My First Hackathon

My last hackathon.
Mar 16, 2022
5 min

A hackathon is an event or competition that involves multiple people getting together to create a project (with a specialized purpose) in a specific amount of time. The HowdyHack 2019 hackathon was a 24-hour competition created for freshmen/sophomores with the goal of creating a project (from scratch) that benefits university students. 43 teams (of up to 4 people) would have 24-hours to create and present the project to a panel of judges.

This event occurred during my first semester described in Why Was The Gulag Necessary. As a result, I had the free-time to participate in these social activities. Prior to the event, I’d message a guy on Facebook who was putting together a team. However, Facebook messages failed to update when I reached the venue. As a result, I thought I had no team. When I learned about him seeing my message, it was way too late.

Due to the above situation, I had to find a team with 3 other strangers. The team consisted of me, a guy who “used to work in sales”, Trevor Bolton, and a legend you will learn about named Liam Haber. We were all freshmen, and none of us were specialized so we’d be learning how to create (what we were creating) during the 24 hour process. When the event started, we quickly determined what we’d be creating and who would be working on what.

Sales guy and Trevor worked on the frontend using HTML5/CSS. I worked on the SQLite3 Database integration with Python Django. Liam worked on connecting the two together while creating the application code in the process. Now, let’s be honest... I could go into every detail on what happened, but that is not interesting. What is significant is that sales guy leaves within 8 hours. Trevor left a while after, but not before pushing some frontend, leaving Liam and I to finish what we started.

Time goes by and shit starts to hit the fan. We have no idea what we’re doing. You spend all that time in school learning how to code (among other irrelevant shit), but place yourself in front of a real-world scenario and 12 hours later you’re staring at a migrations folder wondering about the steps you need to migrate your entire life

At about hour 16 - 18, I get a flashback to my days in Robotics… I remember that — while the product should work — these awards involving judges are always decided by the showcase. Liam and I — as backend engineers — have a talk: “We’re in a predicament, man. We need to decide whether both of us focus our time on a working backend, or something to show for it.” Liam agrees, so we come up with a simple plan: Liam will finish the application over the remaining 6 hours, while I focus on the presentation and get a good night’s rest in order to present it correctly. After completing the presentation, I head home (which is allowed), dodging the drunk students of college station to get a whopping 4 hours of sleep.

The next day — well, 4 hours later — we regrouped. Sales guy and Trevor came back for submissions, and we’d begin the judging process. The judging process would have two rounds: The first involved a series of sub-rounds where the judges would look at multiple projects individually. The second was reserved for the Top 5 teams, who would showcase their application on the big stage.

Hackathon Project Showcase
A working demo, but it isn't pretty

The first round went well for us. No hiccups. No racist judges. We’re all good. One judge asks about password encryption (and OAUTH), but I explain that we cannot implement a production-ready secure user registration flow from scratch in 24 hours (having not known how to use Django beforehand). This judge heads off pretty satisfied with that conversation. Fast forward a few more rounds, and our project is announced as Top 5. This was a surprise to us, because what we didn’t know at the time is that most people in hackathons don’t even finish their projects. We not only had a working project (with 9 pages and dynamic data), but also an entire presentation to go with it. Liam and I’s compromise came in clutch.

The team was excited: We came to this competition as boys with our tails between our legs, but we were about to leave this competition as men with a severe case of insomnia. All we had to do now was secure the bag, and I’ve secured a lot of bags in my lifetime. The next steps seemed obvious: Present in the same way but give a more in-depth demo with the extra time. I’ll present while Liam does the demo… All good, but for whatever reason, sales guy decides that he wants to present.

Now, I don’t know why you would do this. Sales guy has no idea about the specifics of the application. He left within 8 hours, at a time when we’d made little to no progress. The only knowledge he had about the presentation was what he had witnessed in the first round of judging. Maybe he wanted to contribute in any way he could. Maybe he thought this would be a career move. I mean, it’s ju- it’s just a hackathon, it’s not that big of a deal. The motivation for this decision could be anything. I was hesitant, but the team seemed fine with it, so I was fine with it. Having a tall white male present in front of a panel full of older judges at a southern university isn’t the worst idea.

We are the second presentation on the big stage (a room full of nerds). The last 24 hours have been hyped up for this very moment. Our project is announced, signaling our time to present. Sales guy walks in front of the crowd and… starts stuttering. He moves his mouth, but the words won’t come out. For like 5 to 10 seconds, this guy is standing there just stuttering... I have no idea what’s going on, so I start presenting as if nothing happened. The crowd starts to laugh after a comment I make about professors, but I don’t know if it’s because I was funny or because of what just happened. If I have any advice for sales guy, it's to not be embarrassed by this moment. I’m positive it had no effect on our standing. However, it was funny as fuck. You think I made this article to brag about my achievements? No. I did it to shit on sales guy. Look, I don’t hate the person, just the personality… I’m sure sales guy is doing great things; people who take credit for others always do. 

Anyways, we finish our presentation and witness the others. There was an amazing project that involved skipping songs on Spotify when you opened your mouth in a specific way. That got third. The number one was a GroupMe Study Group finder with a website created from a template. Fair enough. Work smarter, not harder. We got fourth, but didn’t win any rewards.

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