Gar-Badge of Honour | Jonah Chin’s Hacker Story

“Whether you’re a student or someone with 20 years of coding background, there are always new things to learn and there are always different paths that we can take to innovate.”

To most people it would appear that QHacks 2018 participant, Jonah Chin was a veteran hacker. With an impressive project, compelling pitch, and in his last semester of computer engineering at Queen’s, it’s hard to believe that QHacks 2018 was his first real introduction to the world of hackathons. While he took part in 2017, he did not submit a project or even end up working on one the entire weekend. This year’s event was the first time he really gave it his all.

“I befriended someone who is extremely passionate about creation. He loves hackathons, and his eagerness to succeed rubbed off on me.”
Jonah Chin | QHacks 2018 Participant

Over the weekend, Jonah and his team worked on a project called Urbins; a garbage solution designed for smart cities of the future. Their project consisted of two parts; the web platform and the smart bin. The web platform presented a map that showed the capacity of garbage and recycling bins all around a city, while the smart bin prototype sorted between garbage and recycling, updating the live capacity meters on the web. A text was sent to “the city” if a particular bin was nearing capacity. For their solution, they built a Slackbot that received photos of objects that were particularly hard to sort, and updated their sorting model based on manual classification done via the Slackbot.

Jonah focused on the brain of the system — the android app. It was responsible for reaching the StdLib endpoints, communicating with the hardware, and training/utilizing the IBM Watson model.

Jonah and his team demoing Urbins (Video via Keith Horwood of StdLib)

The team’s practical solution and unique application of IoT technologies and various APIs helped them become QHacks finalists and winners of three separate sponsored prizes from IBM, Telus and StdLib. Jonah notes that he truly believes anyone can have success at a hackathon, and that the main key to winning is to have belief. Like many students, a weakness Jonah struggled greatly with was self-doubt. Heading into QHacks 2017, he was excited to learn but felt inferior to other contestants. In 2018 he came ready. He and his team knew each other’s skills, and where each member would fit in when it came time work. This instilled confidence in him, even prior to the event. Trusting in himself proved to be the key in creating a successful project.

Two more general tips Jonah would give to new hackers are to promote yourself, and be hacky!

“Generating buzz about your project can really get people excited to see your work. My team was always happy to have people come see our progress, and always took the time to explain what we were working on. This helped us immensely, especially when it came to sponsor challenges. We periodically invited sponsor representatives to see our project. Also, never underestimate hackiness! It’s easy to get sucked into a time consuming task in the pursuit of perfection. Focus on preparing a quality demo. Sacrifice the robust solution and streamline your work to make sure your project works for a small number of test cases that can be shown off.”

Many are surprised how much can be done in 36 hours. It is an exciting feeling to be in an environment with hundreds of people building, sharing, and learning so intensively. While Jonah’s and his team did not find much time to see other people’s projects, his personal favourite was a one that allowed players to control MarioKart64 via a real bicycle. He notes that it looked incredibly fun (and exhausting) to play.

Learning is a pillar of hackathons, but it is important to know your goals and prioritize accordingly. While Jonah and his team did learn a lot at QHacks, they chose to focus on each other’s unique skill set. He thinks it’s important for each person to work with something they’ve had some exposure to as learning a new language or technology might gobble up too much time.

Aside from presenting to the live audience at the end of the event, Jonah’s most memorable moments from QHacks were not always the positive ones. He remembers their road bumps, sticking points and their frustrations.

“I wouldn’t change much about my time at QHacks, I enjoyed almost every minute of the event, even the struggles. I was super proud of my incredible team, and the final project we created. It was amazing to end my hackathon career with a bang.”

Jonah has carried on with his success and currently works as a software engineer at Microsoft in Seattle. His story goes to show that hackathon veterans aren’t the only ones that can have success, and that good things happen when you believe in yourself and your teammates.