Everyone at Case Western Reserve University knows how pervasive the technology culture is here. From the slightly manic way that the word “research” tends to float around on campus, to the ceaseless prizes that the university seems to rack up for innovation, much about CWRU screams “geek haven.”
Generally, CWRU students not only take this quirk about their university in stride, but also look upon it affectionately as a symbol of pride. However when it comes to broadcasting the school’s technological prowess, one particular group of students, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), stands head and shoulders above the rest. For the past five years, ACM has held a “hacker conference” on campus, named “Link-State” after a computer protocol of the same name, in which a variety of notable speakers representing a whole assortment of technology-related fields give talks and offer advice to students.
We sat down with Stephen Brennan and Katherine Cass, coordinators for Link-State 2016, for a quick interview about the event shortly after it took place on Oct. 8.
“The idea [of Link-State] is to get a bunch of people from the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science [EECS] Department together and help them connect with [other] people both within the department and outside,” said Brennan.
Cass, his co-organizer, agreed.
“It’s a good way to bring the community together,” she said.
“We have a lot of tech companies come in and give tech talks about stuff that you might not necessarily learn about in class. And it’s also a way for freshman or people who live around here to come hang out and learn about what’s going on in the tech world.”
According to Cass, the conference is “completely student-run, grassroots and free,” something which really goes a long way in making it universally accessible.
The star-studded (among computer geeks) speaker’s list is also an undeniable attraction.
“ACM has great connections,” opined Brennan, “so we’re able to regularly bring in really cool people who [other] people are excited to hear from.”
Some of the big names from this year’s event included: Scott Seighman, Solutions Architect at leading open-source software provider Red Hat; Ted Shorter, former National Security Agency (NSA) member and current Chief Technology Officer of cybersecurity company Certified Security Solutions, Inc.; and Nathan McKinley, neural networks researcher and member of the Research and Machine Intelligence division at Google.
Although all of the speakers mentioned above were associated with fairly prominent companies, the majority of their speeches consisted of more technical matters.
According to Brennan, “mostly they weren’t talking about their companies. For instance, one of our Google speakers [Nathan McKinley] talked about neural networks, which are a type of machine learning. Another [Ted Shorter] gave a talk about cyber security. Those were all really the main topics- we didn’t hear as much about their companies, as about the cool problems that they solved.”
In addition to the celebrity, a large part of the allure of the conference comes from the minimal amount of effort required for people to participate in it.
“It’s a low-commitment thing,” explained Cass. “Unlike other hack-a-thons, which can last [up to] 36 straight hours, this is a much more relaxed thing. You can come in, filter in and out, and maybe pick up a sandwich.”
Furthermore, the coordinators of Link-State consciously try to make the conference accessible to everyone, regardless of his or her level of technical literacy.
“A technical background helps, but there are always enough [topics] there that you can benefit, even if you don’t have the computer science background,” said Brennan.
“There is certainly enough introduction that even if you don’t know all the backpropagation algorithms for neural networks, you’ll probably still understand what is going on.”
Cass concurred: “You definitely don’t need to be ‘technical’ to show up,” she said.
And indeed, many new features at this year’s conference were added specifically to draw—and retain— people of a non-technical background. Perhaps the most prominent examples of this were the various board games present at the venue.
As Cass explained, “One of the things we like to encourage at the conferences is social interactions between the participants. So we had board games set up at a couple of tables, like Bananagrams and Origami Trail. It gives us engineering students [especially] an opportunity to concentrate on something, but maybe accidentally socialize in the process.”
Link-State, which began in 2012 as the pet idea of three CWRU undergraduates who were just looking for a way to increase the number of “real interactions CWRU ACM had with the outside world,” according to ACM’s website, has since blossomed into a truly mature gathering of minds.
When asked, both coordinators, who had participated in most of the previous conferences, endorsed the 2016 event as heartily as they had the previous convocations.
“It’s a really great opportunity to learn more about technology,” declared Cass. “If you’ve any had any exposure to technology whatsoever— maybe just watched CSI: Cyber, Mr. Robot, etc.— this is a great way to get introduced to the technology world and meet new people.”