I was pleased to be asked by Intel's Bob Duffy to jaunt down to San Antonio last weekend for a 36-hour 'school's out' lock-in hackathon. SoHacks 2014 was held June 13 and 14 at Rackspace's extremely accommodating global headquarters, and supported by a veritable 'who's who' of sponsors... including, of course, Intel.
As a maker community leader in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, I've kept my eye on San Antonio's emerging maker and start-up scenes for some time. Even though there's been a great deal of fascinating news about both lately, I didn't know what to expect from this event. It was different from typical hackathons I've attended as it was geared entirely toward school-age participants. This required mentors like myself to undergo a basic background check, something I think is a good idea even (or especially) for mixed-age events.
I wasn't able to arrive at the beginning, and Bob asked if I could bring along a couple of others anyway, so I immediately turned to my talented friends Stephen and Stacy Wylie. Not only are they outstanding veteran hackathon mentors, but they've been highly successful with their own make-to-commercial venture, LEDGoes. More on that in a bit.
Upon entering the facility late Friday night I was blown away by the mob of orange-shirted participants. I had seen the 500+ registration number beforehand but it hadn't really sunk in. Just this amount alone is an indication of great organizer outreach. Hats off to the youthful but capable team of Apps for Aptitude, particularly Joshua Singer!
I quickly claimed my blue mentor shirt and dived in. We all presented our skill sets to attendees from a stage and started making the rounds. I was excited to see 3D printing going on, although I didn't get much of an opportunity to help with it. Most of the questions I answered had to do with Windows Phone.
Stephen and Stacy wound up heroes of the event. Their combined skills in Android, Windows and electronics development made them a real hit. I couldn't have asked for better team members, as evidenced by participant comments:
"Stephen is f#@king smart!""Stacy is realllllllly good at Android development""Randall is the nicest guy and so helpful"
There were certainly a few hardware projects, including a team that turned a LEDgoes array into a Tetris clone, but the majority of projects were software. We didn't get anyone trying Intel technology, unfortunately, and that was largely due to unfamiliarity-- most students had project plans going in, it seemed. Still, we did manage to contribute! In Stacy's own words:
I did the ideation and technical direction for the team with the Bluetooth spacial based alerts. I had them use the Bluetooth APIs to listen for the dB's of the radios connected and then knowing their class 2 radio capabilities, derive the distances not by feet but by generalization. Android has a way to gather this data using APIs. You just have to know that Bluetooth is an active protocol even in its ultra low power mode and acts similarly to cellular in its roaming (esp the roaming mesh in LE).
Also, I worked with many of those in the winners circle (just not that number one project or the Echoes app). Usually, it was fixing code or working with them on weird solutions to weird issues.
There's a challenge and opportunity for us Intel Software Innovators, to get word out in advance of hackathons so that potential participants know what we can offer beforehand. Many of the second place winners here owed their showing, at least in part, to guidance from Intel mentors.
None of the teams we supported won the top prizes, but they didn't seem to actually care. They all described plans to continue their projects after the hackathon, which to me is a real win. It's a sign that participants have been highly motivated by possibilities and not at all discouraged by failure to claim a trophy. Stephen is following up with the Tetris clone team, for example, to help them further develop their application and release it to open source. It's that sort of sustaining activity afterward that to me makes a hackathon truly successful.
Overall, this was one of the absolute best hackathons in which I've participated. It was a real joy to help these eager, enterprising students. I'm hopeful that the SoHacks model can be "franchised" and spread around the country. I can't think of a better way to give our students some exciting hands-on opportunities to express themselves. Thanks Intel for helping make this happen!