Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending TechCrunch’s NY #Hackdisrupt, a hackathon organized-in part-by Brooklynite, friend and talented hacker on his own Tarikh Korula (@tarikh). It’s been a while since my last hackathon (see: 3 Hackday Lessons for the Uninitiated); however, since I was offered a chance to play a role on the Design Trust team, I couldn’t resist the opportunity.
For those of you still confused or unsure about the term ‘hackathon’, here’s Wikipedia’s lengthy definition and here’s my not-so-techsavvy friends & family version:
Mom, a hackathon is an event where people (developer’s, product designers, etc.) gather in one location, pair up in groups and experiment hacking together prototypes for products and services - often within 24-48 hours.
OK Imagine hundreds of construction workers gathered together and given (Stanley) hammers (from Lowe’s), nails and other tools (from Home Depot) and then asked to build stuff. It’s like that concept, but for tech geeks.
Now if you’re wondering why anyone would spend a perfectly good weekend ‘hacking’, the answer is quite simple…fortune, fame and free food. Hackathon organizers generally encourage hackers to implement sponsor products or services (often in the form of an API) into their projects. Over the course of the hackathon hackers are offered copious amounts of free food, energy products and open access to developer evangelists (think genius bar for devs) for each sponsor. At the conclusion of the event, projects are submitted and presented on stage. Sponsors award hackers whose projects most effectively leverage each company’s API(s) and a panel of judges separately awards a few projects with best of show.
OK so now that we’ve covered the ‘what’, let’s hit the important stuff:
1. What was the #1 lesson learned from attending Hackdisrupt?
One of the biggest takeaways came to me shortly after the hacking ended Sunday morning. Having left around 3am the night (er…morning) before, I returned to the Manhattan Center Sunday morning fully caffeinated and ready to watch some epic hacks. An energized crowd pack the auditorium. Off to the right stood several hackers in line waiting for their presentation, all looking noticeably exhausted.
As each team hit the stage, you couldn’t help but be encouraged by the raw enthusiam of each presenter. Putting ideas and work on stage in front of hundreds of people can be terrifying experience and so I commend anyone willing to take the leap to further a cause or idea. However, this does not excuse anyone from properly preparing to address their audience. It seemed that many of the teams spent all of their time on hacking and little time preparing to present the hack. What’s most unfortunate about this observation is that a bad presentation can make even the best idea look terrible. I’ve been there and you can trust me…it’s no fun.
Seasoned hackathoners likely know this, but for the uninitiated my advice would be to not allow yourself to get so caught up in the execution of your project that you forget people are coming to see you present an idea. A hackathon is not just about coding cool shit, people show up for the spectacle and show. If I was participating in my next hack, I would factor in my team’s presentation from the start. Don’t wait until the 24th hour to ask yourself, ‘What is the problem we are setting out to solve and how should we reveal this (solution) for our audience?’. Start with these questions from the outset as it will help inform your timeline and project development. Bottom line, substance + style = a winning presentation.
2. Who participated in the ‘Design Trust’ and was it successful?
The Design Trust team is organized by Phoebe Espiritu (@femmebot), Adjunct Professor, Parsons School of Design and Manager of Techstars Hackstars program. According to Techcrunch, “The Design Trust was formed to provide teams with access to some of New York’s brightest visual and product designers during the hackathon.” If this description is any measurement, the program delivered. Within five minutes of my arrival, I was greeted by designers from FourSquare, Skillshare, Pandora, Kickstarter, Nike and Techstars to name a few.
The success of these programs depends largely on the engagement level of the participants involved in the hackathon. With this measurement in mind, our experience netted mixed results. The majority of the event space was filled with a hundred or so 8×8 round tables each surrounded by teams of developers hacking away on code. The MC’s made every effort to announce our presence (one table in front and one in the back); however, it seemed that many of the teams were either unwilling or too busy to solicit our help. That’s not to say our group was not effective. Quite the contrary as several products came together and/or were awarded in large part due to members of our team.
A design trust is both a wonderful idea and important component of any hackathon. Having experienced the impact first hand, with a slight pivot I believe you could expect to see this group play an even more valuable role in the future. If you recall, I mentioned the teams which only focused on the development (function) in many ways did their project a disservice by not taking the time to understand the impact of design (form) on the audience. My suggestion would be to add a few experts in public speaking and product pitching. Combine these experts with a few killer designers and you could create the potential for every team to improve their presentations while increase the efficacy of the program.
That said, I’m thankful to Pheobe for the opportunity participate in the Design Trust. I was fortunate to meet and work with some wonderfully talented people including: @femmebot @lotoole3 @merc @amotion @courtneyetc @buraknehbit @nettdrone @selfproclaim @reflectingpool @conwayanderson @madelenamak. If you’re a designer and have the opportunity to participate I definitely recommend signing up.
3. Would you do it again and if so in what capacity?
Absolutely, although I would consider gathering a team and going all in next time. As I watched each presentation, I couldn’t help but think to myself, ‘Man I want to create something that wows the crowd.’’ The experience is pretty motivating really.
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To learn more about HackDisrupt, you can visit the TechCrunch coverage here.