3 Hackathon Lessons Learned

Hi, I’m Vincent, a computer science major and sophomore at the University of Maryland, College Park. Previously, I was a member of the organizational team for Bitcamp 2016, UMD’s flagship student-run hackathon, and a Sparkpost sponsored event. Throughout the previous year, I’ve attended eight collegiate hackathons, from places as close as UMD to as far as Michigan.

Collegiate hackathons are crazy, inspirational events filled with free food, networking, extraordinary projects, and most importantly, learning. During my freshman year of college, I attended too many hackathons for my own good.
Fortunately, I’ve learned a few things from them, and I’m here to share them with you.

Time Management

I usually have around 24 or 36 hours to create something from scratch and have it functional enough to present at the end of every hackathon. At the beginning of any event, my team meets to dish out responsibilities, set sub-deadlines, and then start hacking.

At VTHacks, my team created a fleet of internet-enabled air fresheners controlled by a laptop or phone. We took each automatic air freshener apart and hooked them up to a Spark Core. Using HTTP calls made from a webapp, we scheduled times and intervals at which the air freshener would spray. Within our team, one person was responsible for the server and another for building the physical air freshener boxes. I was in charge of creating the webapp to interface with the server.

hackathons project air freshener

During the hackathon, we were always in a race against the clock. So setting deadlines for our progress was critical to our success. We started off building independent parts: setting up our HTTP server, creating the dashboard UI, and hooking up the air freshener to our Spark Core. We scheduled to finish most of these tasks before the end of the night. Knowing our deadlines helped us individually manage our own tasks. It also helped us plan our work around certain events, such as workshops, tech talks, and meals.

We also ended up smelling pretty darn good.

Asking Questions

During MHacks Refactored, a friend and I created an app which generates Spotify playlists with music you listened to at a certain time in the past. It was my first JavaScript project. When I dived in, I was a little relieved. Most of the syntax was similar to Java, the language I had the most experience in. Unfortunately, after I began making HTTP requests, I began receiving ‘undefined’ errors. It was my first venture into the asynchronous world of JavaScript. Of course, I was frustrated. Where I came from, line 2 ran after line 1! I knew that I needed help.

I asked a random but friendly-looking guy in our room if he knew what the issue was. Initially, I was embarrassed that I needed to bother someone else and take time out of their hack just to get an answer to my problem. But to my surprise, he dropped everything he was working on to peek at my code. Over the next hour, I learned about asynchronous programming, callbacks, and even JavaScript promises. As I refactored my code into a series of callbacks, I began to appreciate my favorite attribute of hackathons: they exist first and foremost for people to learn.

Since then, I’ve been much less embarrassed about asking questions, and much more keen on helping others answer theirs.

Building Teams

Whether it’s finding roommates, startup co-founders, or members for your new cast iron skillet club, it’s important to surround yourself with people that you want to be like.

oceans 11 group hackathons group

As a frequent hackathon goer and hackathon organizer, I’ve realized that one of the biggest indicators of success are the people on your team. As a hacker, there’s nothing more inspirational than working on a team with teammates who are just as, if not more, invested in the project as you are.

On a similar note, as a hackathon organizer, being around passionate organizers, with everyone from the sponsorship team to the design team, was extraordinarily encouraging. Their support enabled my own determination to do my job well.

Now that I’m building my own team for Bitcamp 2017, I’m making sure to fill our organizational team with people who are invested in not just the success of our event, but also in each other.

bitcamp 2016 hackathons group picture

Conclusion

For many people, hackathons are enormously fun. Hardware hacking, mobile app development, and messing around with the latest and trendiest javascript libraries fill the hours; in addition to a plethora of informative workshops and sponsor events. Participants create jaw-dropping projects at each one. Some of my favorites include: An LED dress which turns you into Disney princesses, a virtual reality game which diagnosis ADHD, and a platform that lets non-smartphones access smartphone apps via text messages.

Time management, shamelessly asking questions, and team building. I’ve applied these three hackathon lessons to my personal and professional life from my experience as a hackathon goer and organizer.

Hackathons are great. You can find a list of collegiate ones here, or a list of general ones here. If you’ve found this post informative or interesting, let us know in the comments or ping us on our community Slack channel!

–Vincent Song
@vincentwsong

Post Hackathon Roadmap

Our best post hackathon advice

You’ve worked tirelessly through the night, built something awesome, and presented it to a panel of judges. It could also be that you gave it your best try but came up a little short of having something worth presenting. Either way, you left the hackathon with maybe a prize or two, some new knowledge, a few new friends, and a bag full of swag.

But what’s next? What do you do after you’ve had a chance to shower and rest post hackathon? You could choose to continue working on your project, finish it if necessary, or add that cool feature you didn’t have to the time to implement. On the other hand, you could forget about it, remembering it for the fun and learning it provided.

After the Developer Week Hackathon, Kevin Burns and his teammate, Brett Henderson decided to forge ahead with their project despite setbacks that prevented them from presenting the final product. Their dedication to their idea ended up being rewarding. I had a chance to catch up with Kevin last week about their progress since the hackathon in February.

A match made in the Twitterverse

Before Developer Week, Kevin and Brett had never met. Like many hackathon participants, they came to it without a team or idea. Kevin tweeted the need for a partner and thanks to a retweet from the Developer Week Twitter account, he and Brett connected. Their strategy was simple: check out the various sponsoring companies and try to combine technologies in order to create an application that would give them multiple chances to win one of the many prizes offered. They ended up combining SparkPost’s inbound relay and transactional sending services with IBM Watson’s sentiment analysis services to create EmailAI.

How does an email feel?

Communication via text is difficult. Sometimes when we write a message, it is read with an unintended tone. Enter EmailAI. A user can email a rough draft of a message or essay to this service and receive a response reporting the analyzed tone and emotion of the text. This report can be used to improve the message before it goes out to its intended audience.

We get knocked down, but we get up again

Unfortunately, the team met some challenges as the night went on. Issues with their domain name provider prevented them from quickly setting up the bones of the application. It also hindered them from receiving and replying to an email. Thankfully, with the help of the SparkPost mentors, they moved past it and start receiving messages and issuing replies. Alas, so much of their precious time had passed.

Their next challenge was to transform the sentiment analysis from IBM Watson into a readable format. This involved locating and manipulating the relevant data for the response email.

At the end of the 24 hour hackathon, their project was just shy of operational. They presented what they had and received some great feedback. Because they felt that they were so close to finishing it, they decided to continue collaborating and eventually got the service operational.

A Sparky at the end of the tunnel

The guys had a little extra motivation to get the application running because they decided to submit it for a Sparky Award. What they were able to accomplish using the SparkPost API impressed the judges. They ended up receiving the Grand Prize.

What you do post hackathon is up to you; your project may fizzle out or you might choose to continue it, giving you the ability to submit it for other prizes along the way or releasing it to the public. No matter which path you choose, Kevin Burns encourages you to “stay in contact with everybody that you worked with and meet. You never know who you could potentially end up working with again.”

Have an interesting post hackathon story? Share it in the #hackathons channel on our Community Slack or comment below. Check out our Hackathon section of the Developer Hub to see which hackathons the SparkPost Dev team will be attending.

–Aydrian Howard

first hackathon experience with laptop and coffee

Hackathon season is upon us. You may have seen a tweet from Major League Hacking or heard some hackathon experiences at a local meetup. Perhaps this motivated you to unleash your inner hacker and build something awesome for fun and even the chance to score some prizes or free swag. After scanning through the many hackathons happening in your area, you’ve selected one and registered. It’s happening… but now what? It dawns on you that you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into, you don’t have a team, and you have no idea what you’re going to build.

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SparkPost loves sponsoring and mentoring at hackathons and we’ve come up with some tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your first hackathon experience.

Prepare at Home First

Before you arrive at your first hackathon, take some time to think about your strengths and weaknesses and be comfortable with them. You’ll likely be looking for team members and it can be helpful to have a short personable elevator pitch to effectively explain your skillset.

Make a decision as to which development stack you’d like to use and be sure your environment is properly setup. No one wants to waste time downloading and installing the latest version of nodejs or an ide. Wifi tends to flake – do your heavy lifting at home.

Plan to bring items for comfort and convenience. It never hurts to have a powerstrip, extra pens, a pillow, or some energy drinks. Remember you’ll be pulling an all-nighter so dress comfortably. While everyone looks dapper in a three-piece suit, you’ll probably want to stick with a comfortable shirt and pajama or sweat pants. Depending on the weather, you might also want to bring your favorite hoodie.

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Talk to Everyone

The beginning of a hackathon is your chance to network. Be friendly, introduce yourself, and shake lots of hands. Use your previously crafted personal elevator pitch and start looking for potential team members and project ideas.

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Be sure to go around to all the participating companies. Thank them for their sponsorship, you never know when you might need help at 2am. Use this time to find out if they have any special challenges. This is a great way to enhance a project idea and maybe pick up a prize or two. Some companies might also be recruiting, so this is a great way to find out what the company does and get an idea of their culture. Also, collect some awesome swag.

Define Your Victory

For a lot of hackathon newbies, it’s easy to think, “I have no chance of ‘winning’, why should I even go?” While it is true that many attend a hackathon to “win”, others go to find motivation, learn something new, hunt for a job, or spend time with the developer community. If at the end of the hackathon you have a project that isn’t quite finished, but yet you have a deeper, more comprehensive knowledge of a technology you’ve been wanting to learn, e.g. Slack Bots, that is a great win.

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Your first hackathon should be a fun and enjoyable experience. It’s unlikely you’ll dominate the competition and win all the prizes your first time. So take every opportunity to learn and prepare for your next hackathon.

Hopefully these tips will help enhance your initial hackathon experience. If you happen to be attending a SparkPost sponsored hackathon, be sure to stop by our booth and say hello. Our team would love to help you build something awesome.

Have a great tip for a first time hackathon attendee? Leave it in the comments below. Want to chat with our developers and community members? Join our community slack channel!

–Aydrian Howard

we love developers

Major League Hacking logo

The rush of learning a new skill. The flush of success when you finally solve a problem that’s been plaguing you for hours. The thrill of building something from scratch, and watching it succeed. This is what drives many people to hackathons. Student or developer, community advocate or a brand new company, everyone has an exciting time and learns new skills.

Three years ago, it was this excitement that led Mike Swift and Jon Gottfried to found Major League Hacking. MLH is the world’s largest community of student developers, designers, makers, and community leaders on high school and college campuses.

Major League Hacking hosts over 250 hackathons per year. Furthermore, over 65,000 students participate in 15 different countries across North America and Europe. As school ramps up and organizers start thinking about their next big event, I sat down with co-founder Jon Gottfried to discuss the value of hackathons and what led him and Swift to found a company around them.

Hackathons: It’s Where the Creators are Congregating

One of the first questions I asked Jon was “What is a hackathon?”

He smiled knowingly and said, “There are a lot of assumptions for what a hackathon is. Some people think it’s a startup competition or a security thing. And some even think it’s an event that’s only for the most experienced hackers out there. But when we boil it down, a hackathon is an invention marathon. It’s a compressed, marathon-period of time where people come together and build new technology.”

At its core, hackathons, and the people who attend them, are changing the world as we know it. Jon acknowledged that it’s hard to keep up! “The types of things these students are working on, even as young as high school, are pretty impressive and bleeding-edge and mind-blowing,” he said.

“As time goes on, we’re only going to see more of those break-out companies and apps and new SDKs and APIs getting their start at hackathons, because ultimately, that’s where the creators are congregating. It’s where all of these really intelligent people are meeting their collaborators.”

A Long, Sleep-Deprived, Amazingly Exciting Weekend

It’s all true – a hackathon is a fun and exciting and invigorating place to spend the weekend. You’ll go home sleep-deprived and a little stinky. However, you’ll come away with new skills, having played with real-world, in-use technologies.

As Jon says, “curriculum lags behind actual real-world development, and being able to get Amazon Web Services for free, which you’re inevitably going to be using at your job in a few years is a fantastic opportunity.”

So there’s obvious value for the attendees, but what about for the companies sponsoring the event? There are two different categories of value that Jon laid out for me, depending on your role at an event. If you’re a recruiter, you’ll get a chance to see students showcasing not only the skills that they already know, but their ability to learn new skills and figure things out on the fly. This, as Jon says, is often a more valuable component of that trade.

If you’re a developer evangelist or someone from the product team, you’ll get to see someone using your product from start to finish. You’ll also be able to receive real-time feedback about your product’s UX, UI, and functionality.

Jon clarifies: “Companies can’t assume that just because someone uses you in their project that they’ll use your product in the real world anytime soon. But realistically, once you teach people how to be more awesome by using your product in their hacks, it becomes something that’s permanently part of their tool belt.”

How Major League Hacking Remains Community-First and Mission Driven

Major League Hacking is a Certified B Corp. This means they’re a for-profit company that is certified by non-profit B Labs. MLH meets rigorous standards when it comes to social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. Jon said, “It’s the perfect way to build something sustainable as well as creating something that is very devoted to its mission.”

Their mission is quite literally written into the company’s operating documents, which holds them to a higher standard than most. “It helps us maintain a level of understanding both inside and outside the company of what we need to do to uphold those values,” says Jon.

That’s not to say they need the B Corps standards to motivate them to put community first. Throughout the interview, it was obvious that the hacker community comes first in all things that Jon does with MLH.

“A lot of the things that we provide at events, the ways we talk about our community, the ways we talk to our community, is really in that vein of putting the hackers needs first, and finding ways to leverage our resources to make their lives better,” he says.

Why? “Because these are the people that are ultimately at the heart of this movement, and who at the end of the day, are creating all of these amazing things. At the end of the day, what we truly care about is how we’re serving these hackers.”

Hackathons & SparkPost

Hackathons are changing the world as we know it, but they’re doing it one company at a time. At SparkPost, we’ve had an opportunity to participate in quite a few different hackathons. The amount of feedback we’ve received from students and other companies alike is invaluable.

Connecting with students as they figure out what they’re building, why they’re building it, and how all of the pieces hook together is not only fun, it’s enlightening for us as a team. This gives us the opportunity to continue improving on our API to make it even better for years to come.

Interested in learning more about Major League Hacking or getting involved in one of their hackathons? See mlh.io for more information. Also, keep an eye on developers.sparkpost.com to see what hackathons we’ll be at in the near future.

–Mary Thengvall

Twilio Signal SparkPost Logo Hackathon Event

Why We’re Excited for Twilio Signal

1) Love talking about how bots, WebRTC, and IoT are changing the way we communicate? We do too! Not only do we love talking about it, we love developing apps and bots that help us communicate better (or at least in more fun ways), both as a company and with our community. We’d love to hear what you’re doing that’s different and cool.

2) We want to show off our Zap. Let’s get real. APIs are the star of this event, with Twilio’s coming out on top. We’ve recently linked SparkPost and Twilio, because they really are better together. With this Zap, every new SMS message received by your chosen Twilio message will automatically trigger an email notification from SparkPost.

3) Our killer limited edition client library stickers. We’ve got 8 awesome client libraries to show off, and now the stickers to go along with them! From the famous elePHPant to the purplish hues of Elixir, we’ve got one for each of them. Choose your language and represent with pride!

SparkPost Client Library Stickers for Twilio Signal

4) Last but not least, we want to meet you! The thing we love most about conferences is being able to meet all of you face-to-face and get direct feedback on what you love about SparkPost, as well as what we could be doing better. Our product is better because of your ideas, and we want to hear them!

So come find us Tuesday and Wednesday, May 24-25, in the expo hall. We’ll be there from 8:00 am – 7:30 pm both days. Come on by to talk shop, grab some new swag, pick up the sticker to represent your client library pride, and get a tour of the latest features.

Can’t make it to Twilio Signal? You can still build awesome things with the SparkPost API! Be sure to check out our client libraries, support docs, and more resources at the Developer Hub, and don’t forget to join our community Slack group! We hope to see you at an event in the near future.

-Mary
@mary_grace
Community Manager, SparkPost

bitcamp

This weekend we’re heading to The University of Maryland to sponsor Bitcamp, the University’s annual hackathon. An estimated 1,200 participants ranging from high school seniors to college students will be in attendance. They’ll have 36 hours to delve into their curiosities, learn something new, and build something awesome. The SparkPost Developer Relations team will be there to help mentor and incentivize the use of the SparkPost API. We’ll be awarding one lucky team with $500 in Visa gift cards for winning our “Build Something Awesome using the SparkPost API” challenge.

Check out our hackathon page for more information on use cases and other resources to assist you in the challenge. Previous hackathon projects have included sending double blind anonymous emails, sending encrypted emails, notifying customers of food truck orders, and displaying and storing email event data. It’s amazing to see what creative solutions come out of each hackathon.

Stop by our booth and pick up some one-of-a kind SparkPost swag made especially for Bitcamp. You can learn how you might be able to leverage the SparkPost API in your project. Our engineers will be around all weekend, and can help get you setup with a free SparkPost account. They’ll also be able to answer any questions around our Inbound Relay, Transactional Sending, and Data Analytics.

Be sure to enter our raffle for a Jackery Giant+. And don’t forget to swing by on Saturday night to refuel with slushies, served in our limited edition SparkPost cups!

bitcamp

Check out our recap of this year’s BrickHack Hackathon. Unable to make it to Bitcamp? We’ll be at Twilio’s Signal Conference in May and The Kansas City Developer Conference in June. No matter where you are, you can also join us in building something awesome on our community Slack channel, or follow us on Twitter.

Looking forward to building something awesome with you.

-Aydrian

we love developers

brickhack recap

BrickHack. More than 400 students.  More than 48 hours of coding. We also can’t forget the 48 hours of cookie-eating, cup-stacking, and gaming!

A few weekends ago, SparkPost sponsored BrickHack 2016 at Rochester Institute of Technology.  We were in good company among other sponsors like Microsoft, Facebook, Fedora, Twilio, Staples, and Datto. Here’s a quick recap of what the weekend looked like:

Day 1

The first day, everyone was beaming with energy! Aydrian and Raju took the lead at the booth and spoke with hundreds of students about SparkPost and the resources we have available to help users seamlessly incorporate our technology into their apps.

brickhack

Our Hackathon challenge was quite simple: build something awesome and incorporate the SparkPost API.

During our tech talk, Aydrian presented an example of using SparkPost with a demo of an application using inbound relays to get the creativity flowing.

From laser harps to email encryption, we helped teams code throughout the wee hours of the morning.  I must say, we were quite thankful for the Insomnia Cookies provided by MLH to keep us going!

At about 2:30am, we called it a night…er…morning? We needed to restore some brain power!  The SparkPost team left the hackers with energy drinks to recharge, which were clearly a huge hit.

brick hack energy drink

Day 2: Wrap up, Judging and Awards

You know that feeling when your alarm clock goes off after minimal sleep, and you just…stare at the clock in sheer disbelief that it’s time for you to get up again?  Yeah, that was us at 6:00am as we prepared to head back over to the RIT field house.

It seemed that everyone else felt just as exhausted.  The students who were once blasting music had retired to their air mattresses for a quick snooze before crunch time. The effects of the energy drinks had clearly worn off hours ago.

Around 2:00pm, judging time had arrived!  We were finally able to check out all of the awesome projects that used SparkPost. Each team had incredible ideas, but there could only be one winner!

Stephen James took advantage of our Python library and had the best use of recipient lists and transactional email for his campus-oriented event website. Well done, Stephen!

brickhack awards

Overall, BrickHack was a well-organized hackathon.  Our ultimate goal was to serve as mentors for the students, and we did just that. The amount of Twitter love SparkPost received for staying late into the night was incredible.

brickhack tweets

Thanks for the hospitality, RIT!  We hope to see some familiar faces at University of Maryland, College Park for Bitcamp in a couple of weeks!  Until then, check out our community Slack channel, or follow us on Twitter.

-Ashley

fluent conf

If you’ve ever attended a 1500+ person conference and tried to meet as many people as you can during that time, you’ll understand what our experience at Fluent Conf 2016 was like! Two weeks ago, a handful of us from the SparkPost Dev team had the opportunity to show off the SparkPost API, walk people through our various client libraries, explain webhooks and inbound routes, and in general remind folks just how important email is to their company’s day-to-day functionality.

fluent conf devs
Photo by O’Reilly Media

We spoke with front-end web developers, software engineers, CTOs, and founders alike, and walked away with valuable feedback about our product and how we can even better serve our community.

We also had a chance to talk about the changes that we’ve made lately, and the online community that is forming around SparkPost.

Last but not least, I had the chance to speak at Ignite on Tuesday night. While most of the conversations at the conference revolved around monitoring, security, and website performance, my talk focused on monitoring those of us who are responsible for those things. So often, we push ourselves to get everything “just right” at work, monitoring every angle so as to ensure the best performance, but we fail to take a step back and make sure that we’re monitoring ourselves. Keep an eye out for the video on O’Reilly’s Youtube channel.

Missed talking to us at Fluent but want to see us on the road sometime soon? We’ll be hacking away at bitcamp in just a few weeks and then heading back to San Francisco for Twilio’s Signal Conference. Then it’s off to Kansas City, MO for Kansas City Developer Conference in June. As always, keep an eye on our Developer Hub to see where we’ll be next. In the meantime, come hang out with us in Slack.

mary speaking fluent conf
Photo by O’Reilly Media

 

-Mary
@mary_grace
Community Manager, SparkPost

Developer Week Recap

best use of api sparky award

Last week was a whirlwind of shaking hands, making connections, and building awesome things! From early Saturday morning until late Wednesday night, we talked to Developer Week attendees. The focus? What makes SparkPost different, how to use our awesome API, and why we’re the top choice for an email delivery platform. Here are a few of the highlights:

The Hackathon

hackathon developer week

The energy at the Galvanize co-working space was electric. With so many teams working on such amazing apps, we felt privileged that so many chose to work with us! We had teams building everything. From an app to manage food truck orders (for both vendors and customers), to a service that uses IBM’s Watson to analyze the tone of your emails before you hit send. Everyone could use a feature like that some days, am I right? Another team used our data and analytics UI to store webhooks and campaign data in order to easily re-send an email. The most innovative use of SparkPost however, was DwellWell.

DwellWell

Anyone who has spent a fair amount of time in San Francisco (or anyone who pays attention to the housing market), knows that one of the biggest problems here is a lack of affordable housing. There are several hoops to jump through to gain access to affordable housing, one of them being a mountain of paperwork. The DwellWell team, led by Marlon Frausto, built an app that enables applicants to complete their paperwork online, rather than making a trek downtown to deal with lines in person. The team did their research ahead of time, to gather all requirements for the affordable housing application process. Using SparkPost’s API, they built out a double-blind email system that allows people to inquire about a specific housing options. In addition to solving other problems, this gives applicants the anonymity they’re often wanting, but unable to have throughout the older process.

As they continue to build out the application and work with the city housing authority, we’ll be following their story and supporting their use of SparkPost.

dwell well hackathon

Dev Week Expo

Tuesday and Wednesday were the Developer Week Conference & Expo, inside the beautiful Pier 27 Cruise Ship Terminal. While we didn’t spend any time on a cruise ship, we did get to interact with several hundred attendees from all over the globe. We got great feedback on our API and had more interesting conversations about the various ways SparkPost can be used. Best of all, we got to see people get excited about building something awesome!

Build something awesome

If we didn’t get a chance to chat at Developer Week, say hi on Twitter! Tell us what you’re working on! You’ll also find us at BrickHack and FluentConf next month. Be sure to stop by and say hi!