A First: 2014 Launch Festival Hackathon

by Brittany Martin

Wow, I am exhausted. I'm just coming home from my first hackathon where I participated as a developer. As someone who talks to student hackathon organizers everyday (as a awesome job!), I really needed to see it to believe it. I chose the infamous Launch Hackathon (2/21 -2/23) since it was in SF, well respected and would score me a free pass to the Launch Festival (bonus!). 

The WordtoPix team! From left to right: Melanie, PA, me and Rajiv.

The WordtoPix team! From left to right: Melanie, PA, me and Rajiv.

My hack team, 2 developers and a designer who did a startup together previously, were the perfect match to ensure that I was going to hit my two goals for the weekend 1) learn like crazy and 2) make some new friends. Our app, WordtoPix, did not place in the competition but I'm still really proud of what we accomplished.  

After reflecting on the weekend, here is what well and what didn't (and would I'll do next time). 

What Worked

  • Team. I couldn't have picked better if I tried. I lucked out because I befriended Melanie at a Women Who Code Ruby meetup and she invited me to join her team. Rajiv and PA were very kind in teaching me new skills over the weekend and it was easy to fit into the rhythm of a team that already had one. I've learned the core skills on making a Rest API using Rails and Ruby 3.
  • The idea. Since we were such an agreeable bunch, we didn't fight over what idea we would tackle. It was a visual version of the game "Apples to Apples" that tied together travel photography and the Expedia API. We spec'ed it out to have an MVP and an advanced version (that would include more sponsor APIs if we had time). The team next to us spent 2 days (?!?) deciding on idea before they did anything.
  • Sleep (surprisingly). My team resolved not to sleep at the hackathon. Instead we worked hard during the day and then slept in our own places at night. I'm sure teams that went 24 hours a day had an advantage on us but at some point, you are just not productive anymore. 
  • Mentors. I was impressed that all of the sponsors had evangelists on hand to help the teams. It would have been great to have some general mentors to field questions but considering it was a more advanced hackathon, that is OK. 
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What Did Not Work

Spring rolls....yum!

Spring rolls....yum!

  • Skill sets. Trying to match the skills sets of the team on one app. Both of the developers were Javascript experts but were kind in letting the backend crew pick Rails (the only platform Melanie and I know). Since they were not familiar with Rails or Heroku, we had a difficult time syncing up the front end and the back end. We tested a lot of new skills that ended up overcomplicating the overall project. Next time, I'll be more technically prepared and will keep it simple. 
  • Diet. My newfound clean diet took a serious beating. I had grand plans on cooking and bringing food but when all thoughts are directed towards shipping you app, cooking plans get discarded. I got lucky a couple of times: Sunday was fresh Vietamese Spring rolls but I had losing battle with the Chicago style pizza on Friday. 
  • My back. My poor poor back. Plastic seats lead to some rough sitting. By Day 2, hackers were wising up and using the chairs to prop their computers on the table. I would have loved a relay race or a game of dodge ball to break up the event and to get us moving. 
  • Hackathon hygiene. Speaking of those teams that went 24 hours a day, by the end of Day 2 there were some rough smells amongst the rows of coders. I'm glad they put out prepasted toothbrushes on Day 3 but we could really have used a hosedown of some hygiene victims. 

All in all, it was a wonderful, memorable weekend and I thank the fantastic Launch team and sponsors for all of the hard work they put in. Congrats to the winners and anyone who shipped an app. I'm grateful to my team and proud to say that I have one hackathon down, many more to go.