Becoming a Dev: My First Hackathon
My Experience Participating in the AWS Portland Hackathon.
I was nervous when I signed up for the AWS Portland Hackathon. I knew the competition was going to be stiff since it was hosted by Amazon, and because it was my first experience with competitive coding, I was constantly questioning if I even had the right to be there. But I knew these thoughts would only hold me back so I changed my perspective, looking at this event as an opportunity to sharpen my skills, get hands-on experience with unfamiliar technologies and, try my best.
And I’d like to think that it is because of this shift in perspective, and that I was grouped with some amazing developers, that I got to experience winning a hackathon.
The AWS Portland Hackathon was a single-day collaborative remote coding event. Days prior, we were asked to RSVP by sending an email with our preferred position (frontend developer, backend developer, AWS expert, marketing, etc.) to make the average experience level of each team similar.
Teams consisted of 4–5 members, all guaranteed to have at least one AWS expert. At 9:00 AM, teams were put into Slack channels and given a list of challenges to choose from. In 9 hours, each had to come up with a solution to a challenge, investigate new technologies, define a minimum viable product (MVP), create as much as the MVP in the allotted time, and have a 5-minute 43errpresentation, complete with a demo, ready. Teams then presented to a panel of judges, who assigned 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place.
The Challenge Selected:
“Health and Wellness — Fitness, sleep and mental health are often neglected for creative talent like you! Your challenge is to help you be your best self by *building a solution that makes it easier for you to get active, sleep more soundly, and recharge your brain* to combat being oversubscribed and prevent burnout. You can *choose* to create an Alexa skill to solve a specific health and wellness problem *OR *you can build a web interface that helps you reach your goals, and keeps you motivated.”
Without someone to hold you accountable, you are less likely to do something (especially exercise).
That premise is what inspired us to create an Alexa skill: one that would transform an Amazon smart-home device into that someone that holds you accountable and takes all the guesswork out of working out. This includes sending regular reminders to a user’s phone to encourage them to workout, providing exercise routines, and motivating them to complete their workouts.
Using a combination of the Alexa Skills Kit, Lambda Functions, CloudWatch Logs/Events, IAM, and SQS, we set out to turn Alexa into the ideal workout partner.
Our team was ambitious. After we decided on our idea, everyone brought ideas to the table. We wanted to integrate a music player, the ability to customize workout routines, suggest workouts/routines based on weather or location, and grabbing existing routines from existing APIs.
But we also wanted to be realistic. Our deadline was 6:00 PM the same day, not months out, which meant we had to lop off features while keeping the original spirit of the solution alive. Given that we were already fighting an uphill battle, in that none of us knew how to create an Alexa skill, we established our MVP as an Alexa skill that can send text notifications a user and give them a workout.
By the time our job was done, the latter half of the team had already figured out the SMS messaging using Lamda functions. With both in place, our next obstacle was figuring out how to make both ends of the product talk. However, by the time we reached this phase, it was too close to the deadline. At this point, we realized all of our work would be for nothing if we couldn’t present it, so we shifted our efforts to prepare for the judges.
Once we stepped up to present, things went about as smoothly as they could. We showcased our demo, we talked about the technologies, some of the shortcomings, and the features we intended to add. The only shortcoming (which, thankfully, was not exclusive to our team) was that transitioning between speakers was awkward due to the time it took to switch between who was sharing screens. However, I am happy to say that the organizers were very accommodating and awarded each group extra time to make up for it.
After the judges left to deliberate, we got a chance to talk about our overall experience with the event. I couldn’t think straight because I was so nervous: every team had done an amazing job both creating and present their projects, so I was sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for the judges to arrive back with their decisions. They eventually did, and after telling us how close the overall scores were, they announced a top three.
And Team #3 was there.
I was elated. I wanted to throw up my arms and scream like I just won the lottery. But before I could begin any celebrating, the judges announced that 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place would be decided after each group answered additional questions. With a few deep breathes I was able to calm down to a point where I could answer. Once each team had their chance, the judges left to deliberate again.
I was already chalking this up as a tremendous win. Getting on the pedestal in my first-ever hackathon was more than I could have hoped, so I didn’t mind whatever place we were in, I was just happy standing there. The judges returned, expressed again how difficult the decision was, and awarded 3rd place.
It was not us.
This is when I got a bit more excited. My first thought was: ‘Wow, we got 2nd place! That’s incredible!’ Did I want 1st? Of course I did. But it’d be so unexpected, that the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. As I was still trying to process things, the judges awarded 2nd place.
Again, it was not us.
I was stunned. It all began hitting me. Like I mentioned before, I participated in the hackathon to sharpen my skills, get hands-on experience with new technologies, and try my best.
The experience, however, did something else: it made me feel like I belonged. Since starting my journey to become a developer, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling I didn’t belong. Imposter syndrome sunk its teeth into me like a rabid dog and wouldn’t let go, and there were times where I asked ‘am I good enough’ or ‘do I belong in this field?’ But because I participated in this event, because I got to meet some amazing developers that I can call my peers, because I contributed to us winning, I feel, now more than ever, that I was always meant to become a developer.