This past weekend I had the privilege of representing Redfin as a mentor at the PennApps 48-hour hackathon at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. In addition to having sponsors help cover the cost of the event, PennApps invited companies to send along representatives to help answer questions that students might have during the competition. Most mentors were fairly technical, but there were a handful of non-technical mentors on hand as well to answer questions about the product and business side of things.
For this hackathon, teams of students came from prestigious universities near and far to create something awesome and compete for thousands of dollars worth of prizes. The event kicked off with a short presentation by the chief data guy of the city of Philadelphia, and then a number of sponsors presented their APIs and encouraged students to consider them when designing their projects. A few of the sponsors also offered a little bit of extra encouragement: additional prizes awarded for the best use of their API. It was easy to tell from the presentations that some of the presenters do this kind of thing a *lot*. For instance, the demo from SendGrid involved creating a survey website in node.js that collected incoming emails that students sent during the presentation and grouping them by subject and displaying responses in a bar graph that updated in real time. In the same vein, Twilio’s demo involved the audience sending text messages to a phone number the presenter purchased on the spot, displaying those text messages, and then calling the numbers back and playing a song over the phone. What made these demos even more impressive was that they were actually writing (some) code in front of the audience. And they only had a five minute slot for presentations. Crazy! In addition to presentations by a host of smaller companies, there were also the list of “usual” suspects including Facebook, Dropbox, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Tumblr who provided prizes and mentorship to the students. After the API demos, dinner was served, and participants headed to the building where the hacking was to take place.
The photo of the hall during presentations does some justice to the scale of the event, but the photos of hackers working most accurately describe the feel. There were over 300 students participating, and they completely filled the hacking arena. They were in hallways, in lounge chairs, and on the grass outside. They were playing frisbee on the lawn outside at 3 AM. Some teams with Penn students were even hacking in dorm rooms and computer labs to avoid the crowded hall where most of the hackers congregated. The energy of the event was unreal. Penn students coming home late stopped to stare through the windows at all the hackers doing their thing. I’m not going to lie – the sight of everybody hunched over their computers late into the night made me wish that I were still in college so I could participate in the next one!
I’d like to raise a virtual toast to everyone involved in running PennApps for putting on such an awesome hackathon. Sweet prizes and dedicated hack space notwithstanding, I’m really impressed that all the participants were kept fed and caffeinated all weekend – that’s quite a feat! And somehow you all managed to stay pretty cool amidst the chaos. Well done!
Thanks again for an amazing weekend!
And if you’re still reading and interested in additional reading…
(disclaimer: Redfin doesn’t necessarily use internally or have any relationships whatsoever with the APIs or companies listed. They just had really sweet demos and it seemed appropriate to give them a shout out for it)