More recently, the sort-of-fictional Facebook movie The Social Network popularized the notion of coding marathons, this time stylizing the endeavour with gratuitous shots of flowing alcohol and cheering groupies in an attempt to give the whole thing a kind of rock-star, hard-core feel. In reality, appathons are hard-core coding sessions in the same way that a coma is a hard-core nap.
But even if gimmicky in their format, appathons are not completely removed from the experience of working at a major tech firm or, even more so, a tech start-up. Ironman work hours have become a staple of the industry. Indeed, there's a reason companies such as Google offer their employees perks such as free food, gym memberships and outings to Disney Land – when they're not taking advantage of these perks, employees are usually working their faces off.
“It's tough,” says Tekin Salimi, who is organizing this year's appathon for XMG before leaving the tech sector to head to law school.
“One unfortunate reality is that, if you want to write code for a big company, the hours can be crazy.”
But there's more to this than students writing code. Events such as The Great Canadian Appathon represent the ground floor of the Canadian technology community – a community where there's still a fairly large disconnect between talent and funding, between innovation and success.
Some of the students here this weekend may soon find themselves on the other side of the same office, running their own start-ups with the assistance of incubation chamber programs such as Ryerson's DMZ. Those startups, in turn, will go looking for funding from venture capital firms in Canada and (more likely, given the somewhat limited funding opportunities north of the border) the United States. And in rare cases, the start-ups might even become acquisition targets, attracting the attention of heavyweights such as Google and Facebook, who have expanded their presence in Canadian tech hubs such as Waterloo.
The appathon is, in part, an attempt to draw a trajectory line between the stuff Canadian technology students are doing now and what they hope to be doing later. It works in part because the app industry is accessible. If you want to build the next big hardware company, you need years and millions of dollars in funding. If you want to build the next big app, maybe all you need is a weekend.
“This is how companies like Google come up with great ideas,” says Sherif El Tawil, a member of the appathon's organizing staff. “They lock themselves up with pizza and coffee and code the night away.”
Saturday, 11:00 a.m.
Nobody's been drinking but a bunch of people look hungover. Virtually all the starting-gun giddiness of yesterday afternoon has evaporated, leaving behind a smattering of mostly sweatpants-clad students hunchbacked over their laptop monitors, clacking away at keyboards. Some have gone home for a few hours' sleep, or crashed on the DMZ's bean-bag chairs. Other's haven't. One of members of the organizing committee has been trying to sleep on a makeshift bed composed of plush, backless chairs. All the good lollipops in the candy bowl are gone, only grape flavour remains.
“I feel good. A little jittery,” says Evon-Jai Morgan, a 22-year-old trioOS student with an easy smile who's doing all the artwork for team Bombard (the people building the whack-a-mole game). Mr. Morgan is in the tail end of an all-nighter – near him, a pyramid of Red Bull cans balances precariously near the end of the table, six cans high. He and his teammates are jovial and outgoing in the way heavily caffeinated people are right before they crash.
Nearby, team WTF has abandoned farm animals altogether. Their game now features duelling corporate managers who attack each other while mounted on rolling office chairs. Mr. Perkins is busy editing photos of said office chairs to create artwork for the game, heavily pixellating the images to give the app its mandatory retro feel.
Team WTF has lucked out – Mr. Gupta, the Indian exchange student, is a machine. He turns out to be a two-time Indian appathon winner, a former Microsoft intern and the creator of his own social network. A long-shot at the beginning of the contest, WTF is now ahead of schedule.