At the end of last year, our division announced its first internal hackathon. Members of the Media and Marketing development team could form teams of two or go at it alone. In 33 hours, the teams were to code and present a working application that was somewhat related to our business. A six-member panel would judge the three minute demos and the winner would win an all-expense-paid-for trip to the Web 2.0 Expo.
A few ideas bounced around my head on what to hack on, but nothing stood out as something that would be useful. One day a friend posted on Facebook that they were taking a road trip soon and needed campground recommendations along the way. I knew that ReserveAmerica was part of our company and they are the go-to resource for all things campground related. They had the standard search tools for campgrounds but the tools didn't lend themselves to easily discovering campgrounds along a specific trip route. I knew they had an API we could tap into and a hackathon idea was born.
After brainstorming with a fellow developer, Chris Ferguson, we set out to develop a mashup of Google Maps and the ReserveAmerica Campground API. The app would allow a user to map a route between their destinations, search for campgrounds along the route, check campsite availability, give driving directions, and allow the user to share their trip. We knew that to get the app to a polished state for demo would be a lot of work, but with a little bit of caffeine and determination, it would be doable. On 12:01am on the day of the hackathon, we started hacking.
After nearly 33 hours of non-stop coding, we had a prototype to demo for the hackathon judging. Our presentation went well except for being over the limit with our Yelp API key. The people in the room seemed to like our idea and we were at least hopeful of being selected as the winner. There were other strong demos/apps presented by other teams and we knew the decision would be a tough one. After all of the demos, the judges began deliberations and came back with the winner.
Even though we weren't selected as the overall winner of the hackathon, there was definitely interest in putting our idea out as an actual product. Several demos were setup to show the app to the people over at ReserverAmerica and to the chiefs of the company. The app was well received and our GM put into our 2011 Q1 roadmap.
We have spent our latest sprint getting the app ready for production. We refactored a lot of code and removed things that were hardcoded in the night. We also ran into some use cases that we hadn't thought of during the hackathon. Although we had the app in a workable state for the hackathon, getting it ready for production deploy took quite a bit of work. The beta version of the site is avaiable now at trips.active.com. Please check it out and make sure you click on the Feedback tab to let us know what you think.
Here's a screencast of a walkthrough of the beta product:
Inspired by Yelp, Twitter, and Fred Wilson, we had our first annual Active.com (internal) hackathon last week. Through prodding, coaxing and bribery, we ended up with 20 teams vying for the title of "Best Hack". Teams could consist of no more than two, in part because I couldn't allocate the grand prize, a trip to the Web 2.0 Expo, to more than two. UX people paired with hardcore engineers. Web App Developers paired with Web App Developers. And some just went it alone.
The rules were strict. All code written had to be produced during the hackathon, which started at 12am PST on 16 December and ended at 9:45am PST on the 17th. Hackers were, however, allowed to use Active.com or open source libraries. Two very inventive teams, however, incorporated devices such as the Arduino into their hacks. This was a pleasantly unexpected outcome. And also to my surprise, many teams hacked for over 24 hours making good use of the time alloted.
As the clock winded down I prepared the meeting room for hackathon demos. I'd assembled a team of 6 high-ranking judges from various disciplines - VP of Technology, Vice President of my division, Senior Director of IT Operations, etc. This team would be responsible for determining the overall winner, as well as the winner of each category, which were Most Original, Best Execution, Most Business Potential, and Best Demo.
Each team had three minutes to demo, along with a 2 minute question/answer/transition session. Teams from China had begun hacking on their 16th of December and submitted screencasts for me to play during the demo. They, unfortunately, didn't get a question/answer session. The meeting room was packed with geeks and business folks alike. Our COO would later comment to me that he noticed a lot of laughter during the demos, but that people weren't laughing because what they were seeing was funny. They were laughing because what they were seeing was blowing them away.
At a minimum people walked away from this experience with a realization of just how creative software engineers can be. As one colleague puts it, in many ways, engineers are like artists. But instead of having a canvas, they have an IDE. And two of the ideas have already been inserted into our roadmap for next year, which is an awesome outcome.
Best Hack (Overall Winner)
Team Me - Rob Cameron
Rob created an RFID checkin system to get around the issue of a user needing a smartphone to check in to venues or events.
SF Here We Come - Marc Villanueva, Chris Ferguson
Marc and Chris created an RV route finder that uses Google Maps and the Active.com Camping API to show where you might park your RV on your cross country trip. They also integrated into the Yelp API to pull up a list of REIs along the route but hit their quota limit before doing the demo.
Team Tunes - Eugene Correia
Eugene integrated the last.fm API into our Active Trainer Beta to produce a song list for training plans.
Most Business Potential
Real Deal - Airey Baringer, Chris Smith
Airey and Chris built a prototype that showed how we might port Active.com event listings into Facebook in order to reach a broader audience in a more social way.
Team Sweden - Hakan Lindestaf
Hakan integrated a realtime notification service into an LED display for Active Golf.
We're conducting an internal hackathon at the end of the year. The aim is to give developers a chance to show off their programming skills and turn an idea into something concrete and demoable. Companies are increasingly adopting hackathons to change company culture and fuel innovation, and I think this would be a welcome and refreshing way to end the year. My feeling is we will be delighted by what our developers will come up with.
The Hackathon starts at 12am PST on Thursday, 16 December.
The Hackathon is also open to M+M China developers, who will hack on their 16th and 17th of December.
"Pre-hacking" is not allowed. All code must be written during the Hackathon with one exception -- open source and active network code libraries not explicitly developed for the Hackathon may be used in prototypes.
Hackers may form into teams of no more than 2. This allows for designers to pair up with developers or for developers who may not have an idea to nonetheless participate.
The Hackathon ends at 10am PST on Friday, 17 December.
Demos begin at 10:15am PST on Friday, 17 December.
Each team is given 3 minutes to demo their application to a panel of judges.
China-based hackers must submit a screencast of their demo to me by 10:15am on Friday, 17 December Beijing time (GMT + 8). We will then play the screencasts in front of the judges during the demo session in San Diego (10:15am GMT - 8).
Judges will use a point scoring system to determine the winner. The criteria are:
Potential Business Impact
The winning team will win a free trip to the Web 2.0 Expo (March 28 - 31 2011) in San Francisco with all expenses paid. If the winning team is China-based, Jean Su will be providing International tickets and visas.
Food and drink will be provided in the San Diego office during the Hackathon.