The Hackathon

Intelligent Environments recently staged its own hackathon event, with the expectation that some innovative products would be created.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a ‘hackathon’ is defined by Google thus:

Noun (informal)

an event, typically lasting several days, in which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming.

Intelligent Environments recently staged its own hackathon event, with the expectation that some innovative products would be created in a relatively short time. The event would last for 30 hours, and each team could have a maximum of five members including at least one person from the R&D department, one software developer, and (luckily for yours truly) one non-technical person.

I formed a team with two other guys – IOS developer Mathews and .NET developer Andrew. For a while it looked like it might just be Andrew and me, and that we were doomed to fail: our idea was secure authentication on IOS apps, without the need for a login and password, but we could not find an IOS developer. We were just about to enrol in some IOS e-courses when at the last minute we were introduced to Mathews who saved us the trouble.

We booked a few preparatory meetings and Andrew and I learned that most of our ideas were actually impossible, and unfortunately no amount of pleading with Mathews could change that. After several hours of arguing and discussing we finally came up with a way which enabled account holders to log onto their accounts on an iPhone securely. It was a great moment for us.

Onto the actual event day. We arrived for a 9am start and by 11am had our first prototype. We then discussed what to do with the remaining 28 hours and decided to second guess the next generation iPhone and knock together a future version which would get around Apple security.

Unfortunately since real work did not stop for those 30 hours, we were all called back into the real world on occasion, for conference calls and suchlike. I took this opportunity to chat to members of the other teams, especially my fellow ‘non-technicals’. We all had a good laugh at the ‘Get back to your team – they are getting thirsty’ japes (the unofficial title for us was tea boys.) Everyone seemed to be having a good time, with the exception of one team who had come to realise during the course of the day that their idea was actually impossible and had to think up something new. There’s the value of planning right there!

By 18:00 we had our second prototype iPhone app. The only thing remaining was a menu item to turn on and off our new functionality (for Luddites of course). We decided this could be done in the morning but since we had been promised pizza at 18:30 the three of us decided to stay a little longer. We cheekily said good night to the other teams, and all went home for a good night’s sleep…

The next morning I arrived at the office at 8am, only to find everyone else was already there, with the notable exception of Mathews and Andrew, who swanned in around 9. Some of the other teams had literally been working all night. Whilst I admired their dedication, I could not help but remember the old adage ‘to fail to prepare is to prepare to fail’. I started to mention this until I saw the murderous glint in their eyes, so I contented myself with looking as wide awake and alert as possible. Let the mind games begin! I was impressed to hear that the team whose idea looked set to remain on the drawing board had turned their fortunes around and were now looking confident.

All went well until just before the afternoon presentation when suddenly our app crashed! We initially suspected sabotage (the atmosphere was getting heated) but it was only due to a wifi transmitter being restarted. However it was enough to make us nervous. The first team’s idea blew us away and from that moment we knew we were not going to win, although we still had some fun with our presentation. After all six teams had presented and been judged a prize was awarded to the winning team. It wasn’t team 1 in the end, or our team (The Wookiee Nerds), but we picked up a respectable second place.

My team was disappointed not to win, but we all agreed that it was a great experience. For me personally, it was an eye-opener. Since I do not usually work directly with either Mathews or Andrew, and they do not work with each other, we all came to the table with different ideas of how something should or should not work. Although Mathews was our main man (nicknamed ‘Brains’) when it came to creating the app, we all contributed our thoughts, and all had to accept that some ideas were just bad! All were happy to challenge and be challenged; this honed our ideas and our project was stronger because of that. I imagine the other teams had similar experiences because we ended up with six innovative and exciting ideas by the end.

Not bad for two devs and a tea boy!