This is just a little anecdote about a hackathon I went to in 2015. There isn’t some big declaration at the end, but if there is a thesis or moral, it’s this:
Fun is tremendously important to me.
Do scary things.
I signed up for a hardware hackathon (Hack to the Future, held by hackster.io and the super-great Adam Benzion) with my friend Stephen a while ago, just after graduating from Dev Bootcamp. It was a super uncomfortable position for us: not only were super green as developers, being barely able to cobble together a crappy CRUD app, but we were (and are) web developers. We knew next to nothing about hardware. It was terrifying.
I distinctly remember the first morning of the two-day hackathon. We were supposed to mill about and socialize. Stephen and I were so intimidated that we almost left without participating. We managed to dare each other into sticking it out for at least a little while. We had paid for entry, after all.
I talked to a few people, and was continuously made aware of the fact that I was inexperienced, out of my element, and that all my hardware ideas were stupid. I floated the idea of building a telescoping hat that could telescope up and down, partially joking. People let me know it was a stupid and out-of-place idea. I agreed and kept quiet, fuming.
Eventually, it came time for people to announce project ideas out loud; if someone was interested in your idea, they would come over to you and teams would form sort of organically. As it came time for me to yell out, I quickly edited my original thought:
“IT IS 2015, THE YEAR IN BACK TO THE FUTURE 2, AND WE STILL DON’T HAVE THOSE JACKETS WITH RETRACTABLE SLEEVES. THAT’S WHAT I WANT.”
I got laughs and applause, and then I got a team: Stephen; a computer science student (Martha) and an engineering student (Stephanie) from SFSU; and a couple pals (Ken and Tinic) with deep hardware prototyping experience (e.g. laser cutting and 3D modelling and printing). After that, I actually had to turn a couple people away. People were excited to build this stupid project of mine. I was gushing, proud, and terrified. Then we got to work.
Marty McSleeves was born.
It was magic. One of the team members donated a jacket. Martha and I did some sewing. We modelled and printed the spools and housing, spooled fishing line on them, sewed them into the jacket’s shoulders. I spent all night at Noisebridge in the Mission sewing washers into one of the sleeves! The servo motors (housed in components built by Ken and Tinic) were controlled by a Spark core, which exposes its internal methods as an easy-to-access web API. Those methods were written by Stephanie and Martha. Stephen wrote a web client using Node and Express, we deployed it on Azure, and Bob’s your uncle. More than once the spools got tangled and jammed, and some API calls were behaving erratically, but we had done it:
A jacket whose sleeves would go up and down based on a button you click in your browser, and I got to call myself “team lead” the whole time! And we made it in 48 hours! I am still stupidly proud of it.
I made friends, I had fun, and I learned a lot by doing something I was totally uncomfortable with. I think this was true for my teammates as well. It was a huge personal win.
Then came the judging.
Which, I dunno. I have very mixed feelings about judging in hackathons. Unless there’s a specific need for it, I tend to favor the approach of “the team that had the most fun won!”. But we had judges, and they had criteria.
We set up our table like it was a science fair, and I delivered our spiel. As it happens, when the judges saw our results, the jacket’s spools were jammed and we couldn’t demo. I hardly saw that as an issue. We showed them a video instead.
But the judges were obviously disappointed. They followed up by asking me what sort of market I foresaw for this kind of product.
I said this was for fun. Obviously no one would or should try to market this.
We got an honorable mention.
Almost every other team got a special sponsor prize with an actual reward. Almost every team also tried to create something useful or marketable. I somewhat bitterly suspect our mention was a consolation prize.
There is nothing wrong with creating a product that helps people or is profitable. Indeed, those are good things that we should usually strive for.
But this was a hackathon. I approached as a space in which to create without judgement, cut off from the demands of Silicon Valley. I was bummed! Oh well. By my criteria, we won by miles.
There are other hackathons out there with a philosophy closer to mine, e.g. the beautiful Stupid Shit No One Needs and Terrible Ideas “Hackathon”.
And in a couple weeks, I’ll be self-hosting what I’m calling the Snackathon, a tiny little hackathon among friends with a similar idea. Maybe every single project will win an esoteric and customized prize. Maybe they will be snacks.
The primary goal is for it to be fun. Let me know if you’re interested!
I’m so stoked.