Blockchain Hackathons: From San Francisco to New York

Bitcoin Cash and Lightning hackathons give Pure Knot a first hand look into the vibrant blockchain community

By Nicolas Preti, Head of Research and Content at Pure Knot

I was standing by Broadway on the southern tip of Manhattan watching a flock of tourists take pictures of the bronze Charging Bull in front of the New York Stock Exchange when I answered the phone.

My mom asked me how I was doing and what I was up to. I responded excitedly that I was participating in a Bitcoin related “Hackathon” all weekend and then paused noticing her silence on the other end of the line.

“A Hack- what?” she said with consternation.

For all I know, in that brief silence she had conjured up an underground resistance of programmers, IT vigilantes with superhero powers wielding computers like weapons against three-letter agencies.

I explained the portmanteau (hacking + marathon = hackathon), and reassured her that I wasn’t doing anything illegal.

“It’s an open two-day conference with talks and workshops for software programmers and community members to develop, test, and present working applications that run on a network on top of Bitcoin called Lightning.”

I could feel my mom bewildered if not disconcerted. Headlines of Russian hackers, Chinese espionage, North Korean cyberattacks, or Facebook and Equifax breaches probably did more to color her definition of the verb ‘hack’ and its derivatives than my attempt to distinguish between hackers and crackers or white and black hats. The conversation pretty much ended there, but I was left thinking from a PR perspective, how to bridge the harsh technical exterior around hacking with the warm, friendly, and vibrant practical work that actually goes on inside.

The first shift that led me to spend my weekend learning about decentralized payment channels is that hacking is not something you do with a keyboard, it’s a mindset. Where some people may simply see a locked door as closed, a toy train as limited and boring, or a broken motorcycle as useless, hackers see puzzles, intriguing opportunities, and problems with potential solutions.

Two weeks before the Lightning Network Hackathon in front of the the charging bull in downtown Manhattan, I was nominated from the Pure Knot team to participate in our client’s Bitcoin Cash Hackathon (BTC.com part of Bitmain) as part of my visit for San Francisco Blockchain Week. My knee-jerk response was aversive. I remember telling the team that I wasn’t a developer to which he informed me “there is more to building products than just development — you don’t have to know how to code, all kinds of people get involved and you can bring a fresh perspective.”

I walked into the Bitcoin Cash Hackathon at the San Francisco Hilton on the second morning, and found a bustling room with the teams busy finishing their projects. I was fortunate to walk around with the judges as the teams presented their work and answered questions, and connected with the Permissionless Ventures team — the VC arm of Bitmain.

Each project was more fascinating than the other and in completely different ways. The winners, who had flown in from Japan, presented a suite of products including a wallet and google chrome extension to make micropayments via bitcoin cash, which they demonstrated could be used to remove ads with one click or pay for a game of Super Mario. The runners up had a payroll application that automated issuing salaries in bitcoin cash. One group used sound over air signalling to route encoded transaction information between hardware devices.

As someone who is not a developer, it was inspiring to see presentations and involvement from investors, entrepreneurs, and creatives who worked alongside technical team members to think through and design their project. There were also many people simply listening and following the conversations in the background.

I interviewed one team using our client’s BTC.com software development kit (SDK) that learned to hack their way through the competition. Without prior programming experience, they stayed up all night, phoned friends for help, and delivered a demo of a community wallet that automatically issues rebates for payments made using BCH.

After the event I grabbed the moderator and one of the judges, Gabriel Cardona, who works as a lead developer at Bitbox. Not only was he thoroughly impressed at the turn out, but he seemed deeply moved by the level of talent, innovation, and commitment that an organized 24 hours hackathon could produce.

Witnessing the process behind each of these working demos gave me what I felt was my first real glimpse into the inner workings of blockchain. Understanding how these applications go from conceptual design to architectural implementation for me ultimately disclosed the common value each project harnessed from the same technology albeit through radically different manifestations.