Thursday, February 12, 2015

How to Win a Hackathon (also: free beer)

You can spend an entire weekend in San Francisco and not pay for food or drinks once. All you need to do is build a prototype web application in 5 minutes and spend the next 50 hours making it into something never seen before. The hackathon is here.

Hackathon is the local sport. It's an endurance event for programmers and builders, usually an entire weekend where the contestants race from zero to working application, followed by Olympic-style judging (the criteria might be creativity, applicability to the problem set (usually there is always a "theme"), and technical difficulty). It's a team sport, and if you want to win you have to bring something good to your team. There's a few things you can do that will make your team happy and give you a shot at the gold medal.

First, preparation is essential. You build your laptop from scratch to be the ultimate developer machine, with several full development stacks and your code editor customized just the way you like it so anything you might need is at your fingertips. Then you'll spend at least a day or two in last minute preparation and testing; doing some practice exercises could't hurt. The key to a good hackathon is rapid prototyping, and that requires tools and skills already in place and ready to go.

What You Need to Bring

At some point I had to ask myself, what is in my toolbox? What do I install on my laptop and how do I make sure I don't embarrass myself by not having the latest SuperNextGen Build System configured to auto-construct the web site we need and remember everyone's coffee order? Also, I want to win! And to win I need the absolute best tools in the room, configured just so. And so what tools do you bring?

Web services development and hosting

That's right, bring the cloud. More precisely, your access to cloud servers and services. You should be able to whip up a new web service as fast as you can type, and deploy it somewhere the rest of your team can use it. At minimum you need a good REST CRUD for basic object persistence; in reality everyone will be expecting you have the entire data set in a high-throughput BigQuery analysis engine by lunch time. In a pinch, JPA on AppEngine will do.

Whatever platform you use, you're going to want to get a test system up and running first thing, something that you can build your application on. This first program essentially becomes a workbench, something you can test on, adding and removing new features to see how they work. Start with something generic, then specialize it to your problem set.

Oh, and you'll need to be able to share your code and other digital assets. Here, a little setup beforehand goes a long way.

User Interface Experience.

It's not an interface, it's an experience. There's rapid prototyping and then there's interactivity, and you'll never know what kind of interaction works until you try it. You need your code templates and a toolbox of plug-and-play components ready to go, organized so you find the right one quickly. Yes, you can impress everyone with a little copy and paste and some quick JavaScript.

Data Visualization 

Chances are, whatever you build will involve looking at data. With a visualization library like D3, you can design and deploy a number of different charts for whatever is thrown at you the day of the hack. 


Nobody hacks in pure software. Not in the age of Raspberry Pi and homebrew sensors. If you show up with a programmable hardware device and it turns out to be actually useful, you will be the rock star.


You should just learn all you can, constantly. Bring what you know.

Monty Python Jokes

You're spending the weekend surrounded by some of the smartest, most energetic, and creative engineers around, and everyone has fantastic dreams of things to come. People like this are easily entertained, so bring your silly walk.

A hackathon is a special time and place where sparks of innovation fill the air and the future is taking shape before your eyes. When those eyes get red and tired, when it's late and everyone is punchy, that's when the fun begins. The geeky insider jokes fly with the airspeed velocity of an of unladen swallow.

And you might just take part in the creation of something new.