Contra Costa College - Intel - Student Code for Good Virual Hackathon '13 Behind the Scenes

For being something new to all of us, doing this Virtual Hackathon last weekend varied between going very smoothly and throwing problems at us that no one expected.  Just as everyone put a lot into hacking up project code, a lot went into making the Virtual Hackathon possible.

The two people who had the biggest part in getting things rolling to begin with were Paul Steinberg & Tom Murphy of Teach Parallel fame.  Paul has been a great friend to Contra Costa College's CS students, Tom has been a great teacher to all of us, and together they've both done a lot in giving up opportunities to get in touch with the larger world of computer science.

As the Virtual Hackathon transitioned from being an idea to being an event, some students who wanted to participate jumped in early to help organize and prepare in advance so that it would be as enjoyable and productive an experience as possible for all the participants.

Together as student organizers we talked to our fellow students about whether they wanted to participate, figured out who could provide locations for different groups within the hackathon, came up with plans for how to keep people fed (enormous props to Paul on this one for generously providing us with a budget for the food), and made sure the different groups kept in touch with each other throughout the three long and exciting days.

Here's what we used each step of the way in setting things up:

  • For figuring out who, what, where, and when, we made a registration form on Google Docs.  The questions covered names, contact info, preferences for what to code and what to eat, availability to participate, ability to provide a location for a team, and anything else someone wanted to add when signing up.
  • For setting up food delivery we used Safeway.com's online ordering option.  It made it easy for us to list out items and then pass the login on to Paul for checkout.
  • For checking in between teams during the Virtual Hackathon we used Google Hangouts to video chat regularly throughout the day.
  • And finally, we'll be using Github to organize our code in one place and make it easy for all the hackathoners to continue being a part in taking the projects we made from being a brainstorm of code in progress to being the apps we envision them as.

Team Goldilocks implementing server/client integration on Day 3.

And of course it wouldn't be a behind the scenes if you didn't also get to find out what went wrong (or very nearly did):

  • Finding places for all the teams to go got fairly hectic as the beginning of the Virtual Hackathon drew nearer.  Thankfully three generous hackathoners and their families ended up coming through in time to give everyone some advance notice of where to show up on the day of the event.
  • Food plans had a couple slip-ups which thankfully didn't amount to much.  On the first day a potluck lunch was planned but not very well advertised which left some scrambling for snacks to last until the first Safeway delivery that evening.  There were also some mixups on the Safeway orders when they ran out of stock on certain items.  Safeway also required about a day of advance notice in order to get a good delivery time, though for the lack of promptness it meant a lot more food to the dollar than we could've gotten from restaurant delivery.
  • The check-ins between groups at different houses were highly variable in how well they went.  Sometimes a group would be too deep in code to notice the time and join in.  Other times different groups would both try to start the check-in, creating confusion as to who should join which hangout.
  • There was also a large range of skill with the different toolsets that ended up being used in the projects.  Sometimes this meant someone leading the way on project code while others spent the time learning how things worked.  Thankfully this meant everyone learned a lot regardless of experience.

All in all, the Virtual Hackathon was a fantastic event and one that will likely be repeated.  Even now, teams are planning to get together again to continue working on the projects we started and see them forward to v1.0.

Team Mathius excitedly debugging physics collisions on Day 3.

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