#18: Hackathons Bring all the Boys (and Girls) to the Yard

Alison_NameThere’s nothing quite like a hackathon. If you’re participating in one its a nice way to meet other developers, break the routine of a project cycle, drink some beer, and maybe win some sweet prizes. I once acted as a hired gun for those looking to round out their hackathon teams with a full stack developer. It was pretty lucrative. I now have an unparalleled collection of smartphones and startup stickers as a result of my domination.

Alas, it’s a different story when you’re hosting a hackathon. For our hackathon we put out a limited invitation to bring out the best of the best from outside Merge to battle against our own internal teams. Each team was made up of at least one software engineer and a designer. Outside of that I don’t care who else rounds out the four person teams. There could be a team with a retired teacher dressed up in a bear costume and I wouldn’t say anything.

The hackathon was Ryan’s idea. He’s really kept his shit together over the last week and I’ve been pretty impressed with his work since I returned from Maui. It’s a little odd to see him mediating in the middle of the office while sitting on a desk. He says the fact he knows he’s being watched helps him practice his focus.

He’s also going running in the middle of the day and working late in the office most nights when the team has headed home. I would say something encouraging to him, but I don’t want him to get the idea that I’ve completely forgiven him for his antics.

Anyways, the hackathon brought 14 teams to the Merge offices to work over two days looking to create groundbreaking applications for the Merge platform with a top prize of $5,000 for the team and four exclusive Merge devices. I’m sure the fact we were offering up $5,000 cash was one of the big pulls for the freelance developers we reached out to. But what came out of the hackathon was more than I ever expected.

We had four clear, internal goals for the hackathon:

  1. Build developer awareness for Merge
  2. Test out prospective new team members
  3. Increase the number of applications for the Merge platform
  4. Have fun

We hit on all four of these goals throughout and after the hackathon.

If you’ve never been part of or seen a hackathon, they are a sight to see…if you know what the hell is going on of course. The teams are given a task. In our case, we asked the teams to develop unique applications for the Merge platform whether that be on the mobile or desktop side. They layout an idea for the application using the team members’ expertise and then create at least a limited viable product to use on the device.

Jasper and I acted as judges and ongoing resources for the teams who had questions about the platform as they went about their work. But for the most part the teams are on their own. We even restricted the teams’ ability to leave our offices for product security reasons, plus, it was fun to see how the teams would interact when they’re in close quarters without a shower for 48 hours.

We held designated breaks to play games, chill out with a beer, and of course sleep when the participants needed it. During the hackathon I began making notes on those developers who were impressing me with their questions or enthusiasm in order to see if they would be a good addition to the Merge team. I can find great developers all around the world and now that we have a ton of funding we can pay them to come here, but they need to fit in with our team. Finding someone who fits our young culture is much more important right now than their skill level. Especially, at the positions we are hiring for.

There was this one guy, Anthony, who impressed me. Not Tony, Anthony. He corrected anyone on his team if they tried to shorten his name. It made me laugh every time. Anthony works for a huge tech firm in town. He leads with energy, ideas, and from what I saw at the end of the hackathon, he also has ample amounts of follow through. He’d make an excellent addition to Heather’s skill set.

Anthony’s team ended up winning with not just one application, but seven. What blew me away the most was that his team created a processor governor to limit the usage of desktop background apps while the mobile version is being used. This not only improved the overall efficiency of the device’s battery life by 13%, it also increased the speed of key applications like our email and messaging hub.

Impressive. Well worth more than the prize money and it wouldn’t have happened without the hackathon.

Song of the Week: Passion Pit – Lifted Up (1985)

Next Post – #19: China Calling

Previous Post – #17: Done Isn’t Always Better Than Perfect – An Interview with Jasper


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