Heart for ‘hacking’: UCSD student makes international list of Top 50 coders

UC San Diego student Faris Ashai made Major League Hacking’s 2022 Top 50 list.
(Courtesy of Major League Hacking)

UC San Diego student Faris Ashai is on Major League Hacking’s 2022 international list of Top 50 hackers. But he doesn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea.

“The words ‘hack-a-thon’ and ‘hacking’ are misleading here because you are not doing any hacking into cybersecurity or anything,” he said. “It’s more about building an app or a website.

“Hack-a-thons are coding competitions in which you work with your team over a weekend where you are coding nonstop. They involve development projects or some small hardware thing. It’s a chance to network with new people and learn something new. Everyone is very supportive and willing to answer questions if you get stuck. And you get to come away with a finished product.”

Ashai, 20, was named to the Top 50 list for his contribution to the “tech ecosystem and STEM education” (science, technology, engineering and math).

“It is a high honor to be chosen as an MLH Top 50 recipient, as each is selected from a pool of more than 150,000 active community members, comprising one in three new programmers in the United States and even more abroad,” said Nick Quinlan, Major League Hacking’s chief operating officer. “To be selected is to have your achievements recognized as the top ... of new technologists today.”

MLH is an international organization that provides resources, food and/or prizes for hack-a-thons, which are often led by students.

Ashai, a member of UCSD’s class of 2023, was recognized for his coding talent and drive to create new opportunities for the hacker community, according to MLH.

As an organizer and director of TritonHacks — which is aimed at high school students, specifically those who are underprivileged — Ashai focused on supporting new coders by supplying participants with high-quality starter kits. Each participant, regardless of skill level, also was assigned a mentor.

“I just wanted to organize a small hack-a-thon,” he said. “In a classroom, you could take [Advanced Placement] computer science classes, where they teach you more theoretical stuff, or upper-level classes, which teaches the skills you use in the real world. But it is relevant to know these skills, and the earlier the better because it sets you up and there are more opportunities. For me, it opened a lot of doors. Competing in hack-a-thons has grown my skill set in so many ways that I wouldn’t have seen in any classrooms.”

Hack-a-thons are intended to be real-world, but low-stress, opportunities to practice one’s coding skills, Ashai added.

“They reward creativity and innovation,” he said. “When you build a good project, the judges offer awards that you can put on your resumé.

“But for me, I wanted it to be a learning experience. I wanted to come to the event with like-minded people and spend a weekend deep into the technology. You always learn something new.”

It is “rewarding” to be recognized for TritonHacks, he said. “It inspired me to do similar things in the future. I have also connected with those that also received this award. They have a strong drive and passion to learn for themselves and contribute to the overall community.”

“It is relevant to know these skills, and the earlier the better because it sets you up and there are more opportunities. For me, it opened a lot of doors.”

— Faris Ashai

Ashai was introduced to hack-a-thons while in middle school in Palos Verdes Estates, thanks to a cousin.

“I was confused at first,” he said. “When I competed, we built the simplest website ever. It was very basic and didn’t do much, but it showed me what was possible. I became familiar with the tools to build a website … and when I got to my next one, I used new technologies that offered more flexibility.

“It’s amazing how far you can get in a short amount of time. Data changes very rapidly, and the more I competed I learned more about that. I think what inspired me to get more involved was the fact that my friends from a student organization on campus were also Top 50 hackers before I got involved. That was a big motivating factor.” ◆