My First Hackathon

I attended my first ever hackathon this past weekend — 24 hours of coding, from noon on the 23rd to noon on the 24th, followed by demos and prizes. It seemed like a daunting task, but I’d promised my team that I would go with them, and I’d get fed well. It seemed worth a shot.

A lovely badge

We decided to build a bot to answer simple programming questions. When you’re just starting out, looking up basic questions on Google or StackOverflow can be daunting, as you can get more information than you know what to do with. Being able to get simple answers to simple questions is much more beginner-friendly. It was a good idea, but it remained to be seen how much we could build in a limited amount of time.

At the beginning, there were various issues to work out. My keyboard lost battery just as we were set to begin, so I had to borrow a spare. Some of our setup needed to be redone as well. When we got into the swing of things, though, I found progress smoother than I had expected. The bot framework was well documented, and I was able to help build some simple responses even with my limited knowledge of Node.js. I also got to work with LUIS, the Language Understanding Intelligent Service, implementing natural language processing for every phrasing that we could think of. Seeing it begin to recognize the topics was as fascinating as it was fulfilling.

Some issues sprang up when we tried to include different example code snippets based on the language the user requested. It was past midnight by then, and our energy was beginning to flag. We tried several different solutions and got tantalizingly close, but we were unable to implement that feature in time. However, we did implement requests for definitions, code snippets, and use cases, retaining the topics of previous requests. I ended up catching a couple hours of sleep on a pair of chairs pushed together, and before I knew it, it was time to present.

The bed of champions

By some miracle, we were one of the only teams not to face any major technical challenges during our brief presentation. When one of my teammates messaged the bot, it took quite a while to respond the first time, and there was a sickening moment when I was sure that something had broken at the last minute. It did respond correctly, however, and we got through our presentation without any further troubles.

There were around 30 teams in all, though we only had one direct competitor in the Azure Machine Learning App category. The products were creative, varied, and impressive. When it came time to announce the winners in each category, I was amazed to hear that we had won. It was an incredible rush, and I was truly proud of myself for building something that worked so well with such a capable team. I’m going to continue to work on it, and I hope to take part in another hackathon soon.