This past weekend, I had the awesome opportunity of attending Hack The North and I've got to say it was quite a memorable experience.
Here is how it all went down and what I learned from it.
The Calm Before The Storm
I applied on my own, so once I got accepted it was up to me to join a team. Thankfully, the HTN staff set up a Slack account for the participants to chat and within a few hours I managed to find a team that made sense for me.
The team consisted of myself, one UW systems design engineer, one UW CS student, and an electrical eng / CS student from Purdue. After we pitched each other our ideas we narrowed our HTN project to either:
- A marketplace dedicated to local book stores to place their books online so as to compete with Amazon's easy-to-use online marketplace.
- An open source collaboration platform that connects experienced developers with Non profit organizations looking to create technologies.
After a week of more research on both of these projects, we came to the conclusion that the feasibility of the local retail online marketplace was quite challenging and also that judges my not be wowed by the hack.
So it was decided, we would be creating an collaboration platform to bridge the technology gap for non-profit organizations.
The application would be coded using Ruby / RoR and PostgreSQL, none of which I had ever used. So that in and of itself was quite a learning experience to get set up before HTN.
I got a taste for how Ruby works and how it manages databases. This was pretty cool because the only back end experience I have is with GUI's (i.e PHP MyAdmin) as well as Firebase.
The hackathon began on September 18 and ended on September 20.
I had been to hackathons (i.e. Startup Weekend, Local Hack Day) before but HTN has definitely been the most intense and serious of them thus far, mainly because 90% or more of the demographic was actual engineers / techies who had incredibly refined domain knowledge. What I really enjoyed about HTN compared to one like Startup Weekend is that judging was not based on the actual marketability of these products - it was simply about making cool things (or at least that's how it was promoted).
Hack The North was based out of University of Waterloo's E5 futuristic and huge building (the size was necessary as there were over one thousand hackers from around the world).
E5 rendering. source.
note: I just realized that the above image is acually a rendering of the up-and-coming E7 ... but E5 looks identical and they're right beside each other. YOLO.
There was also an unbelievable amount of free stuff being given away all weekend. There were so many sponsors and without them, surely the event would not have gone as smooth as it did.
Participants began arriving around 6pm. Between then and midnight there were some awesome presentations and a grand opening ceremony with guest speakers from Y Combinator and other renown institutions.
Chris Hadfield had some awesome words to say before the hackathon
Let The Games Begin!
We began hacking around midnight on the 18th and knew that this hack had a great shot of winning many prizes. We all knew what our tasks were:
- Myself and the Systems Design engineer would create the user interface
- The CS student would ensure all API's are working properly
- Our back end hacker would ... err .. hack the back end
After 14 hours or so we had set up the back end architecture and were starting to test the user interface based on that architecture. Having decent knowledge of the MVC philosophy helped significantly as the front end we were creating had to adhere to this structure.
After 36 gruelling hours we created (H)openSource and although somewhat buggy, we're quite proud of what we created over the weekend. The back end architecture is probably the most impressive thing, but the nature of that accomplishment means that you can't really see it visually (but it is on GitHub!). Full Credit goes to Austin who actually devised the back end on his own over the weekend.
I found our Git commit messages to be quite ... descriptive
We didn't make it to the judging finals, but we had a blast anyways, and I surely learned a hell of a lot (which is why I'm there in the first place). Just a few days later, we found out we won best app using Moxtra's API, so that was pretty cool.
Thanks to Moxtra for their awesome collaboration tool!
Go To Hackathons
All in all, HTN was amazing and it seems likely that I'll be going to a few more hackathons before I graduate.
If you're on the fence about them, just go and see for yourself. It doesn't matter how much you know or don't know. In fact, the Hack The North staff were quite lenient on those applicants who lacked some skills because they want people to learn more about technology. From personal experience: I always come out with new ambitions, ideas, and friends (although admittedly at the expense of many hours of sleep), and who doesn't want that?
Here are my teammates' GitHubs: