With Hackathons, maybe smaller the better?

Kiran trying out his new 360 camera

I think the droidconIN 2012 Hacknight was one of the first hackathons I ever attended in Bangalore. My experience was quite unlike what I heard. Participants were left to their own devices (literally and metaphorically!) and it was easy to see that they were doing something they loved to do. I’ve been to many more hackathons since. The grandeur surrounding hackathons is a lot more. It’s almost considered a norm that it has to happen at five star hotel, with a mind boggling prize for the winner.

We decided to bring back droidconIN hacknight this year with the goal: “hacknight for hackers — no frills”. There was no million dollar prize at the end of it, no standup comedy act in the middle of the night, and definitely no ice-breaker sessions in the beginning (Anup Cowkur from Go-Jek has stories about this).

Razorpay hosted us at their beautiful office and even went that extra mile to provide us with food all night (No, seriously.). They gave us access to their game room and their dart board (poor, poor dart board and the surrounding wall). DigitalOcean gave away credits at hackathon for all participants. And that was it.

As Razorpay employees left for the day, the hacknight participants trickled in twos and threes. We had a modest crowd of about 40 people (which was least expected by all given that we put the event together, including promotions, in just about one week).

The crowd was a good mix of working professionals and students. It was especially great to see students from 1st and 2nd year of college, building interesting apps. There were even full-fledged apps with the potential of developing some of the apps into a startup idea. There were also those who had never built an Android app and wanted to do this at the hacknight.

We picked the top four projects. The winners (individuals and teams) will demonstrate their projects at droidconIN 2016. Here are the winning hacks:

  1. Backporting of the new App Shortcuts API launched with 7.1 to earlier versions of Android.
  2. An announcements/chat app that’s tied to the network you are on.
  3. An app for bus conductors to manage tickets, with audio-based communication. This app also interfaced with a ticket printer.
  4. A browser-based NES emulator that’s hosted on the phone.

We got great feedback from our participants. Here are some that really made our day, and some that gave us points to ponder about:

  1. We experimented with hosting the hacknight on Friday-Saturday as against our usual format of starting hacknights on Saturday evening and ending on Sunday mornings. We were inspired by this article: 
    https://proteans.wordpress.com/2016/10/03/how-inclusive-are-tech-meetups-hackathons/ 
    which argues that hackathons held on Saturday-Sunday prevent women and men, especially those caring for their children, from attending. By trying the Friday-Saturday experiment, we wanted to check if the number of women participants increased. We definitely had a higher than usual turnout from women — six women participants to be precise (not counting four women from HasGeek and some women employees from Razorpay).
  2. Some working professionals opined that they preferred the hacknight to be on a Saturday-Sunday since Friday nights is when they usually wind down from the stress of their work week
  3. The hacknight was essentially non-competitive. Participants appreciated this. Most said that the non-competing nature of the event allowed them to focus solely on the hacks.
  4. The venue and the accompanying facilities provided by @Razorpay was amazing! (We thought so too. Thanks again guys!)
  5. Some complained about a lack of theme at the hacknight. While building mobile apps with Android was the theme, we found that participants preferred a cause/trend based theme more than a platform based theme.
  6. Presence of mentors, and the insights they provided, were greatly appreciated by all the participants. Anup Cowkur, Soham Mondal and Mario Stallone — individuals who have been working with Android and have developed apps over several years – spent time with each of the teams and helped them work through their problems.
  7. Overall, everyone loved the informal setting of the hacknight and didn’t really miss the bells and whistles that they had grown accustomed to over the numerous hackathons in Bangalore.
The overall experience was adorably awkward! I mean awkward in an endearing way.

Most teams kept to themselves and their teammates. They were super shy as they walked towards the pantry to help themselves to a snack, or the recreation room. Their requests were meek, but the way they spoke about their hacks was proud and earnest.

At the demos at 12 PM next day, participants presented their projects enthusiastically, asked each other pertinent questions, and also gave constructive feedback.

Cooperation and individuality — the ability to express differing opinions and perspectives without defensiveness — are two essential building blocks for communities. droidconIN 2016 hacknight had both these elements. I am glad I experienced this during the first hacknight I organized. And hope to see more of this next time around!