I went to my first hackNY hackathon this past weekend, and, boy, am I glad I did. The energy there is incredible. I’m pretty sure that hackNY is beginning to outgrow its venue, but, really, that just contributes to that buzzy feeling I had throughout the event.
The quality of the hacks was also great. I am repeatedly amazed by the stuff that my peers can throw together in 24-hours. I also noticed that the hacks at hackNY were considerably more “cool for the sake of cool” than the hacks at PennApps, which was refreshing. (That is, at PennApps, there are a lot of apps that could make cool startups or features, while there were more hacks at hackNY which aren’t profitable but which were just pretty damn cool. For instance, someone wrote a Turntable.fm bot called “Judging Hipster” which will make snarky comments when people start playing music that’s too popular.)
Meanwhile, my team’s hack was decidedly more “practical.” We began with a simple line that people toss around all the time (“You know, if you didn’t get that $4 daily latte you could give 20 people access to clean water”) and ran with it. What if that daily latte helped give 20 people access to clean water? So we made Give A Little, which lets you sign up to donate some number of cents to a charity every time you check into a coffee shop. Or a Chinese restaurant. Or, heck, a casino. It was fun, it was fulfilling, and we even won a little Honorable Mention-style award for “Hacking for Good” (one of my favorite things to do). Two my team members, Alice and Willy, have said that they plan on finishing and expanding Give A Little, and I really hope they do! (Though Nick and Drew wrote the backend to handle credit card transactions, we never implemented a front-end for it… So you can only donate fake money for now, which is probably for the best.)
It was also the first time I’d worked in a “big” hackathon team. We had five people, and I learned quickly that working in a hackathon team of five is hard.
Don’t get me wrong, working with this team was a real thrill. Each person would be an asset on any team. For starters, we had my old PennApps 2012 team, Nick Meyer and Drew Inglis. Nick is astute, laid-back and a quick study, and Drew is an experienced developer who is a fantastic pseudo-technical lead. (At one point in the evening, he gave an informal primer on Rails to our team and garnered a small crowd.) We were then joined by design goddess Alice Lee–who I’ve wanted to work with ever since I saw her amazing project at PennApps–and Penn senior Willy Huang, whom I’d never met before but who turned out to be a very respectable developer, especially on the front-end. (I was surprised it took us this long to meet!)
Part of our trouble, I think, stemmed from the fact that we hadn’t all worked together before. We didn’t know what each person could or couldn’t do, really. So we spent the first six hours or so each noodling around on our own before we started to really come together. And then the sleeping happened, so only half the team was awake at any given time. Had everyone checked their work in? What was <Sleeping Person X> trying to do with this code? Was this design chopped up yet? What was going on?
And yet, for all our struggles, I still had a great time and made new friends. (Like I said, this team was a thrill.) And we walked away with a solid product.
So I think the long takeaway here was this: Don’t try to win with a team of five strangers. It’s just too unwieldy. But if you’re just trying to work with a bunch of new people and have a blast… Go for it.
And the shorter version? Go to hackNY.