Galactic Empire

Avatar for Matthew StanciuMatthew Stanciu

Originally published as short stories throughout the 1940s, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy is set in the far future, where humans have conquered the Milky Way and established a Galactic Empire. One scientist, Hari Seldon, develops a new form of science called “psychohistory”, which allows for mathematically predicting macro-level trends in human history.

One day, Hari Seldon predicts with near certainty that the Galactic Empire, which has stood strong for thousands of years, will soon collapse, and 30,000 years of dark ages will follow. It’s too late to stop the collapse—there’s too much inertia across the Galaxy—but it’s not too late to shorten the dark ages. So Hari Seldon establishes the Foundation, a group of 100,000 scientists at the edge of the Galaxy who are tasked with chronicling all of human history and knowledge in the Encyclopedia Galactica.

Meanwhile, Hari Seldon sets up every Foundation-and-adjacent human, like dominos, in such a way that by the laws of psychohistory, the Foundation will emerge as a new and better Galactic Empire in only 1,000 years.

The remainder of the three Foundation books is Hari Seldon’s Plan playing out over many generations—how they conquer their neighborhood, handle unpredictable variables that threaten the Plan, and spread further out into the Galaxy, developing magical technology and encouraging art, science, and culture to flourish on their planets.

I’ve been leading Purdue Hackers for two years. In this time, Purdue Hackers has radically transformed: 80 people make things at Hack Night, our weekly hacker festival; we have a vibrant & friendly online community of 2,000 hackers constantly shipping projects, where folks have made their closest friends; hackers make their own NFC-enabled passports and creative projects like Lightning Time; we’ve received donations from tech leaders like Paul Graham, and ran an AMA with Steve Wozniak.

I have one year before I graduate in the spring of 2025, and something I’ve become acutely aware of is that none of this was inevitable. Purdue Hackers, in its 11-year history, has never looked like this before, and getting here required an unbelievable amount of effort and many stars to align. About a year ago, I personally decided that Purdue Hackers was what I wanted to do in college, and dropped everything outside of classes to pursue it essentially full time.

I am so glad I chose to deeply invest in this org, and am extremely proud of its rapid transformation and acceleration over the last two years. But I am also concerned for its future. None of what Purdue Hackers is today exists outside the minds of the current generation: if we were to graduate today, much of what we know of as Purdue Hackers would be lost. If Purdue Hackers is to survive the next 11 years and beyond, this has to change. I want to share how I plan on achieving this–and, in doing so, carve a path that other org leaders can follow too.

The Fire & the Current

The Fire is the burning desire to do things, with confidence, strong conviction, and boundless curiosity. It’s difficult to explain, but you “just know” when someone’s “got” the Fire. Some people are born with it; others learn it. In both cases, it must be kindled, or it will flame out.

Many kids have the Fire at a very young age, but K12 education beats it out of them. College is a great place to (re-)kindle the Fire, but it doesn’t happen by default.

The Current is the forces of your environment that push you in a particular direction. The Current is the reason why you’re the sum of the people you spend the most time around. The majority of the Current is set by your birth country and socioeconomic background; the rest is set by a million things throughout your life, but most importantly your education and your friends.

It’s possible, but often very difficult, to fight against the Current. Those who successfully do so are either inspiring success stories or tragedies. But the Current can be changed relatively quickly with a change of environment, education, and/or friends.

The goal of Purdue Hackers over the last two years has been to establish a Current that kindles the Fire. The community should naturally push you to make things and be radically kind and weird; Hack Night should naturally push you to make your closest friends and ship ambitious projects, constantly surprising yourself. And it should feel organic: the Current should make it the default state for people, not force or pressure them.

Ideal state of matter

Modern-day university hacker culture began in 2013 with the founding of collegiate hackathons across North America, like MHacks, CalHacks, BoilerMake, HackIllinois, and HackGT. Almost all these hackathons started at roughly the same time, like a Big Bang. Purdue Hackers spawned directly out of this Big Bang in September 2013: at the time, the Purdue Hackers and BoilerMake folks were all the same friend group.

The first few years of collegiate hackathons are full of incredible legends. Renegade hackers were starting a movement, running thousand-person events and raising money from Apple and Twilio, who were hiring people straight out of the hackathons. The creators of an iOS app called Workflow, the grand prize at MHacks III, were hired by Apple to turn it into Shortcuts, which is now installed on every iPhone. Stories like this led to the rallying cry, “College hackathons are the new career fair.” People would travel to a different hackathon in a different part of the country every week on free buses sent by the hackathons. Purdue Hackers used to go as a group!

Ten years later, the landscape looks very different. Most of the big players in tech no longer sponsor hackathons, and most hackathons have established deep relationships with regional companies, which sponsor them every year. Many university CS departments also now set aside budget every year for their hackathons. At the time of the Big Bang, collegiate hackathons were a new idea proposed by renegades who were forging a new path; today, the paths are visible from a distance and well-trodden.

But despite ten years of independent evolution, the paths formed by nearly every North American collegiate hackathon reveal uncannily similar pictures, as if trending toward an ideal state of matter.

Inspired by stories like Workflow, people caught on to the fact that building an impressive project at a hackathon could lead to legitimate career opportunities. Hackathon organizers, in turn, began leaning into this, making career growth an explicit goal for attendees.

For the founders and their direct descendants, this didn’t matter because they were primarily there to build interesting things for fun. But this understanding only existed in the minds of those people, and external communications increasingly stressed the career benefits of attending a hackathon. This brought in lots of new people who were not briefed on the original visions, and came with the explicit goal of building their resumes. Some of those people later became organizers, further cementing this as the purpose of attending a hackathon.

Today, most collegiate hackathons have fully optimized for feeding into regional recruiting pipelines. They often have an air of faux-professionalism, and projects are built entirely in service of resume building. Many of the hacker clubs that spawned from them are now career prep clubs for CS majors. This new foundation is very well-established, and much more culturally powerful than the original visions ever were: it’s a strong Current reinforced by nearly three full generations of college students.


Telephone is played when the current leader of an org looks to what their org did in previous years and attempts to repeat it without understanding it, thereby watering it down.

Telephone is caused by weak and/or uninspired leadership, and is generally a sign that the org will degrade or fail to meaningfully move forward. Too many years of Telephone will send an org barreling toward dark ages, establishing a Current that becomes very difficult to change.

Telephone is exceedingly common in student orgs, which have high turnover rates and no full-time leadership. It’s almost inevitable that every student org will suffer from Telephone at least once in its life, even if it is very strong at one point.

In my opinion, the convergent evolution of North American collegiate hackathons and hacker clubs toward surface-level career prep is a result of multiple generations of Telephone having been played by their respective organizers. Purdue Hackers is currently avoiding this path, but we have no defenses against Telephone—and if we don’t build them, we will inevitably join the path after the current generation graduates. For the long-term future of Purdue Hackers, it’s time to establish a Foundation.

The Plan

First, because student orgs are especially vulnerable to Telephone, we should assume that some future leaders of Purdue Hackers will play it. Attempting to prevent Telephone altogether is impossible, because it only takes one leader to start a new round, and we can’t control the actions of individuals in the future. Instead, the goal should be to minimize the frequency and effects of Telephone when it is played.

With this in mind, I’ve outlined a Plan for running an inspired hacker org and building defenses against Telephone, along with an assessment of how well Purdue Hackers is doing at each step. I’ve generalized them in hopes that they can also be useful to other org leaders.

1. Build a strong culture

Build something people deeply identify with and care about seeing continue. Establish strong values, constantly live them, and reward others for living them. It’s okay to be the only one carrying the torch for a while, but give torches to other people as soon as you can. Encourage others to contribute their own pieces to the culture and make it their own. Avoid cults of personality.

You’ll know you’re succeeding if you start to see natural momentum that isn’t directly facilitated by leadership, and friend groups begin to spawn out of your org.

Purdue Hackers has a strong culture. Our community has become the primary social space for dozens of people, with Hack Night as the center of gravity. Many folks have created tight-knit friend groups, which have enabled each other to build highly ambitious technical projects. Every recent Purdue Hackers initiative, including infrastructure for the passports, Hack Night’s day-of dashboard, the upcoming sign, and logistics for the Steve Wozniak AMA, have been spearheaded by community members.

One project that’s emblematic of our success here is Lightning Time, a hexadecimal-based time system created at Hack Night. It’s now a rite of passage to learn how it works, and it’s embedded into the Hack Night schedule and dashboard, and the sign’s firmware.

2. Create rituals

Create rituals that encode your values, and make following them a part of your culture. These rituals should be emblematic of your culture and be some of its loudest parts.

Rituals foster camaraderie between the members of your org. They have a similar effect to inside jokes, except rituals should be public, easy to follow, and encouraged for everyone. They act as a layer of glue for your culture—so if a leader is playing Telephone, it will be easier to leave the glue on than take it off.

Our main ritual is the count to 0~0~0: at Hack Night, when the time in Lightning Time strikes f~f~f|0, everyone gathers around the dashboard and counts up in hexadecimal, from 0 to f, following the charge (the unit to the right of the pipe, which lasts about 1.2 seconds) until the clock strikes 0~0~0 (or midnight, in traditional time). It’s like a new year’s countdown from another dimension.

3. Give lots of people ownership

Give as many people ownership over your org as you can: give responsibilities to people not in leadership, and seek out their ideas. Pull back the curtain and invite others backstage as often as you can. With their help, constantly push in new directions.

You never want your org’s members, current and future, to feel stuck maintaining other people’s ideas—that’s a fast track to Telephone. New ideas should be expected by your culture and contributed by as many people as possible. The more people feel like they have control over the direction of your org, the more bought in they will be and the more new ideas they will contribute.

One subtle way we encourage this is that every Hack Night event has a version number. The minor version increments every week, and the major version increments when something about the structure of Hack Night changes. This pushes us to constantly make Hack Night better—we don’t want to be running Hack Night 4.35 in two years. The latest major version—4.0—was the biggest one yet, and its ideas were largely contributed by community members.

4. Run creative initiatives that require active maintenance

Start initiatives that, by nature, must happen regularly (every 1-2 weeks), and make them foundational pieces that your org cannot function without. Encode your org’s values into them, and make them wholly unique to you. The more creative and unconventional, the better.

This serves two goals. First, it keeps momentum going, which keeps people engaged. Second, it’s a way of encoding your org’s values and culture into its practices, which makes it harder to lose them “by accident”, or without an intentional and focused shift away from them. If a leader is playing Telephone, the Current will push them toward maintaining the initiatives.

Purdue Hackers runs three such initiatives: Hack Night, badges, and passports.

Hack Night is a hacker festival that runs every Friday night at our local makerspace. It starts at 8pm and ends when the last person leaves—often around 6am. Each Hack Night has sub-events—reading circles, demos, and sessions—all of which are run by community members. Hack Night is the core of Purdue Hackers: it must happen every week.

Badges are laser-cut collectibles that we give out at Hack Night. Every week, we make a unique design containing that week’s Hack Night date and version number, source some material, and laser engrave & cut 80 collectibles. A Hack Night event is not canonical if there’s no badge associated with it, and most Hack Night attendees come expecting to add a new one to their collection, so there must be a new badge every week.

Passports are NFC-enabled identifying documents for Purdue Hackers. Hackers get their passports stamped at Hack Night, and the “Sign In with Passport” API enables us to build software exclusive to passport holders. Passports are made by their owners at passport-making ceremonies, which run during Hack Night. We just shipped them, but demand is already high enough that we must run a passport-making ceremony every two weeks. And as we build more passport-exclusive infrastructure, this will only grow stronger.

5. Write your values and practices down

Write down specifically what and who your org is for, and constantly communicate it. Not everyone needs to agree with your written values, but it should be impossible to be a member of your org and not be aware of them. You also can’t guarantee that future generations will agree with your values, but disagreeing with them will require forming their own opinions, which you want to encourage.

Regularly share externally what your org is doing. Rigorously document procedures and technical knowledge, as well as every time you learn new things that improve them. Make all writing easily accessible to the public (or at least to members). Build all software open source.

Purdue Hackers has been doing a good job with external communication as of late. We have a strong brand and regularly put out high-quality visual material, our Instagram account is high-quality, and this blog and the VIP Newsletter have been great ways to communicate what we do to folks outside of Purdue.

But we’re failing on nearly every other point. None of our technical knowledge is documented anywhere, and we’re currently on a path for it all to be lost: how to make a passport, how to design a badge, how to run Hack Night, how to run a workshop, brand guidelines, internal team structure. And although our values are encoded into our communications, none of them are explicitly written down anywhere.

Creating and maintaining up-to-date documentation is something most orgs—not just student orgs—are bad at. It’s often lower priority because it’s not an immediate need, and the activation energy required to do it right is too high when it is needed. Student orgs are especially bad at this for the same reason they’re especially vulnerable to Telephone.

My plan for getting past the activation energy problem of documentation is to create an initiative out of it, similar to badges or passports. The goal is to make it so that we must build our own Encyclopedia Galactica, and maintaining it should be expected of everyone who contributes to Purdue Hackers. I’m calling this initiative Evergreen, and I will share more about it as it gets going this fall.

6. Choose successors wisely

While it’s true that org leaders should focus on reducing the effects of Telephone, they should still do their best to prevent it—and the best way to do this is to select a good successor. I have never done this successfully, so please take the following with a grain of salt. But here’s how I’m thinking about succession for Purdue Hackers.

I believe the optimal amount of time for someone to lead a student org is two or three years if the org is healthy and three years if it’s recovering from Telephone. Single-year terms should be avoided because one year is not enough time for a leader to both introduce new ideas and properly choose their own successor. In short, a potential successor should be as young as possible.

A freshman who was a hacker in high school is my ideal candidate to lead Purdue Hackers. This used to be an absurd idea, but people are becoming more technical at younger ages, and organizations like Hack Club are giving them the hacker mindset. More people are starting college as hackers, and there’s good reason to believe this trend will continue.

The fall semester will be led by me, but with increasingly more responsibility shifted to the potential successor. The spring semester should primarily be led by them, though I will still be around.

This is the most fragile step of the Plan. Maybe some years the batch of people just won’t be very good—professors talk about this all the time! Or maybe the org will be full of great people, but none will want to commit to leading it. And even if it feels like I’ve found the perfect person in the fall, a lot can change in a year.

Takeaways from the Plan

Steps 5 and 6—documentation & succession—are the most important defenses against Telephone, and also the hardest to do right. They’re the ones that the founders of collegiate hackathons didn’t do, which is why the original visions were lost so quickly. They’re also the ones we haven’t yet succeeded at.

Without documentation, the entire foundation of your org is humans who will eventually leave. It could magically change the lives of everyone who’s part of it for a while, but it will collapse when the humans supporting it move on.

Without a succession plan, you dramatically increase the risk of someone turning the org into a zombie version of itself, going through motions started years before with no inspiration or meaningful output. The first four steps build inertia against this, but that only goes so far.

Today, Purdue Hackers has kindled the Fire in hundreds of people, who have made their closest friends and dramatically raised their technical ambitions. I’m so proud of what this org has become, and dream of what it could look like 5, 10, and 100 years in the future.

Unfortunately, maintaining our Current is not a certainty: forces that push hacker student orgs toward surface-level career prep, combined with a unique vulnerability to Telephone, threaten its future.

We’ve kept our Current powerful by establishing a strong culture & rituals, operating open source, and running foundational recurring initiatives. Now, we’re ready for our next challenge: setting Purdue Hackers up to keep its Current going long after we’re gone, via thorough documentation and thoughtful succession.

If you lead a hackathon or hacker club at your school, I want you to do the same. When I started leading Purdue Hackers, there was no apparent demand for Hack Night, passports, or Lightning Time—but once we built them, people came. I’m certain your school is the same.

There’s no guarantee the Plan will succeed. I have never done this successfully before—and sadly, psychohistory is a fictional science, so there’s no precise mathematical logic backing it. The only way to know if it’s a good idea is to come back in 5 years and see how Purdue Hackers is doing.

I’m also aware that I take all this unreasonably seriously. I can’t help it: I just think college clubs are really special and worth investing in. But the Plan does not require its facilitator to be as absurdly invested as I have been. The rate at which Purdue Hackers has changed under my leadership has been quite steep; this is great, but it also makes it easier for future generations to feel stuck maintaining someone else’s idea. There’s value in slower evolutions that happen over multiple generations, deepening their roots.

Over many centuries, there is rarely a moment when a Foundation citizen loses their faith that the Foundation will prevail, even in the face of seemingly impossible setbacks. Everyone knows they are part of something that will far outlive them, and they are excited for the future. Unlike the Foundation, Purdue Hackers does not have the dead hand of Hari Seldon on our side, but I think we can learn a lot from them. I, for one, am excited to continue building a magical org, see the Plan through, and watch it thrive after I’m gone. If you go to Purdue, I hope you will join me—and if you go to another university, I hope you will create your own magic.