PennApps: a postmortem

Hackathons have always been somewhat of an interesting thing for me. I willingly deprive myself of sleep for anytime between twelve to forty-eight hours to ship second-rate code. They’re figurative roller coasters of emotions, as the saying goes—from the initial excitement, to the long slog of misery through hour twenty, to the eventual relief upon its completion. On the surface, it sounds like I’m crazy for going to these things. And in truth, maybe I am, but so too are all the other similar-minded hackers at each successive hackathon I attend.

Before I discuss PennApps, I should first touch upon an entirely different event: LA Hacks. An up-and-coming hackathon on the other side of the United States, LA Hacks strives to be the Next Big Thing, attracting hackers from all over the west coast to make apps with real wow factor and meet recruiters. Leaving aside the logistics of the event, they also want to have an app in the same vein as the recent MHacks. Unfortunately, while that idea was proposed a while ago, no such system has yet come to light.

Anyway, back to PennApps. This was how I spent my Valentine’s Day: cooped up in a building with a thousand other CS nerds coding. Pennsylvania sure is cold this time of year.

I’m no newcomer to hackathons; my experience with them quickly taught me that my first few wins were flukes at best, and could be largely attributed to the quality of my teammates’ prowess rather than any amazing talent on my own part. But I never took them all that seriously, and this time was no different. My team (Daniel and Aman) and I decided to build a hackathon framework that could be easily extended to fit the needs of any event.

It should be fairly obvious by this point that this is the kind of framework events like LA Hacks (and indeed, even PennApps itself!) could use to really improve attendee experience as a whole. It would consist of multiple parts: a web interface (for advertising the event, chatting with mentors, etc.) and a set of mobile apps for pushing out updates and keeping attendees informed.

In the interest of time, we decided to use Phonegap to build the apps, while having a MongoDB backend since that is the Cool thing to do. And I quickly learned that while Phonegap sounds like the solution to everything on the surface, in reality it’s ridden with all sorts of problems that make it a less than ideal medium for any kind of shippable code.

But whatever, it’s a hackathon.

Fast forward a few hours and we finished it, having learned more than a little about Phonegap’s various quirks on the way. For me, this was more or less my first experience with various aspects of the MEAN stack. And, what’s more, the finished product actually performed fairly well—with some polish I think it could be a workable solution. The only thing I’d really do differently given more time is to make the apps native; after all, I didn’t learn Objective-C for nothing!

(By the way, the thing is called Hackgenda and you can check out the code for the app and the webpage).

It’s always a bit strange leaving a hackathon, from a world where high schoolers decked out in wearable tech is the norm to one where wearing Google Glass gets you branded a “glasshole.” Maybe part of that feeling is just due to lack of sleep—I think this is least I’ve ever slept at a hackathon, for better or for worse.

Probably for the worse, since shortly after the event’s conclusion, I hopped on board a shuttle and fell asleep, only to wake up later to find it was headed to Boston. Thankfully, I got the bus driver to let me off, called Uber, and got to the airport with time to spare. A real lifesaver, that service.

And then I fell asleep at my apartment and didn’t wake up in time to get classes.

Yeah, I really doubt I could do hackathons regularly—you can get burnt out so easily. But every once in a while it’s nice to just forget everything, go somewhere, and ship code. All the better if travel is reimbursed. It’s just the inevitable stepping back into reality, with all its duties and obligations, that’s the real problem. Stepping back into a world where coding for fun is weird.

As for Hackgenda? As I said, with more polish—and native implementations of the apps—it could (maybe?) take off. I wouldn’t be too optimistic, of course. It didn’t win anything, but hackathons are really more about wow factor rather than utility. As an Uncreative Person, I think utility is cool in and of itself. After all, I’d rather people use something I’ve made on a regular basis rather than look at it once and be somewhat impressed.

And in the end, really, that’s fine.

See you all at LA Hacks.


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