Cal Hacks

In this article, we’re learning more about Cal Hacks, a club that hosts the largest collegiate hackathon in the world. Cal Hacks also runs other events designed to promote hacking and entrepreneurship, like a fellowship for hackathon teams and a full-stack development course for new coders.

We were joined by Arushi Somani ‘23, a CS major who has worked across many of Cal Hacks’ committees, from diversity to marketing, and previously ran the Cal Hacks Fellowship Program. In our conversation, we talked to Arushi about hacking culture at Berkeley, different ways to foster innovation on campus, the backend experience of running a huge hackathon, and how Cal Hacks impacted her life.

Cal Hacks at Berkeley

  • What makes the Cal Hacks hackathon so special?

    Arushi: Every hackathon is special in that it is an environment that invites you to try new ideas. There are no grades, you build whatever your heart desires, and you get free access to all the technology you would need to bring it to life. It’s almost as if anything you can dream of is one step away from possible. But what makes Cal Hacks so special for me is the organizing team. Typically it’s only 20 to 30 people who are in charge of 5000 people in this 36 hour period. Those 20 to 30 people will not have the chance to sit down for those 36 hours. They will be on their feet, they will keep all the events running, and they will work to make sure this event is successful. The reason Cal Hacks is so big is that it’s run by a group of very passionate builders who find value in delivering one of the best hacker experiences the country has to offer.

  • What surprised you most about Cal Hacks?

    Arushi: Cal Hacks’s organizational structure is very flat. So, everyone chips in all the time with everything. I didn’t expect any club to be structured this way. Most of my clubs have been very formalized in that there are heads of different committees and presidents and vice presidents. Cal Hacks doesn’t have all of that. It takes a village to run a hackathon, and the internal structure reflects that.

  • The diversity gap in hacking is huge. What work did you all do on the diversity team to help bridge that?

    Arushi: We have a DeCal called Cubstart, which is a mini hackathon for people who’ve never been to one. We bring you in and we give you all the tools you could need to figure out how to spin things up fast. We’ll teach you how to make an app in a day, and pick up new technologies faster. We started with 30 people, ballooned it to 200, and are now trying to push it even bigger. We’re bottlenecked by our own manpower, but we’re trying to make that as big as possible. Beyond that, we spend a lot of time trying to get in touch with other organizations on campus who are more focused on creating community for underrepresented minorities and do workshops with them so they know the hackathon space is an option. We want them to know that if you want to be a hacker, we are coming to you and that you are definitely the kind of people we’re looking for.

  • What do you look for in teams that you select for the Fellowship?

    Arushi: The biggest thing that trips up startups is a team that is not fully devoted to what they are envisioning. We’re looking for the founders who have a deep passion for their vision and will work together well. We also care about startups that are going to create a positive impact on a community. We back a lot of ideas that may not end up being billion-dollar ideas, but would probably create some good if they were launched.

  • How do you support the teams you take on in the Fellowship?

    Arushi: We take their laptops, and we close those laptops very carefully. And then we throw those laptops out the window because you need to stop coding and start talking to people. Jokes aside, we try to find potential customers for them so that they can understand their pain points and figure out who they are building for. We then teach them how to validate their idea. We teach people how to go super, super scrappy, and build a version of their idea that is embarrassing but can still get them feedback. Finally, we teach them how to evolve their idea and iterate.

  • How does Cal Hacks build community for members within the org?

    When you’re organizing an event as big as Cal Hacks together, you will either be sworn enemies by the end of it or you will be family. Most of us end up being family. We have a big little program and a very, very long lineage at this point. I am someone’s great, great grand big and I could probably recite my family line to you. We care deeply about trying to make people feel welcomed, so we work hard to ensure that the incoming cohort feels like they’re directors and have full ownership over their work.

Arushi’s Journey Through Cal

  • What has your journey at Cal looked like so far?

    Arushi: I grew up in India and came to Cal as a CS major. I’ve run a few DeCals here, notably the full stack development DeCal and the Sysadmin DeCal. I’ve also taught 61A and 61B, as well as helped run Cal Hacks for 6 semesters now.

  • What’s next for you?

    Arushi: Going into my senior year, what I’m trying to figure out is how I can maximize what I can learn in the next four or five years. That could mean a master’s program, continuing my research, or maybe heading to industry to work on something deep tech related with a product focus. What it will be exactly, I suspect we’ll find out in a year or so.

  • What is your research about?

    Arushi: I work in the intersection of programming languages and machine learning— creating programs that write programs. ****The current state of the art in the space is statistical models. I’m working on creating automated programmers that write code the way humans do — writing a function, testing it, using it in other parts of your code, repeat. The goal is to create something that helps people not worry about technical details but about the vision of what they want to build.

Arushi’s Journey Through Cal (Hacks)

  • Why did you join Cal Hacks?

    Arushi: I came into Berkeley without ever having coded or been to a hackathon before. When I got here, I attended Cal Hacks. And it was amazing: my team and I were chugging energy drinks and building frantically. At the end of the hackathon, we got selected for the Cal Hacks Fellowship. So, I started there. In that process, I fell in love with entrepreneurship and making something that people used. From there on out, I wanted to give other people a chance to experience my journey, which compelled me to join Cal Hacks.

  • Can you speak to the LABS initiative you started at Cal Hacks?

    Arushi: The idea of LABS was to be a platform for any initiative that people wanted to come up with. One of the things we did last semester under LABS was a design workshop where we helped people design stickers and then printed them on the spot. Another idea we worked on were monthly hack nights. We provided you food and a nice air conditioned room and community and music and you could build whatever you wanted for the night. The basic idea was to create a space where any idea could take flight for a little bit, even if it wasn’t successful in the long run.

  • So, you’re “retired” from Cal Hacks. What does that mean for you?

    Arushi: The hilarious thing about Cal Hacks is that even though I will not technically be a director next semester, I’m still showing up to every all hands meeting. There’s someone who retired five years ago who shows up to every big meeting and hackathon. Once you’re a director, you really never stop being a director. If there’s ever an emergency and someone sets the room on fire, I’ll be there with a fire extinguisher. Otherwise, I’m just there for the free swag and hackathon leftovers right now.

  • How, if at all, did Cal Hacks made a difference in your life?

    Arushi: I honestly think that the biggest thing you get out of college is your people. And I’m very grateful to Cal Hacks for giving me “my people”. They are one of those rare groups of people where no idea is a joke. Anything can be full sent, and everything is a breeding ground for an exciting future that could be. Having this group of people around me makes me a better person.

Hacker Insights and Advice

  • What’s one thing you wish your organization was doing right now in the Berkeley ecosystem?

    Arushi: There’s a very clear difference between hacking and building for startups. When you’re building for a startup, you’re building something that people would potentially love to use. When you’re building for hacking, you’re just building because maybe combining this Lego and that Lego could lead to something cool. I think that Cal Hacks is in a unique position right now in that it could facilitate the rise of Berkeley’s wackiest startups. I don’t think a lot of the big funds would back the fully crazy, moonshot ideas that Cal Hacks could. We understand hackers, more so than any other big organizations do. If I had a dream for Cal Hacks, it would be a space where the truly bizarre is invited and encouraged.

  • Where do you think the future of the Berkeley ecosystem is headed?

    Arushi: One of the most beautiful things about the Berkeley startup ecosystem is that I am one kind of founder. And you could probably find my diametrically opposite kind of founder at Berkeley as well who thinks completely opposite from me and does not like bizarre ideas. That’s really cool. What I hope from the future of Berkeley is a space where everyone feels like they could be a founder. Right now, if you want to be a founder here, you have a lot of tools. But there are not enough tools to convince people that they could be founders. Given the caliber of people at Berkeley, we should encourage a lot more innovation.

  • What would encouraging more innovation look like at Berkeley?

    Arushi: If the university is able to make being a founder seem less risky, students won’t feel like they could lose something by pursuing entrepreneurship. If you were to start a startup right now and it didn’t work out, that would be completely fine. If this fact was publicized, a lot more people would do it, because there is no risk. It’s just a fun thing to do. And if we were able to provide people with more monetary resources, more mentorship, and more incentives to found companies, more people would do it. The entire campus needs to have this culture that being a startup founder is cool.

  • Do you have any advice for someone making their foray into the Berkeley ecosystem?

    Arushi: Pick the club that seems the most interesting to you, and just go for it. The problem with the Berkeley ecosystem is that there are a bajillion things you can do. And most of the time, your regret will not be picking something wrong; your regret will be not picking anything at all. So whatever organizations you think are exciting, just apply. See if the club is for you and if it’s not, no one’s going to stop you from dropping it. Quitting is okay.