely not the case in 2010.

The first one we did, about 50 people showed up; it was a good time. The word spread, that attendance has more or less doubled every semester since 2010. Today, it’s this giant 500-hacker, multi-school, kids-flying-in-from-Zurich, PennApps-projects-getting-into-YC behemoth.

It’s crazy. I’m unbelievably proud of how well it’s been organized (in fact: one of the smartest things I ever did was step away after the third event and say “I’m a senior, it’s your turn now!”) and how many amazingly talented people now participate in it every year.

For me, PennApps was the sort of event I really wished had existed when I was a freshman, the sort of event that just made sense once it existed. I think that’s a big part of why I am an entrepreneur today — seeing something that made sense in my head into something that makes sense to everybody now (but definitely not in 2010). It’s an addictive, exhilarating feeling.

Why do you think hackathons are important at any age whether you’re a student at a high school or college or an employee at a major company?

You have to be careful there. Hackathons are great for learning some new piece of tech, or for exploring an interesting idea, or for seeing how you like working with somebody but don’t overdo it.

In 2011, as an experiment, I showed up to a hackathon every weekend in June and July, and it was too much. I think once about every six weeks or so for an “all-nighter” style hackathon is the most I can reasonably handle.

Any advice for first time hackers?

I’m probably in the minority on this, but don’t eat sweets and drink Red Bull during hackathons! There’s a big part of hackathon culture that derides students who sleep as “weak” (I’m quotedperpetuating this stereotype a while back) but it’s actually a terrible idea.

Get the 8 (or at least 6) hours of sleep that night, and you’re going to be better rested to make sure you don’t screw up your demo or leave a silly last-minute bug.

You participated/observed in the Greylock Hackfest last year — any favorite moments?

Julie Deroche and the team completely knocked it out of the park. Since it was tough to get in, the average quality of hackers was probably the highest I’ve seen.

My favorite moment was when a couple of friends and I got Dropbox’s Dance Dance Revolution machine working around 3am. It was fun trying to figure out how the heck to actually turn on the emulator, and then get completely decimated by my friends who (apparently) were DDR pros.

Any parting words of wisdom for aspiring hackers?

One of the most valuable opportunities at a hackathon like Greylock hosts is the people you meet. Mingle. It’s the least-desired advice any engineer ever gets, but do it anyway. The people at events like Greylock are ridiculously great. Here’s a trivial conversation starter: “so, what are you guys building?” If they haven’t figured it out yet, there’s “what’s your internship project?” In my experience, really interesting people tend to be passionate about the work that they do and will jump at the opportunity to share.

And, of course: get on the weekly mailing list to hear about intern meetups and other Greylock Hackfest-level awesome events throughout the summer.

“One of the most valuable opportunities at a hackathon like Greylock hosts is the people you meet. Mingle. It’s the least-desired advice any engineer ever gets, but do it anyway.”