Hackathons Emerge as the New Intellectual Sport of the 21st Century

Our Weekend at Stetson University’s #HackStetson

By Matthieu McClintock

After our eye opening presence at Mango Hacks at Florida International University last month and our subsequent coverage of the event (found here: http://bit.ly/1VmOzkW), we decided to further explore the world of Hackathons in Florida. We decided to sponsor more Hackathons in Florida along with the current chief sponsor of Hackathons nationwide, Major League Hacking, powered by Dell and Intel. What made this particular Hackathon at Stetson University special was the fact that our company’s founder, Shawn Moore, and our two chief software engineers, Ross Williams and Greg Lenhart, are all alumni of Stetson University. These three programmers didn’t graduate Stetson together and build Solodev CMS, it was all purely coincidence, one in which we saw great opportunity this past weekend.

We had three major objectives in going to the Hackathon. One, for Senior Solodev Software Engineer Ross Williams to give a tech talk to a new generation of hackers at his alma mater from which he graduated in 2009. The topic was the emerging importance of software frameworks in web and mobile app development. The second was to continue our ongoing support for Florida’s emerging tech scene which some are beginning to coin as “Silicon Beach” after our extensive coverage of FIU’s Mango Hacks in Miami. Most of all, we wanted to observe more of the cutting edge technologies built during the hackathon as well as the minds behind these products.

So let’s start with objective one. Why was it so important to discuss software frameworks of all the possible technology related topics to discuss? Because in the past five years, in front of my very own eyes, it has become necessary to use software frameworks when building web and mobile applications. Why has it become necessary? Software frameworks make it faster to code, removes much of the grunt work of software architecture design, and provides much better code organization among many other ground-breaking benefits.

So what is a framework exactly? As an example, the most popular front-end CSS framework in the world currently in use is called Bootstrap, formerly Twitter Bootstrap. When I began to teach myself how to code I taught myself server side programming, PHP to be more specific. My actual web pages looked terrible because my knowledge of HTML, CSS and JavaScript were severely limited. One day I came across Twitter Bootstrap and my lack of ability as a designer was no longer a problem as I quickly learned the framework which makes it easier for server side programmers to build applications with sleek design, even if they’re not designers. For someone working on a software project by themselves with no money, also known as “Bootstrapping”, the framework was perfect for me. Without it, I likely wouldn’t have progressed much further as a programmer.

That’s just one example. There are tons of frameworks that serve different purposes and that’s one of the reasons we decided to make them the subject of our talk. Frameworks can be your best friend but when chosen incorrectly, can be the downfall of your app or website and with so many emerging and disappearing frameworks. As a result, it is important to have a comprehensive knowledge of both client-side and server-side frameworks and their functionality, architecture, strengths and weaknesses. There are so many software frameworks in so many different software languages that it can be intimidating when choosing which frameworks to use on your next project and our goal is to clarify that selection process.

To begin, choosing the correct software frameworks is essential as it will influence many of your future decisions and your selection of frameworks should be based on the project you’re working on rather than what is the most popular. Many think the process is easy, you simply select your framework and like magic, you’re ready to go. Wrong. There are thousands of front-end and back-end frameworks, some of which work together or are dependent on other frameworks. Most of all, you have to consider what to do in the unfortunate event that your framework fails, or stops being supported. The best advice on selecting the proper frameworks is to do extensive research on each framework, complete tutorials on the frameworks you’re considering, as well as taking a close look at the developer community and repo activity. We can’t stress enough how important completing a framework tutorial can be, because they don’t usually take up a lot of time and by the end you have a much clearer idea of what the framework is trying to accomplish so you can determine if it will work for your project.

Now let’s discuss objective two, continuing to support the growth of the tech scene in Florida which in recent years has taken on a life of its own. Our extensive coverage of Mango Hacks in Miami led to a viral sharing of our coverage and began a cross-platform social media dialogue that hasn’t stopped since. We had no idea how many others were in agreement with our working thesis and discovered even more pieces of the tech scene in Florida we were previously unaware of. The tremendous support behind turning Florida into “Silicon Beach”, a term coined by a commenter on our recap of the FIU Hackathon which has become a quite popular buzzword online since, was the impetus to dig further into the Florida Tech Scene. No, not everywhere in Florida has a beach as many may think but it is a great marketing term we didn’t even invent. The people just spoke.

The best way to support the emerging tech scene in Silicon Beach will come from many sources. First it begins with the hackers themselves and that already happened. Then it comes from the startups, that’s already happening. Then it comes from the Universities, and that is well on its way. Then it comes from the state offering grants to programmers, designers, and hardware engineers to build products and services that will contribute to moving civilization forward. And last, and unfortunately least, is the support of the Venture Capital world which is almost exclusively based on the West Coast, namely Silicon Valley. Right now we’re somewhere in between startup and tech companies supporting the community as well as universities. A byproduct of this progress, growth, and support will be government programs to offer grants to foster economic, intellectual, and social growth as well as advancements in medicine, infrastructure, and commerce through the state’s rapidly growing tech scene.

Our third goal was to observe more of the cutting edge technologies built during the hackathon and most importantly, the minds behind these products and services. That’s always the fun part as we were floored by some of the innovative minds and hacks that came about after a three day hackathon at Florida International University and our time at Stetson University wasn’t any less jaw dropping.

One of the winners that was beyond impressive was Drone Drop, a software and hardware platform designed to expedite prescription pickup and drop-off using readily available off-the-shelf hardware and their own software ecosystem. Using a Python server, the drone is controlled autonomously based on the GPS location of the end-user and the client pharmacy. It is these kinds of technologies that are the most fascinating because the developers and engineers behind them are solving real world problems that affects millions of people. In this case, people who don’t have the proper health to pick up their medications or are simply looking for convenience that driving to different pharmacies during their busy work schedule and/or family lives do not provide. Drone Drop was developed by Tim Christovich, Jeremiah Lantzer, Jonathan Rach, and Aaron Schwartz from the University of Florida and Embry-Riddle University.

The winner for best web application, presented by Solodev, was Ellery, which also won 1st Place of the hackathon. Ellery is a web application that helps college students determine which class to sign up for, based on the class they were interested in, the different teachers teaching that class, the ratings of those teachers, and the average grades students who took that class received. The app was built using React Native, React Motion (front end frameworks), and Node.js (for the backend API) which together made a powerful web experience which goes to show that choosing the right frameworks and how they work together can really bring out the best in an application. It’s also worth mentioning that in the 20 hours allotted to put together their hack, they even took the time to write documentation for the API. We’d like to once again congratulate the team, a small group of students from FIU; Alain Galvan, Angelo Saraceno, Alastair Paragas, and Krista Shuckerow on the great work!

It is our personal belief that hackathons like these are the new intellectual sport of the 21st century and that the growth of this sport will serve as the impetus for major technological breakthroughs both in the short, medium, and long term. A focus and passion for intellectual competition, rather than just physical competition, is a major step forward in civilization that will pay off in a big way in the years to come. This new generation of hackers are genuinely interested and dedicated to solving problems, some on a macro scale and some on a micro scale, some for consumers, and some for businesses, organizations, and governments. What we see is a bright future, particularly for the state of Florida’s rapidly growing tech scene simply because of this one fact: if young programmers in Florida are so talented, skilled, and dedicated to their respective technological disciplines, we can only imagine what is going on throughout the country and furthermore, the world. These are extremely exciting times to be in the tech world and we look forward to a future of continuous innovation that will help move the state, country, and planet forward through advancements in technology. We would like to thank sponsors and partners in the event such as Major League Hacking (powered by Dell and Intel), BeachFront, i2k Connect, Sale Cents, Bitalino, Ultrapress, and of course Stetson University for hosting the event.

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