6 years ago (almost to the day) I found myself working at a manufacturing plant as a product engineer. Not yet in the tech world, I saw it as a vast, exciting world that was elusive to my curiosity. Luckily, one of my high school friends invited me to a Twilio API Hackathon over Memorial Day weekend 2011.
I figured why not and let my boss know I wouldn’t be around to work the holiday weekend. The REST (API pun 😉 ) is history and from then on I’ve been hooked on tech. It’s lead me to amazing opportunities and a chance to work with some great people in starting LaunchPad Lab and most recently a healthcare product called Kubo Health.
Candidly, it’s been a few years since I’ve done a hackathon. But recently I came across the NASA Space Apps Challenge and decided to make it a must that I attend. No more excuses. No more distractions. Time to hack and build. I ran the idea by a few teammates and they gladly jumped on board to join the team for the weekend hackathon. It was a blast and we ended up building Terraform – a way to empower citizen scientists to captured geo-located data. Check out our team page too.
For me, more important than what we built, is how we built it as a team. This recent hackathon reminded me of that day 6 years ago that really got me into building tech. What about a hackathon really excited me about tech?
A hackathon enforces a short time window for solving a problem. While we typically at LaunchPad work on projects at the months or years timescale, we had to work efficiently at the hour scale for the hackathon. Here’s what that experience taught/re-taught me:
Decision making: In a short timeframe, delays are showstoppers for moving an idea forward. Debating which path to go down is exhausting and wastes a ton of time. We as a team suffered from this a bit, so we wrote all our ideas and options down on a chalkboard (old school!). With the entire landscape in front of us, we could cross out and circle our favorite options. You have less time to analyze each option and have to go more on gut feel. Each project a team tackles faces a critical point where a crucial decision needs to be made. This hackathon reminded me of the value “sticking with your gut” when you don’t have the luxury of analyzing all options.
Divide and conquer: With the key decisions finalized, it’s time to get to work. But what should everyone be working on? If we all work on the same thing, we’re likely to waste time tripping over each other and falling into the first trap of decision fatigue by committee. Our team established from the onset – let’s divide and conquer. We had to break apart our idea into the key components that would need to integrate but could also be built in parallel. The ability to determine those roles and responsibilities on a project from the start helps build momentum as all teammates are pulling in the same direction.
Make it live: The mindset of “we gotta launch this” is a powerful driving force. It infiltrates all decisions and work with – if we do this, will it jeopardize our ability to deliver on time? On larger projects you sometimes don’t quite feel this pressure until the end of the project. But in a hackathon, this pressure is front and center and is ultimately what is so fun (in my opinion) about hackathons. For me, this hackathon re-awakened that spirit to be applied to larger projects. We must ask ourselves: will this work I’m doing help make this project ship? How do I make it live?
Humans have a tendency to settle into habits and patterns. It is only when you shake things up a bit that you start to understand the routines you fell into. For me, this hackathon not only was fun in its own right (see above photo – thanks Ryan, David and Sabeeka!), but it also took me back to my tech roots. It’s been a few weeks since the hackathon and I find myself challenging my daily work against these re-invigorated principles.
Time to go make it real. Make it live!
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