May 23, 2012

Confessions of a First-Time Hacker: From The Trenches of the TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2012 Hackathon


It was 10am on a bright NY morning.  Joggers, cyclists, and brunch goers were out and about, and here I was inside a hanger-like pier on the Westside of Manhattan. This would be my first Hackathon. 24 hours to build a music app.  This was my goal. To create a simple location-based app that polled free and accessible data. 

My concept was called BarTunes.  I wanted to have a way to display an interactive map of restaurants/bars where a user can quickly see what’s “playing now”.  Quickly - a user could see that MGMT is playing at Caliente Cab or Miles Davis is playing Kettle of Fish.  The type of music would drive user behavior in a fun, and ‘on-the-go’ way.

This turned out to be impossible, or rather not possible in the 24 hours.  So we had to pivot.  Instead we crafted a new music discovery app called CityVibes. This new approach would allow users to discover what music is popular in US cities from Shazam tag data.  What made the project more unique was that it created a real-time playlist that included a mood rating (e.g., is your city hot or not?).  The app also allowed you to play the tunes instantly on your iPhone.   I won’t give you all the gory details but we utilized Rdio’s APIs (on the Mashery Platform), Twitter, Shazam data, and capped off with a magical API from The Echo Nest, which allowed for song analysis.

Thankfully, the TechCrunch organizers made it easy to find a team.  A Google Docs spreadsheet listed what folks had to offer, and what they were looking for.  I was fortunate to meet a wizard of a coder, Pavan.  After describing my concept, Pavan began thinking through what’s feasible, and what platform it should reside on.  An iPhone application was his desired platform (I’m on Android), and this type of hacking was out of my league.  We ultimately figured out roles: I would create the upfront conceptual API architecture, flows and GUI, and Pavan would handle the iPhone development and API connectivity.   

At 4am, Pavan was troubleshooting -- and I was crashing.  We were surrounded by hackers in a “post-apocalyptic control room” meets “industrial space” meets “junk food bar.” At this point I found a comfortable spot on the concrete and closed my eyes for a bit. 
At 8am, we had 90 minutes until the app was due.  I was frantically cutting and resizing assets in Photoshop, and each new build was looking better and better. 

There were about 100 teams and each had only 60 seconds to present. Fearing that I would miss any detail, I decided to script the whole pitch. Pavan would do the demo on camera, and I would do the talking. 

At our turn, I was filled to the brim with 5 hour energy, feeling dizzy, and about to present in front of the crowd on the main stage.  When our number was called, I don’t know if it was the caffeine or the lack of R.E.M., but I belted out the pitch like a car salesman in 40 seconds, and barely touched upon the app.  There was applause, then we were 86’d off the stage.  Argh! I realized I could have slowed it down, and followed my partners demo and cues more closely and kept thinking, "Can we please go back in time?  This one-minute pitch is rough!"

I left the presentation in a fog, and crashed out feeling ill - missing the award ceremony.  My mind was gone, and my body was broken into a pulp.  A pillow was all I wanted.  The clock radio said 6pm….Have I been sleeping all day?

Lying there exhausted ,I reached for my mobile trying to focus my eyes on a new message I received 3 hours ago.  It was from my hacking partner.  “We won”  Our app was awarded for best use of the Echo Nest API.  I couldn’t believe it.  I did a couple of fist pumps and laid back down with a smile, ready to do it all over again.