Events May 1, 2013

The Hackers Behind Greylock’s Hackfest: Richie Z.

Go Behind the Scenes with Hackfest Winner Richie Zeng

Last summer, Greylock hosted its inaugural Greylock Hackfest — an event for the top college students aspiring to be computer scientists, designers, engineers and, well, hackers. We received hundreds of applications from students from around the globe and after careful review, welcomed 160 participants that comprised 44 teams for 24 hours of hacking, mentorship and sugar rushes at Dropbox’s San Francisco HQ.

While last year’s judges included Greylock’s own Reid Hoffman, Instagram’s Kevin Systrom, Facebook’s Mike Schroepfer and Cloudera’s Mike Olson, the ones to watch were the hackfest competitors.

To qualify, we’ve already offered automatic entry to the winning teams of on-campus hackathons from schools such as Stanford, Berkeley, MIT, UPenn, among many others and starting today, we’re accepting applications for the few, remaining spots. As we start reviewing applications for this July’s greylock hackfest 2, we thought we’d highlight a few of last year’s most noteworthy participants as well as some of the students that have already qualified for this year’s hackfest.

First up, meet Richie Zeng, from UC Berkeley.



Richie’s team took 2nd place last year for their mobile platform for the real-life game, Assassins. Popular with many universities and now many Valley tech companies, Assassins is a game that demands creativity — and a high level of paranoia. Richie and his team built a platform that used your mobile phone to manage the game and provide cool elimination features using the phone’s sensors. For example, you can swing your phone if a player is next to you to simulate a sword. Interestingly enough, Richie and his team also believed that many real life games like scavenger hunts would be awesome with mobile features like that, so they worked on a more general platform for real life gaming called GIRL (Games In Real Life)

When Richie isn’t working on technology that can help us be more efficient in the offline world, he’s developing and executing on ideas before tech luminaries like Sean Parker and keeping us guessing on what his real name really is.

Q: What was the first project you built?

My first hackathon project was at a school event run by Hackers at Berkeley during the spring semester of my freshman year. We were trying to build Talk2Me, which you could essentially consider a clone of Chatroulette and Omegle that matched strangers based on common interests.We epically failed. We didn’t even know how to make a website, let alone an online video chat system. In the end, we had a chat system that only worked through the terminal and could only connect people on the same wifi network. But hey, one cool thing we were able to do is evaluate similarity of interests by looking at degrees of separation on Wikipedia.

Oh, and then a few months later, Sean Parker launched Airtime… a blatant copy of our idea, man! No respect for our intellectual property.

Q: What’s your earliest memory of programming/hacking?

When I was in 8th grade, I spent a lot of time playing games on my graphing calculator in the back of my math class. Eventually I got around to coding my own game, a text-based choose-your-own-adventure game loosely based on my life called “A Day in the Life of Richie.”

Q: What technology or language are you are most excited about and why?

My favorite language by far is Python because of how fast it lets you build things. Almost all my hacks so far have been in Python. Recently, I’ve also been dabbling in hardware hacking, mainly in different applications of RFID technology. One project I’ve been working on is called Inventory, a way to track items as they go in and out of your bag and send you reminders if you forget to bring something.

Q: What would be surprising to your friends to learn about you?

I changed my name to Richie when I was 6. I’m named after a character in Pokemon.

Q: What was your favorite moment from greylock hackfest?

Whenever I do a hackathon, my team divides up tasks and we work separately for a large portion of the time. My favorite moment at every hackathon is when we integrate all our parts together and the system comes to life. For our project at greylock hackfest, it was particularly fun because it involved me running around the Dropbox HQ for an hour swinging my phone around seeing if the Assassin attacks were registering.

Q: What was the best piece of advice you received at greylock hackfest and who gave it to you?

DJ Patil, a Data Scientist in Residence at Greylock Partners, had office hours with us during the Greylock hackfest, which were incredibly helpful. He advised us to gauge market interest first before fully committing to a project. In our case, this was useful because we were building a platform to play games in real life using mobile phones. But rather than building the platform, which people might not even care about, DJ advised us to focus more on the game, Assassins, first and see how people reacted to that, and then build out a more general platform.

Q: Have you continued work on your Greylock Hackfest project?

We worked on it for a few months after the hackfest, but eventually came to the conclusion that location tracking technology wasn’t accurate enough yet. We’ve decided to table the project until indoor location tracking becomes more feasible.

Q: This will be your second Greylock Hackfest. What would you tell someone interested in applying?

Definitely apply! Greylock Hackfest was one of the best run hackathons I’ve been to. The people were great, the food was plentiful and delicious, the judges were awesome, the advisors were super helpful, and the work environment was great!

“My favorite moment at every hackathon is when we integrate all our parts together and the system comes to life.”