This year as part of Digital Built Week North America (DTS, Data Day, BCS and BILT) there was a Hackathon, the DBEI Hackathon NA to be exact. I had always wanted to do a hackathon but had not had the chance. I was going to be at #DBWNA as a speaker so would already be in Seattle, seemed like a no brainer! Once it was decided that I would be taking part (thanks again IMAGINiT for sending me!) all that was left was to get on a team. The team came together easier than I thought it would as my fellow Simply Complex Podcast hosts all wanted in on the action, and would all be at BILT anyway: Jason Boehning, John Pierson, and Marcello Sgambelluri…so team “Hack in Black” was born! Well 4/5th of the team, we added our anchor teammate Adam Thomas of Read|Thomas fame on game day.
We spent our 2 days coming up with a Dynamo extension to help you better organize and search your existing Dynamo graphs. The result was “the DAM” which stands for Dynamo Asset Manager. We didn’t have a final product at the end, but we did have a working prototype to share as part of our presentation.
Now that we have the origin story of team “Hack in Black” let’s find out what I learned about Hackathons and why I think they are totally worth it.
First, and this is a big one, you do NOT have to be a programmer, coder, hacker or even have any computer science skills. Of course, it helps to have someone on your team that has some skills when it comes to programming, but not everyone needs those skills. In fact, teams that have a good mix of skill sets, in particular, those related to the hackathon theme (yes, they have themes, more on that later) tend to do best. Hackathons are also great places to improve whatever skills you do have in the programmer realm. There are always industry and theme experts on hand to help with any question you might have. Even though it is a competition for prizes (more on that later too) everyone is always willing to help people on other teams out and to share their knowledge with all. So, if not being a hacker has been holding you back from trying your luck at a Hackathon, don’t worry about it, and just do it!
The next thing I learned about hackathons was just how much of a great learning experience they are. Everyone is there to learn, try new things and have a good time while doing it. Think about it, when was the last time you had 2 days to basically work on R&D in a specific area with other likeminded induvial with pretty much no strings attached (there is still that theme thing I keep being up…more on that later). There are even hackathons that offer training or workshops before the hackathon starts. This was the case in many of the recent Autodesk hackathons, where a ½ day workshop on Dynamo and Project Refinery was offered the day before to help participations with the event theme of Generative Design.
This nicely segues into my next point, it is 100% okay to fail completely at what you are trying to achieve during the hackathon. Yes, hackathons are competitions, and yes there is a presentation at the end, but that doesn’t mean you have to have a successful “go to market” product after 24 hours (or whatever duration the hackathon happens to be). The truth is that as much if not more can be learned from begin able to test out an idea only to learn that it doesn’t work. Going through this “failure” process will be a learning experience that gives you closure, new knowledge and allows you to move forward on the problem with a new perspective. And as I said before when was the last time you got a couple of days to work on an idea at “the office” with no pressure that it might fail.
Another great thing about hackathons is the way they promote teamwork and comradery within the team, and the other teams you are competing against. Team “Hack in Black” had so much fun working together during our hackathon experience…some may even say a little too much fun.
I have put it off long enough, time to tell you the sad truth…the theme of the hackathon you are taking part in does in fact matter. The theme for the hackathon I took part in as part of “Hack in Black” was “Generative Design in Practice”, which is not a surprise as it was sponsored by Autodesk and HYPAR. Well it should seem pretty obvious that the hackathon theme is there for a reason, we in “Hack in Black” took a different approach to the theme during our event…meaning we didn’t follow it. I bring this up because it was pointed out during our project critique, and again during the awards ceremony that we chose to not do a project that was in line with the hackathon theme, and as such we could not win. The long and short of this is to say that if you are looking to win as part of your hackathon adventure you might want to seriously consider sticking to the event theme.
Speaking of winning I guess the cat is out of the bag that we “Hack in Black” did not win. But we did finish on the podium in second place, not too bad for 5 rebellious first timers. Which brings me to my last point before wrapping this post up. That point would be that prizes are not why we do hackathons, but they are a nice perk. For finishing in 2nd place all the team members got a $150 Amazon gift card, which all in all was the icing on the cake after 2 great days! I used my winnings to get a sweet portable 2nd monitor for my laptop, I don’t know how I got along without one before!
Hopefully, if you made it this far you now share my feelings on hackathons and believe they are worth doing, even if you aren’t a programmer extraordinaire. The first one can be scary, but it seems once you do one you want to do more…I know I do! In closing, I want to say one of the biggest things that I believe comes out of hackathons is shared knowledge. Along with the wide use of open source tools and platforms that are part of so many hackathons. In fact, we had put our source code for “the DAM” up on GitHub right after the hackathon. This means anyone that wants to play with it, or add to it, or change it and make something of their own are welcome to do so.
I will end with a gif to showcase what “the DAM” does. Which should give you an idea of what is possible in 2 short days when you spend it with a great team, in a great environment with zero expectations.