I attended Facebook’s F8 2019 Hackathon. Here’s my Story.

Joel Tong Haowen
May 22 · 8 min read

Hi, my name is Joel and I am a backend developer working for an Indonesian startup.

In the winter of 2019, I received notice of the opportunity to attend Facebook’s F8 conference (yay!) on the condition of one thing — to participate in their hackathon. A hackathon is a 24 to 72-hour competition and meetup event, where participants work on — hack — together an idea with a team that they have just met. The opportunity to learn something new or learn from someone you would not have met is immense. I was hesitant to apply at first, but decided to, making this the third hackathon I’ve attended.

A couple of months later, I was on the plane.

Wither to, Facebook?

As part of the Hackathon, some 200 hackers from the Facebook Developer Circles global community come together to work on a central theme, this year’s being the United Nations’ Social Development Goals. Namely:

  • SDG 4: Ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all

And for social good? Flying in 200 hackers to come together, network and bridge these goals? Yes!

This has not been my first time attending a social outreach event by Facebook. I benefitted from the Facebook Open App Academy programme in the Winter of 2014, where students were paired with mentors in the Open Source community to work on Open Source Projects for course credit. It was through that programme that I got my first taste of open source, and learning how to contribute to the community at large and work with Java (more on that in another post!) . So thank you, Facebook! (:

I flew in April 27, and had the opportunity to meet my teammates the night before the hackathon. We met online a week prior to the hackathon in a closed Facebook group — one of the draws of being there was the opportunity to learn from and meet many diverse people from all over the world! How would a Nigerian think? Or what are the problems and social issues in Argentina, for example? Is Latin American music solely CNCO and Cali Y Dandee? (I discovered not!) . Really cool.

Day 1: Day

So we kicked off the hackathon with a bang. Day 1 (after having a refreshing workout and morning run along San Jose), was spent collecting swag and reporting to the National Civic Center building. Here’s a picture of how it looked like on Day 1, neat how they managed to spruce up the place with awesome decor of plants and comfy seats / snacks:

This was followed by prep talks from various NGOs and partners that Facebook had teamed with. Then, others formed teams and started coding.

On my team was a Korean chatbot developer, and a Chinese web developer who had lived in Japan, and was now studying at Cornell! We started work on this idea to crowdsource travel information through a Chatbot built on the messenger platform (The only experience I had so far with chatbots was on the Telegram platform, and this was pretty new and refreshing to me). Our chatbot was designed to dialog with users on a certain location of interest, and collect answers from questions that are hard to find on Google (For example, is Korea wheelchair-friendly? Or does a certain country X have squatter toilets etc.?) . The collected information displayed would then be shown on a static page, built on Facebook’s React framework.

I would say that the initial experience was albeit chaotic at best, but that is how ideas are formed. In the lead-up to the hackathon, we were thinking of facilitating conversations through chatbots between strangers based on the card-game Smol Tok, which then progressed to the travel app we saw earlier. There was also some uncertainty in knowing when to adopt an idea, or to bin it when it may be too hard / difficult / not enough traction / not wow! enough to see through, which takes a certain depth of clarity and knowledge with oneself, that I found challenging at first.

Day 1: The night in

It was my first time staying through the night for a hackerthon. It was hard getting through the period 1–3am. However, as the day drew to a close, there was a sense of camaraderie among the hackers present. Breakfast at 8am spent smelling pretty awful, yet with the sense of accomplishment that we’ve did this, and I’ve learnt something new — how to build a chatbot and launch a website within 6 hours.

Day 2: Morning! Keynote address

I managed to get some shut-eye for an hour and a shower, before heading to hear Mark Zuckerberg deliver Facebook’s keynote address at the Consol Energy Center.

I arrived late; yet the atmosphere was surreal. Meeting and seeing Mark Zuckerberg was something of a dream, yet was now reality. It was kind of surreal hearing a giant in the IT world, whom you respect, speak live on stage (think meeting Neil Armstrong as a kid).

During the conference, pointers about Facebook’s new products, including Oculus, a pivot to Messenger and how businesses could leverage the platforms, and VR filters were covered. I will be sharing this in another blog post later!

All in: Lack of sleep, yet an amazing experience experiencing this live.

Day 2: (Afternoon) Judging and meeting Mark Zuckerberg!

We met Mark Zuckerberg!!

Following the presentations, we were directed to the adjacent building for the hackathon judging, the National Civic Center. Judging was akin to a mini Science Fair, where judges would go around the booths and interview.

Little did we know that Mark Zuckerberg was popping by for a visit after his keynote speech!!!

It was surreal seeing the founder up front in person, and while I did not get the opportunity to present to him, it made my day. Some of us had the opportunity to present, and I am super thankful that happened.

Definitely a day to remember.

Day 2 / 3: Booths and afterparty

The remaining afternoon and the following day was spent touring the Facebook booth, bumping into former ex-colleagues and making friends with new ones, and (Yaas!) Collecting swag. The booths were arranged in an exposition style, whereby some swag was distributed every now and then.

I managed to bag an Instagram hat.

Unlike a typical marketing conference however, there were events organized for the community and it helped that Facebook contributes much to Open Source, including ReactJS / Native, Buck, Pytorch among others.

We had great fun meeting up with people as well. A React JS meetup was held, featuring The React Core Team, and the founder of Apollo JS.

Pretty neat huh?

There was an after-party, which I had to miss! Just to crash out and get some much needed rest first the day ahead.

Day 2 was spent touring the booths, and making new friends / contacts from the community. I had the opportunity to meet with people from the community in Indonesia, which I would not have been able to in Singapore. And brilliant, Californian wine and a free Tee to cap it all off.

A while to the Trader Joe’s and meeting a college friend, and off we go to the airport!!

As the route from SFO -> SIN was 19 hours, I opted for a 12-hour layover in HKG to have some amazing Dim Sum on my way back. This in another blog post, to be posted soon!

What I’ve learnt and reflections

Here’s what I learnt:

  • Hustle, hustle, hustle. Be open to new opportunities and experiences. Don’t be afraid to network, because there’s so much of the world we’ve yet to see with our lens. You never know what you’ll discover when you do. One of the things looking back that I would have done better, is networking with more amazing people throughout the conference. Meeting people from Latin America, Africa, China and South Korea was simply an amazing experience.

And here’s to amazing journey. And some amazing swag.

Signing off!!

    Joel Tong Haowen

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