Students Mentored by Spotify Engineer

Four UMass Lowell computer science students won an award at the Simmons College Shark Hack. Image by Katharine Webster
Computer science students Son Nguyen, Kody Thach, Huong Nguyen and Cullin Lam won an award at the Shark Hack hackathon.

By Katharine Webster

Junior Huong Nguyen and fellow computer science major Cullin Lam carpooled all summer to their internship and co-op at Profitect Inc., a company that produces data analytics tools for retailers.

On the drive to and from Waltham, Lam liked to listen to rap music in the car — but Nguyen, a native of Vietnam, found it frustrating.

“I said, ‘Don’t play rap. I don’t understand anything, like all the slang words.’ And he said, ‘You can go online and look up the lyrics.’ The conversation ended there,” Nguyen says.

But the idea didn’t. It popped up again when she, Lam, sophomore Kody Thach and recent graduate Son Nguyen (no relation) teamed up to enter the Shark Hack at Simmons College, a hackathon aimed at getting more women into high tech.

“We were looking for ideas and Cullin said, ‘OK, let’s make a music player that can look up the lyrics for you,’” Nguyen says.

So during the 24-hour Shark Hack, their team assembled a desktop app that links the music-streaming service Spotify to Genius, which displays lyrics, and Urban Dictionary, so people listening to songs can look up the slang in real time. Their app, Hadu, won the hackathon prize for best user interface and user experience: a six-month subscription to their choice of development software.

Hackathons are an increasingly popular way for students to try out different computer programming tools and apply classroom learning to real-life challenges. They also sometimes generate start-ups. Students can enter in teams or as individuals, who then get assigned to teams.

UMass Lowell hosted its first one last spring, the Hawkathon. Son Nguyen and Lam, a senior, both participated. This fall’s Shark Hack was the first such experience for Huong Nguyen and Thach.

Students work through the night at Hawkathon Image by Meghan Moore
A team of students works through the night at the first Hawkathon.

“Hackathons are almost masochistic. There’s a lot of suffering that goes into them,” Lam says cheerfully.

“I thought it was a fun kind of suffering, though,” says Thach.

“You meet a lot of interesting people,” says Huong Nguyen, an Honors College student.

Hackathons are a great way to meet students from other universities and network with high-tech professionals, who volunteer to mentor teams or lead workshops. And that’s where the UMass Lowell team struck gold: Their team was assigned a mentor who is a senior data engineer at Spotify’s office in Somerville.

Madhavi Nadig, the Spotify engineer, suggested a name for their app: “Hadu” means “song” in the Kannada language, spoken in her native Bangalore, India. Nadig also invited the students to visit her office for lunch, face-time with other engineers and a tour, which included a lounge that turns into a pop-up music club.

Computer science students Kody Thach, Cullin Lam and Huong Nguyen demonstrate the app they created at the Shark Hack. Image by Katharine Webster
Thach, Lam and Huong Nguyen demonstrate their desktop app, Hadu.

“I learned a lot about what goes on behind the scenes at Spotify and how they operate when working on new features and playlists,” Thach says. “The atmosphere seemed relaxed, and everyone was really friendly.”

They made good contacts at the hackathon, too. Son Nguyen, who is developing financial services software with a friend and looking for accelerator funding or a full-time job, met an engineer from Twitter who encouraged him to apply. Lam, who graduates in December, networked like crazy. Huong Nguyen and Thach are hoping to parlay the experience into a co-op or internship.

All of them say it was a fun way to get out of the classroom and experience the atmosphere of a start-up.

Huong Nguyen says she plans to sign up for more hackathons, now that she’s had a taste of what she can learn and do in the pressure-cooker environment. She’s also started to enjoy rap music more — a good thing, since they played it all through the hackathon.

“I have developed a new appreciation for rap music,” she says. “The beat is great and some lyrics are way deeper than I thought.”