May 21, 2012

A weekend at the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon


Yesterday afternoon I emerged out of a warehouse and squinted at the bright New York Sunday that greeted me.  Red eyed, sleep-deprived and mouth still tasting vaguely of energy drinks, I hailed a cab and headed back to my hotel room to finally get some sleep.

Perhaps in my 20s this would have described any one of my usual Saturday nights out, but now, well into my 30s, this just describes one of my usual weekends at work.

I just survived another hackathon.

This weekend’s TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon is touted as one of the bigger hackathons held annually and is connected to a conference and brand that has been respected by startups and big corporations alike.  The format is similar to almost all hackathons: Come with an idea, join a group, hack away all night to present a working prototype the next day for possible fame and prizes but surely enough geek cred to get you at least more than a handful of tweets.

Let’s get this straight: I am not a hacker. While I’ve taught myself some Ruby and Python, I still haven’t jumped into the pool to join a team at one of these events. However, I’m one of the lucky few that can attend them and call it my job.

So what does a non-hacking participant do for twelve hours while others are writing code? I’m able to talk to participants about the various APIs that Mashery manages and brainstorm on cool things they can build -- but I think more importantly, I worked with more than a few folks on how to talk about what they were building, especially focusing on what they would stay and do onstage the next day.

And build they did. As Mashery’s Developer Outreach team was offering a sweet Big Jambox as a prize for anyone building on any of our customer’s APIs, we saw many build on Rovi’s APIs as well as ESPN APIs. Even our customers who attended got into the mix, with develoeprs from USA TODAY and joining forces and creating a cool book recommendation engine which also enabled you to read the book within the service.

As the morning deadline approached, some gave up and left, some merely finished early and left to sleep and still more than half stayed, staring into their monitors and worked on perfecting UIs and mobile implementations. This dedication never ceases to impress me. This weekend I watched one of the participants run laps around the warehouse, focusing on warding off sleep so he could finish his hack.  The catering staff refilled the coffee pots and containers of energy drinks and water over half a dozen times. Snacks were ever-present. (I have a theory that hackers have to eat junk food at three hour intervals or they blue-screen)

But at the end, over 130 hacks were completed and were given a minute each to come onstage and present to their peers, the judges and the general audience.

I looked over at my team of colleagues who also fought through the fatigue of not sleeping and survived only on carbs, sugar and caffeine.  We had bonded with participants, worked on spreading the word of our customers’ APIs, met several companies that needed API help and had a lot of fun.

We did good.