Plugging Away in the Depths of Soda Hall

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With 15 minutes left before Sunday night becomes Monday morning, hundreds of fingers are flying fast across keyboards in a basement room of Soda Hall.

Twenty belong to David Lau and Emily Mei, both UC Berkeley juniors studying electrical engineering and computer science, who are working in tandem to finish a programming project in time for their midnight deadline.

A thick layer of Chinese food cartons and Oreo Cookie packages surround Lau and Mei, despite the presence of signs warning against the consumption of food and drink in the lab-a sign that is a reminder of both the laxity of the work environment and the long hours expected of young programmers.

The nether-reaches of Soda Hall, which houses the computer science department, have become a second home for those seeking a strong sense of shared suffering.

"There are ups and downs," Lau says, taking a welcomed break from his programming duties. "Once you get stuff working, you just code, but if you get caught on just one bug-you can get depressed."

Having worked at Soda Hall seven hours a day for the past week, Lau is no stranger to the long hours and is often forced to swap ancillary activities like sleep for the music of U2, played on his computer while he works.

"I slept at my keyboard for 15 minutes until my partner woke me up," Lau says. "As a freshman, I thought that no one actually lived at Soda Hall, but there's just so much stuff to do."

With Mei's discovery of multiple errors at 11:55 p.m., Lau's headphones come off and the pair focuses on the home stretch, staring so closely at their terminals that their faces are clearly reflected in the lines of the computer code


Minor discrepancies are rectified and known errors are documented just in time to submit the completed project three minutes later, its 3,000 lines of computer code equivalent in sheer bulk to an 80-page paper.

"Two minutes ahead of time," Mei says, cradling a stuffed Pokémon she brings with her to Soda Hall for inspiration. "Better than last time."

Minutes later, when they leave for home, Lau and Mei will vacate seats they have occupied continuously for 32 hours. Their marathon may be over, but dozens of others remain in the basement labs to labor into the early morning.

Although most work done by students at Soda Hall can be completed at home, many flock to its basement every night of the week.

The six-year-old building itself demonstrates the stressful yet almost surreal atmosphere of computer science students. There are no clocks on the walls in any of the building's basement labs, and the rows of computer users seem almost motionless-it is like visiting a purgatory built especially for programmers.

"Whenever I leave my dorm to go do computer science, I do it (in Soda Hall) because here, that's all you can do," says Noel Deomampo, an electrical engineering and computer science freshman and Soda Hall regular. "You can't get distracted and turn on the TV."

In a place where the length of your stay is worn like a badge of honor, Deomampo and his partners are considered newcomers. At 8 p.m., they have been here for only seven hours.

The programming process can be tedious and frustratingly difficult, but the hope is that the tinkering and late-night idiosyncrasies result in high-quality software.

"With a lot of these problems, there are different ways of going about it," Deomampo says. "Some are more straightforward than others."

Across the room, fists pump the air amid cheers and laughter, and at least one pair of programmers is finished. Since it is still only 9:30 p.m., the sounds of success help to focus Deomampo and his group.

But the sense of renewed purpose is fleeting, for having forgotten about eating long ago, their thoughts drift from code and compilers to burgers and fries.

Instructors in the computer science department say they do not like to encourage the eccentricities of Soda Hall denizens but acknowledge that late-night work is necessary at times.

"We do anticipate people will be working hard," says computer science lecturer Daniel Garcia. "But most of the late-night work reflects the reality that many students wait until the last minute to finish projects."

When Deomampo and company wrap up around 10 p.m., Lau and Mei are just hitting their stride down the hall. They will remain here for two more hours before their last-minute submission is made.

When asked how he feels to be done, Deomampo's partner Art Connors, says, "It feels like I need to eat, that's what it feels like. I lost an entire day of my life. It's like Sunday never existed."


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