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

Every day when I pick up my kids from school, I ask them what they’ve learned that day. They proceed to tell me what they did—in class, after school, what they had for lunch, who they played with at recess. But getting them to articulate what they learned is a lot harder. So in the spirit of setting an example, I thought I’d report on what I learned this year as a product manager for SparkPost.

nightskytrails

First, let me back up: it’s been a year of remarkable change and growth for our company. We made the leap from our origins as an established, packaged software vendor to a software-as-a-service operation. We architected an entirely virtualized, cloud-based infrastructure. We built and launched our core SparkPost offering. We expanded upon that foundation to introduce the SparkPost Elite service with dedicated instances and service level agreements to suit the world’s most demanding senders. We built out a world-class operations, deliverability, and customer success team. And, we changed our brand from Message Systems to SparkPost to better reflect all of these changes.

But those are things that we did. What did we learn? Here are four lessons about doing business in the cloud that really hit home for me this year.

  • Offering a cloud service means more than engineering a technology stack. It requires a deep understanding of how customers actually integrate technology into their business processes. It also means publicly staking a claim with the right product/market fit and countering a new group of competitors. All in the open.
  • Another key lesson for us at SparkPost has been just how critically important it is to reduce friction throughout the customer lifecycle, from selling to onboarding to daily ease-of-use and support. In plain language: the cloud means we need, more than ever, to make it easy for customers do business with us. In our market of high-volume, high-value email, we want to make it drop-dead easy for legitimate senders, while freezing out spammers and phishers. Ultimately, dealing with the bad guys in the email world is where our rock-star compliance and deliverability teams give us a real competitive advantage. But as a product manager, I can assure you that it takes a lot attention to detail to get that balance just right.
  • The cloud changes everything, including the business model. If you’ve spent any time in the traditional software industry, you know how big, perpetual license deals are the name of the game. But there’s a reason why the business model for cloud businesses is called “software-as-a-service.” Services aren’t a one-and-done deal; instead, our accountants report recurring revenue as the primary metric for our shareholders. For customers, that’s good news: less up-front capital expenditures, more bite-sized spending, and a real incentive for the company—that’s us—to keep customers happy and earn that recurring revenue.
  • And this brings me to the thing I think about every day of the year. Of course I want to develop a product that has the most compelling features in the industry. Of course I want to see my product beat out competitors on the biggest deals. But the discipline that the recurring revenue model enforces on us means that customer retention (and that really means customer satisfaction) is simply crucial. To be frank, the same simplicity that makes the cloud so compelling also makes it pretty easy for a customer to switch to a new service provider. So, that means that I am always working to make SparkPost better-performing, easier to use, cost-effective, and a step ahead of my competitors in all the ways that matter to our customers, including email deliverability.

That last lesson is the most important thing any company needs to remember, and doing business in the cloud simply makes it all the more obvious. So, what I learned in 2015 (and will keep focused on for 2016) really is a reminder of what I and my colleagues have always believed: keeping our customers happy is the key to our success. It’s not the technology, and it’s not the marketing, or anything else except you. So a heart-felt thank you from all of us at SparkPost and from me personally. I’m looking forward to an awesome 2016.

—Irina, Cloud Queen 👸