UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Two College of Information Sciences and Technology students have been named to this year’s list of Top 50 Hackers by Major League Hacking. The Top 50 Hackers list is composed of individuals worldwide who were nominated and selected in recognition of the ways they have impacted the hacking community.
Michael Cao, sophomore in information sciences and technology, and Kathyleen O’Leary, senior in information sciences and technology, represent Penn State and the College of IST on the 2020 list.
“I'm surprised and honestly super-honored,” said Cao. “I never thought I would earn this distinction because, to me, I've still got a lot of room to improve and progress before I get to the level of many of my peers in the hacking community.”
Cao’s passion for hacking began in 2017, when he attended his first hackathon as a high school student. Hackathons are events at which hackers practice their ingenuity in a group setting.
“To me, hacking is the process of innovating and building new things to hone your programming and computing skills — especially through creating something new using a programming language or tool you've never used before,” he said.
O’Leary experienced their first hackathon in 2016. Initially, they remember thinking they wouldn’t be all that interested.
“Hacking and hackathons are commonly misunderstood by people outside of the hackathon community to be something to do with hacking into websites or networks,” O’Leary said. “The whole point of a hackathon is that you have 24 hours to build an app, website or invention quickly.”
Groups of two to five hackers work on these projects, which are often based on set themes or guidelines.
“At the end of the hacking period, all the teams get together to share their creations, and the organizers choose the best of them to win prizes and show off to all the participants as great examples of what people created during the event.” Cao said.
The two quickly became hooked on these events, in turn rapidly progressing their hacking skills.
“Overall, being named in the top 50 is very humbling,” O’Leary said. “A lot of people I really deeply respected are included, and the list doesn't even show an eighth of all the passionate and high-achieving people in the community.”
Cao has attended six hackathons so far, “with many more to come.”
“My progress and achievements in the field of hacking embody the fact that anyone, no matter their background or skill level, can succeed in the field of hacking and be able to learn about and create cool new things.” he said.
Cao is a current MLH hacker, organizer and mentor, and hopes to soon become a coach. Along with MLH, Cao is involved with Penn State’s own hackathon, called HackPSU.
“Last year, I helped build up and solidify our [HackPSU] tech stack,” Cao said. “But as our tech team took on more talent, I wanted to explore other aspects of organizing a hackathon — including marketing and event experience — so I've been trying to help HackPSU in those areas however I can.”
O’Leary has also advanced their participation in the field. Since becoming a Major League Hacking coach in 2018, they now work for the program as a product manager for their free technical workshop product, Localhost.
“I've been to over 40 events and I've worked 20 of those for MLH. I speak at each event and I've hosted [roughly] 50 workshops since I’ve been in college,” O’Leary said. “I mainly work at female-centric events; I've been to about 5 this year.”
O’Leary’s latest project is helping the European hacking community organize a digital hackathon, HackQuarantine, to raise awareness and build solutions for people affected by COVID-19 — in just 10 days.
“Dozens of people are volunteering to host a digital workshop and collaborate and donate to charity for it,” O’Leary said. “The team is spread across different countries and time zones but mainly lives in the U.K. We have colleges participating in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia so far.”
They encourage Penn State students to participate in this online event, which will run March 23 to April 12.
While O’Leary is taking their passion for hacking online amid the global coronavirus outbreak, both Cao and O’Leary cite the College of IST as contributing to their success in hacking.
“The College of IST has always encouraged self-driven learning as well as a drive to always learn more and improve iteratively,” Cao said. “The skills I've been able to hone through IST classes such as programming techniques, project management, leadership, effective group work, and more have all helped me become a better hacker."
“It really feels like IST has a culture that encourages you to try new things and learn new skills, which works really well for hackathons,” O’Leary added. “I think that this has put Penn State a bit more on the map within the global tech community and shows that IST students are really achieving a lot outside of class.”
O’Leary says they and Cao are good friends, and they are happy to have met someone at Penn State who cares about technology education like they do.
“I'm very proud of his growth as a hacker and an organizer,” O’Leary said. “I can graduate Penn State a lot more confidently knowing that he's here to empower hackers after I leave.”