A Hackathon’s Day Labor

It’s been about a month later and there is a looming threat in the distance for participants in hackathons.

One of my favorite pastimes in a stage of my life where the phenomena of having close to no free time, is actually spending my time on DevPost. While there I look at quite a number of hacks and appreciate them like how Khaled does with his romantic interests. I always think about the possible work that have gotten into them and like to read the stories that go with each hack. It bears a resemblance to voyeurism, where I am given a chance to look into the emotions and challenges of a particular hackathon (just so long as there is a “proper” submission story).

For me personally, the labor of love that is input through the meticulous nature of whatever I am responsible for makes every single mistake and breakthrough hold an equally important place in my head. And then to have it at the end of the set time period sold through a passionate appeal to judges to get them be as excited as what our team made is just as wonderful. You go from moments of frustration, worry and in some cases small victories in a battle to get your hack completed or consider the alternative as you sit in resignation as what you done wasn’t good enough. I have been in both situations.

These stories told through peoples hacks, products and in cases ideas give a common fabric that at least everyone can have in common. It is a wonderful common denominator to have as a preponderance whenever talking to someone who has had the privilege to be involved in these events relatively recently. As you go increasingly in depth as to what are common experiences at hackathons there is a wide range of variability of what is felt. But what about a feeling that is less common that felt by a select few unfortunately happens, the feeling of having your hack’s technical complexity be unnoticed?

The story starts on a Friday evening at a local mall in Miami near the campus of Florida International University. My team foregone a Major League Hacking sanctioned hackathon to go to a benefit hack that had an audacious claim to help the Cuban people connect to the internet at this very mall. (Although I haven’t written about the subject at length, internet freedom is very important to me.) The mall is very ethnically representative of the mostly Cuban diaspora here in south Florida. On the backdrops of 90’s era Americana, an eerie feeling of a mall being revived as a shopping center that represented the people that lived here was symbol of the fusion of the two cultures that surrounds the Hialeah area. This building was definitely past it’s prime and represented a bygone era that I would never have the chance to experience except through digital media.

We go into the hacking space, it is a small vocational school, very humble grounds reminded me of a middle school classroom. But the venue doesn’t matter to us, we are here to make internet accessible. We are thrilled at the opportunity to make something potentially life changing especially as the backdrop of sanctions were being lifted off the island. Free access to information was one of the many reasons why I can consider my self cultured enough to talk and enjoy many subjects and pursuits giving that opportunity to a poorly connected landscape would be just as amazing.

So we start asking questions, what are the use cases are to help refine our hack idea, we started off with a browser client that would be a more user friendly TOR or a mesh new browser that would pull websites and information and content from each connected user. After a few queries we found out that wasn’t feasible on the island as computers were mostly found at work and most people used their phones. But it felt suspicious that the organizers were insisting on doing it.

After brief deliberations and a drive back home (because the hacker space closed at 9 PM, it is a mall after all) we ended deciding to start building a web browser that used SMTP to make requests. This story wont be about the way how the hack was implemented (if you want to find out feel free to look at the project’s DevPost called “Cambio”, Alastair Paragas did a great job documented what the team did). So after the arduous task of creating the application and having a pitch that brought the room down, it had one flaw. It didn’t use the sponsor API. Our hack lost to people that used the PHP DOM scraper API, and supposedly it wasn’t mandatory. First place went to people who didn’t even pitch and worked on their hack outside of the accepted time frame.

How is hackathon judging supposed to be done?

Now I am not a believer in recognition for the sake of it, but there are quite a bit of irregularities with the judging process at MLH and non-MLH hackathons that should be communicated to it’s participants. Because even though hackathons are immensely jovial events- there still is a element of competition. …and as long as that element stands, there should be some semblance of objectivity.

Here are some good questions to answer.

  1. What are the organizers looking for?
  2. Are they looking for technical impressiveness of the hack?
  3. How innovative is it?
  4. Does pitch/presentation matter?

There are multiple ones unstated, but it is still wise to keep in mind that subjectivity will still be a major factor, and that part is wonderful. But it will help prevent some powerpoint presentations leaking from some start-up weekends. My next post will go into some specific problems that the organic hackathon community faces, and no… it is not MLH.