My First Experience at a Hackathon

The lights dim as a projector begins to shine onto a screen on the stage. Two-thousand people crowd into a small section of a 21,000 seat arena in quiet anticipation of the events to follow.

A friendly organizer walks onto the stage and begins to speak: “Hello! Welcome to Pennapps. Before we begin, let us bask ourselves in the beautiful words of our sponsors.” The multitude falls silent as a video begins to play on the screen.

“Hi! I’m Laslay. I like calculators. I work at Comcast! I grew up with calculators and thought it was cool that you can make things! My job at Comcast™ is very fun.” says the woman inside of the projector. The woman inside of the projector begins to ride a moped to work. ‘Having a job at Comcast is very fun’ the crowd repeats.

The woman arrives at an office with a computer. “This is the lair where I control the internet from. When customers call to complain, we look up their house and then turn this dial to speed up their internet. Then they think everything is fine and get off the phone. Once they’ve hung up, they usually don’t have the willpower to wait another hour for customer support to answer them again! Working at Comcast™ is great!”

The video cuts to a three dimensional construction of the new Comcast™ building. “This is where we will house 1,500 engineers to turn the internet on and off. It will be like one big hackathon, all the time! The first place winners will get prizes like a salary! Second place winners might get healthcare, depending on how they perform that month.” The screen fades to white, before fading back to Laslay. “I have a taco tattoo!” Laslay exclaims.

The screen fades to black. The woman inside of the projector materializes on stage. “Hello mortals,” she begins. “Welcome to Pennapps. You will be fed. You will be well fed. You will have so much food that you will never eat again. This will be the only place where you will have ever truly eaten within your miserable existence. There is internet. Much internet. One gigabit internet. Ten terabit internet. So much internet that your computer will catch on fire from the friction of all the internet speeding into it.”

The woman from the projector throws a small black ball onto the floor at her feet, which encapsulates her in a puff of black smoke as she instantly vanishes. Ooh’s and aah’s emanate from the audience.

Another woman walks onto the stage. “Hello Hackers! This year’s theme is health! In order to teach you about health, we are going to keep you up for 36 hours so that you can think about how to make a tool that will help keep people healthy.” The crowd begins to clap. “To help keep you thinking about how to be healthy, there will be donuts, cookies, soda, and red bull!” The audience begins to scream. “And there will even be…swag!” The crowd’s applause has turned into a roaring thunder, shaking the entire stadium with its magnanimous bellowing.

“And now, a word from our dean of engineering.” An older man walks onto the stage, a professor from the University of Pennsylvania. “Greetings commoners. Here is a video of my quadrotor drones that I have worked on. Here, they are doing good things. But in the future, they will probably do bad things. Very bad things.”

The man on the stage lifts up a small pistol. “And now, as I have done for every opening ceremony for all millennia, I shall now begin the races. On your mark, get set,” he points the pistol straight up in the air and fires. “Go!”

We set off, scouring for a table to place our possessions and begin keyboarding computer hacks. “I want to do a poop app. Foursquare for poop. Poopsquare.” My friend says.

“I don’t. I want to do a sharing app.” I reply.

“Your idea is dumb.” he says.

“Your idea is dumb. Mine helps people.” I shoot back.

A man rings a bell. “It is dinner time! You are about to be well fed.”

We congregate in the bread line. Security guards yell at the crowd as we push forward in an unruly fashion. The dinner was health themed: A green leaf and a piece of cheese lasagna.

We begin to work on the poop app. We add geolocation, a rating system for how good the poop was, and an “email to Comcast™” button that sends a picture of your latest poop to Comcast™ customer support.

I notice hundreds of people walking around with air mattresses. “They will be out soon!” exclaims a man walking by. He proves to be correct. There are hundreds of mattresses for thousands of people, which results in abnormal scenes such as this:

At 3:00 A.M., I begin to walk around sponsor desks as my keyboard allies fall asleep. The Google man begins to converse with me: “What horrible conflation are you, O’ anointed keyboardsmith, fabricating with your fingers?”

“I am making a poop app. You share with your friends how titillating or excruciating the process of your defecation was! I wanted to work on a different app, but then I went with the idea of my friends.”

“The poop app sounds weird. You should do your idea. In the end, you decide what matters.”

Google guy is wearing a sweater vest.’ I think to myself. I return to my table and begin to work on my own idea.

At 4:00 A.M. I attempt to go on the Big Blue Zuckerberg Machine, but it is the only website that repeatedly fails to load. An alert pops up in my browser: “Hello, we at Comcast™ do not appreciate you being distracted at the event that we paid for. Please make a Comcast™ app instead of going on the Zuckerberg Machine.” I decide to check my internet speed. The speed test tells me “Your internet is too slow. Your computer is not getting enough internet, and will soon die of malnetrition. You are receiving 200 kilobits per second.”

It is now 5:00 A.M. I attempt to sleep. The speaker near me activates: “Hello, we at Comcast™ do not appreciate you sleeping at the event that we paid for. The air mattresses are only for experimenting with health apps. We will now be forced to turn the thermostat down to 50 degrees fahrenheit to prevent sleep.”

The air conditioning is blasting now. I leave to my car and sleep in the parking lot. The sun and heat wake me up at 7:30 A.M. I return to the stadium with a sweatshirt. “They are refrigerating us like sardines.” I tell my friends.

“Sardines are canned, not refrigerated.” One of my friends explains. Suddenly, a man in a teletubby costume approaches our table. “Uh oh!” he giggles. The television in his stomach activates and a video of the CEO of Comcast™ begins. He is sitting at a fine wooden desk at the top floor of a skyscraper, overlooking the city of Philadelphia. “Good morning. It is time for your daily morning consuming. It is now permissible for you to eat.” He picks up a gavel and bangs it on his desk, causing the teletubby to immediately explode; eviscerating its internals all over the walls of the stadium’s halls.

We go to the breakfast area. Today’s breakfast includes mushy strawberries and blueberries, a banana, yogurt, and some granola. “When the fuck are we going to get some protein? Is it that fucking hard to get us one lousy egg at a half-a-million dollar event?” my friend inquires.

I go to the hot water machine and put a tea bag in my cup. I fill the cup, but the water is actually lukewarm. The machine was clearly mislabeled, and the teabag never turns into tea.

We decide to visit the tables of the sponsors.

“Hi! Want some swag?” says Microsoft.

“Try on this swag!” says Facebook.

“Want to wear some swag?” says Capital One.

“Here, have some swag.” says IBM.

“When the fuck did wearing two dozen corporate logos all over your body become swag?” I ask my friend. “What a convenient coincidence for marketers.”

Soon enough, it was food time again. This time, lunch included some chicken, bless the organizer overlords. The rest of the day drudges on. I spend an hour with a nice mentor volunteering from eBay. He doesn’t know my framework, but he knows Javascript well enough to actually significantly help me. I give big kudos to the mentors, and press on with the work.

I attempt to nap at 2:00 P.M. in my car, but the heat was hot and the ground was dry and the air was full of sound. I awake at 2:23 P.M. and try to work again.

The next six hours fly by. Mentors from Pebble, Twilio, and Uber all help me with a problem that has nothing to do with the products of any of their respective companies’, which is an act I respect enormously.

I sleep again from 9:00 PM to midnight, which is the time we receive donuts. Sweet, succulent donuts.

I keep working from midnight to 7:30 A.M., which is the minute that I discover that a team of three in the Apple lounge worked on an idea identical to mine. With so little time left, we can’t work together any further. I spend the rest of the time creating a screencast of my app while recording a pitch over it, and then upload the video to Youtube to include in my submission. The project submissions are due at 9:00 A.M. I submit at 8:59 A.M.

Cutting it close.

Judgement Day

The hour of judgement is upon us. The prophets have foretold of this event since the dawn of time. Those of holy lore and homeless shelters have warned us endlessly of this perilous moment. It is even clearly listed in the PennApps schedule. Yet none of us are as prepared as we would like to be.

Several people do not get a table to present. Two people at the table I worked at during the hackathon do not get a table assigned to them to demo either of their solo projects. Poopsquare does not make it into the arena either. Somehow, I am assigned a table, and get to present during the second expo.

During this time, I actually get some helpful feedback on my idea and on how to make the app better. I receive better ideas and suggestions during this time than I have received during the whole hackathon, as well as new ways of framing my idea. It is clear when a judge is enthralled or when they are bored. You figure out quickly that if you don’t learn to sing and dance, you are completely blowing your chance.

The Awards

The CEO of Comcast™ steps onto the stage where this event began. “Thank you everybody, for participating in PennApps. It is with much regret that before we announce the winners, we must also announce the loser. While the winners have the best hack, the loser has what the judges deem as the “Worst Hack”. This year’s Worst Hack is from Billy: a senior at Central High School, Philadelphia. Instead of creating an original hack, Billy worked on his Computer Science homework, demoing his console-based ‘Hello World’ app to the judges during the expo.” He turns toward an 18-year-old boy in the center of the audience. “Billy, for wasting the time and money of your sponsors, I sentence you to ten years labor at Comcast™.”

The young man screams in terror as a long, human-sized vacuum tube rapidly descends from the ceiling directly onto himself. He ascends up the tube; his final audible shouts being only a muffled murmur as he enters the ceiling.

“Fuck you, Billy.” the Comcast™ executive quickly states before sprinting off the stage.

Next, a man in a pink shirt claiming to be an organizer walks onto the stage. “Hello everyone. I am the prize man. I am so proud to see all that you have done here. You are all the next Mark Zuckerberg. No; we are all the next Mark Zuckerberg. Mark Zuckerberg is in all of us. He is in you, he is in me, he is in my wife. Yes, Mark Zuckerberg is even in my dog. And it is on this day, that I get to announce the ten best Mark Zuckerbergs at the biggest hackathon of the year!” A single woman in the center of the audience claps once.

“Where is your energy?!” complained the man on stage. “You’ve only been working for thirty-six hours! Let’s see some enthusiasm!” he shouts as he gestures to the audience with raised arms to persuade us to make sounds. Twenty people clap and holler for four seconds before stopping again.

“See, we anticipated this, which is why I’m glad to announce our tenth place winner, Zap!” he pulls out a handheld box with a small knob. “Zap! is a hardware hack that can shock an entire audience when they aren’t showing enough enthusiasm!”

He twists the dial all the way to the right and slams his palm on the box. Suddenly, my whole body fills with electric current as my seat shocks me. I am unable to move as my cuticles partially ignite. The whole audience is awake, with the pungent stench of burnt hair filling the arena. “Clap you fiends, clap!!!” shouts the man on the stage as he laughs maniacally. The whole audience is clapping now, with as much vigor as a turtle having sex.

A man in the front row begins to seize as he undergoes a heart attack from the electric shock. “We anticipated this!” shouts the maniacal man. “This is why our ninth-place winner is Heart-a-Hack! Heart-a-Hack is a health hack that lets you point a laser at someone who is having a heart attack, and then a quadrotor with a defibrillator will land on the victim’s chest and begin performing CPR.” The prize man begins pointing a laser pointer at the dying hacker’s chest, and sure enough, a quadrotor lands on the man and resuscitates him. Mild applause ensues.


The first place winner is a memory-erasing device to help people with mental health issues from traumatic events forget their traumatic experiences. Unfortunately, during the demo of this winning prize, I forgot what prizes two through eight were. Several men and women claiming to be organizers are on the stage now.

“We noticed you are all chronically cold, so we’re going to throw blankets at you now. We hope you recover from your condition, but we are also confused and disappointed as to why you didn’t make a health hack to cure being cold. Thank you for your participation!” one of the organizers remorsefully says. They begin to toss blankets covered in corporate logos at us.

The blanket tossing begins.

Instead of counting sheep, we will finally be able to count corporations when we sleep.

Published in Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking

-