Winning the Smart Money Hackathon SF

by Brittany Martin

The MEDAPulse team + judges after our win!

The MEDAPulse team + judges after our win!

I'm still in shock that my team (MEDAPulse) from the Smart Money Hackathon came in first place this past weekend. We were declared "Most Innovative". Like the last hackathon I wrote about, the Launch hackathon, I'm going to recap what worked and what didn't. If I can encourage more folks to attend hackathons, I will be happy. 

First of all, what is the Smart Money Hackathon?

All San Franciscans, but especially the underserved and poor, lack access to the financial knowledge they need to make critical financial decisions. To tackle this challenge, the San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment (OFE) partnered with the Impact Hub and the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation (MOCI) to host the Smart Money Hackathon. As part of the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation Tech Clinics initiative, project teams are encouraged to commit follow up hours after the weekend to complete their new services, products and tools that build the capacity of community initiatives. Thanks to Women Who Code's awesome newsletter, I signed up last week. 

At the start of the hackathon, six non-profits pitched the problems they face and then teams formed to create a technology based solution over the weekend. On Sunday, teams pitched their ideas to a panel of judges (including Shaun Webb (Capital One), Patrice Martin (, Jonny Price (Kiva), Jose Quinoez (Mission Asset Fund's CEO) and Jonathan Wolter (Square). We were judged based on innovation and community impact. 

What Worked

  • Team: this was the best team I could have hoped for. After hearing MEDA's pitch about wanting to improve client engagement for their 5,000 clients, Melanie Gin and I were inspired to join their team. A little while later, Jamie McKenzie and Chris Yancey joined. I held my breath and asked the magic question: "So what do you do?". Turns out that they both were awesome graduates of Dev Bootcamp and were used to working with Rails. Perfect! 
  • Partner: MEDA was an amazing partner. MEDA offers free financial services to low and moderate income families in the San Francisco Bay Area, located in the Mission District. Steve and Richard from MEDA were wonderful about answering questions and helping us identify a solution that we would be confident in implementing. Users are everything!
  • Scope: we picked two related problems that we wanted to tackle. We kept our application focused on solving those.
  • Tech Choices: Rails was awesome and of course deploying on to Ninefold was easy. At one point, we had a small bug related to compiling assets and the Ninefold logs lead us straight to it. I was lucky because Melanie is a CSS wizard and Jamie/Chris really know Rails. 
  • Process: Melanie had a lot of success setting a visual board of the tasks that needed to be completed, labeled with "To Do", "In Progress" and "Complete!". Not only was it great to see what everyone was doing but it felt great to move a Post-it to the right. We did standups every couple hours to discuss blockers and priorities. If we disagreed, we resolved it and moved on quickly. 
  • Follow Through Plan: Part of the presentation involved a follow through plan for after the weekend. I polled the team for their wish list items and divided them between "Technology" and "Implementation Strategy". Since our plans was reasonable and doable, this contributed to us winning. 
  • Food: The food was incredibly this weekend! Being that is was a non-profit hackathon, the fantastic organizers had connections with delicious vendors (for example Bayview's Radio Africa). Instead of the usual pizza, it would wonderful to fill up on veggies and keep hacking away. 
  • Break Time: It is extremely tempting to go full steam on the project the entire weekend but in the end, if you are so tired you can't think straight or you can't see the big picture, what is the point? All of the team members took a couple hours for themselves. Melanie had dinner with a friend from out of town, Chris called his girlfriend, Jamie went to a friend's art show and I went to a spin class. Jamie was right - it is important to get out and get moving for a bit. 

What Didn't Work

  • Scaffolding: We thought we would be clever and scaffold the project using Rails. "It's like magic! It will do all of the work for us!". Turns out if you want customize your app (routing, references), scaffolding is a painful way to go. On top of that, all of the developers had been formally taught not to do that. Now we know :)
  • Scaffolding + Devise: I implemented Devise and while it worked, it ended up being a heavier solution than me we need for a hack. Looking back, I could have implemented a simpler system and wrote Devise in on V3. 
  • Implementing New Tech to Us: we had big plans to implement Twilio and a scheduler over the weekend but since we didn't know how to create a worker, we didn't have chance. Since then we have found services to do this for us. 

That's it! Thank you to my amazing team, the organizers, our non-profit partner, the judges, the other teams (you are my heroes) and everyone who helped to bring the weekend together. I've placed the links and photos from the weekend below. Now on to planning for the national competition!