Last week, my friend an I went down to AOL headquarters in Palo Alto to compete (more like participate) in AngelHack, a hackathon with four simultaneous events around the country whose winners would go on to subsequently compete for angel funding from VCs and entrepreneurs in the tech industry.
Although I organized a hackathon at Yale last semester, I found that participating is (unsurprisingly) a whole different beast.
First, something I learned:
There is a difference between doing and understanding. Given the time constraints and the sheer fact that your project will be evaluated on the basis of a two minute demo, your code does not need to be ‘clean’ or well-tested, and there are plenty of features for which you can simply use a plug-and-play solution rather than building it custom. Of course, if you want to turn your project into a real application, you have just left yourself with a mountain of technical debt, but for the most part, a Hackathon project is just something to make and let alone.
Something that impressed me:
The creativity involved in making a new tool, something that is not just a modification of an existing solution, but is an entirely new combination of technologies.
All told, it was a great experience that I would definitely like to repeat. There is nothing else quite like being surrounded by 200 other people who are just hacking away and having a ton of fun, even as you hit the wee hours of morning when you’re running on caffeinated soda and energy drinks. The corollary to that, of course, is the fantastic networking opportunity — for me this realized itself in meeting Alexey Komissarouk, the UPenn graduate whose blog helped me through both hosting a hackathon and deciding what I would do this summer (this is a great article). He happened to be sitting next to me during the hackathon, and when I overheard him introducing himself to someone else, I couldn’t help but turn and say, “hey, do you happen to keep a blog?” You can probably fill in the rest of the story.
So beyond my project and the actual experience of hacking, that’s what I took away from AngelHack. When it’s a little bit more polished and functional, I’ll post a link so you can check it out. But for those who are curious, it is a web app that allows a single admin create a phone directory with a list of contacts, etc and provide access to that directory via sms. A typical use case might be a parent who compiles a list of doctors phone numbers so their children can simply text “call dr. jones” to the directory number and be connected without having to lookup the number. It’s a problem I’ve run into myself, so I hope my solution can be useful to other people.