If You Want to Learn, Go to a Hackathon - AngelHack Austin
A Hackathon You Say?
The internet is rife with stories of startups being born in the crucible of a hackathon, or a young programmer getting that interview that landed them their dream job. While some of these stories may be greatly exaggerated, I can tell you that if you go into a hackathon you will come out knowing more than when you started. No matter your skill level as a developer, manager, or designer I would suggest you attend a hackathon.
I recently participated in AngelHack 2016 in Austin, Texas and learned more in one weekend than I thought was possible. The hackathon not only taught me a great deal technically, but also about how to work on a team and get stuff done. The journey was fraught with highs and lows, but left me with a deep feeling of satisfaction.
I arrived promptly at 9 am to MakerSquare in Austin. Their offices were what one would expect, with a nerd chic style which gave off a hip feeling that almost permeated the very air. Breakfast was waiting and I was shocked at the quality of the delicious food which my ten dollar ticket had bought. After breakfast there was a short presentation to get everyone oriented and then the pitches began.
My pitch was for a simple app which allowed users to scan in their business cards and set up follow up appointments which could be read back to you via Amazon’s Alexa. I had been discussing the idea with a C++ programmer sitting next to me and after the pitch three other people immediately came up to me and wanted in. After some basic discussion we were off and thus began one of the most intense coding exercises I have ever participated in.
And So It Began
Our group started off by doing some whiteboarding and after a small discussion we reached an agreement on our design. We decided to build our app using Meteor and split the work into two main focus areas. One group would focus on the web application and the other would focus on the Alexa piece of the app. I was on the Alexa team and set off to learn her API as quickly as possible.
After getting through my first “hello world” with Alexa it was already the middle of the afternoon. Being behind schedule was not terrible at first, but things escalated quickly. I was fortunate to have some truly talented programmers on the team, so we typically got passed roadblocks as they occurred. Next thing I knew it was midnight and we were stuck on getting our database to speak with Alexa.
Typically, when I get stuck on a coding problem at work I like to walk away from the problem and revisit it later. Unfortunately, the hackathon had made me laser focused. I literally had nightmares about the bug, and not being able to present more than a shell of our idea filled me with a deep dread. To compound this was the fact that other people were counting on me. Even though I had only met these people the day prior I could not stand the idea of letting them down. With those sentiments embedded in my gut I pushed forward.
When I arrived the next day I had been able to get our web app deployed to Meteor and one of our team members was able to crush the bug. She worked furiously, and was able to make incredible progress which resulted in a working prototype. Before we knew it, 1:00pm had arrived and coding had to cease. We had a working prototype with limited functionality and I was elected to make the pitch.
We Made This Thing
The final part of the hackathon was to pitch our idea in front of a panel of judges. We had been so focused on our project we had little idea what the competition looked like and we were all quite nervous. The products ranged from airbnb clones to face recognition technologies, with tech stacks of equal diversity.
When I made the pitch my hands felt like they were shaking. I can tell you those two minutes were intense. Fitting all the features of our product into two minutes was difficult. The presentation made me realize we had been a bit ambitious.
All the Lessons
My time at the hackathon taught me some pretty big lessons about leadership, technology, and business which I plan to spend lots of time pondering.
Leadership is more than just bossing people around or being right. True leadership is about serving others and helping a team achieve its goals. However, there needs to be some kind of structure around it. There is nothing worse than ambiguity of who is in charge or how decisions should be made. Our groups biggest mistake was to not have a clear idea of how leadership should be handled.
Technology is fun, but it is HARD. Nothing is ever as easy as you think it will be and when you pick a scope for a project you want to build in a day it should be pretty narrow.
While I wanted to pick something fun to build I can tell you I did not think about how to sell it. Build it and they will come does not usually work and you should really ponder how you would sell something before you make it if that is your goal.
AngelHack Austin was a wild ride that I would suggest to anyone. Not only did I get to build some cool stuff I learned an immense amount in a weekend. I also made a lot of great connections and got noticed by the likes of Amazon. I could not have asked for a more fun weekend and a big thank you to all of the sponsors of AngelHack 2016 Austin. If you want to check out our project visit vocal.meteorapp.com and you can stalk me at nickconsidine.com.