As hundreds of hackers flood into the San Francisco Design Center on Saturday, September 7, for TechCrunch Disrupt, the mood is oddly calm, jovial, even.
No one is in too much of a hurry to start hacking with every fiber of their being, as you typically see at beginning and very end, of most hackathon events.
Most instead, and arguably smartly, take the time to meet their new group of 1,000ish "roommates" for the next 24 hours, eat a little lunch, meet the sponsors while snagging free shirts and hackathon SWAG from every corner of the event center.
And after taking in a few API workshops from sponsors including Chevrolet, Dropbox and Evernote, most settle in around 3pm to begin their now 20+ hour quest toward hacker greatness at the annual mecca of global hackathons - TechCrunch’s #HackDisrupt San Francisco.
My team decided almost a year ago this was an event we wanted to attend and compete in, knowing it would put our skills up against the best of the best in the world of technology and design.
This type of competition is the sort we don’t necessarily see every day in the travel industry – not to say it isn’t there in pockets, but the challenges competitively we would face by putting ourselves up against the best hackers of any industry, from any country, was the intentional goal.
And that’s exactly what we experienced - more than 1,000 hackers comprising 263 teams representing just as many international hacker hubs from countries such as Korea, China and Australia as those from the US.
Out of those 263, only 10 of the hacks were related to travel, which was somewhat surprising but ultimately awesome as we mixed it up for a weekend with some of the most creative, talented coders on the planet.
Follow along below for our 48-hour adventure and see exactly why hackathons – from the behemoth of them all, TechCrunch Disrupt to industry-specific events like Tnooz’s THack, – are so incredibly challenging, inspiring and unforgettable.
Enter San Francisco Design Center with 1,000+ hackers and 263 teams to eat lunch, network, attend API workshops and plan your hackathon kick-off at 1:30pm
The crucial decision of where to setup camp for the next 24 hours is made… a cozy corner near the restrooms and as close to the wifi router as you can possibly get. This, we later learn, is a pointless effort as wifi drop-offs throughout the night are relatively frequent for everyone.
We also setup a homebase for our team mascot, @TravelChewy, who turns out to be the best networker at the event of any of us.
The first of many stand-up meetings with our team of six covering what each person has worked on in the past hour, along with what is up next.
Mark McSpadden, my director of technology for Sabre Labs, is working on dev ops setup, while the rest of our team is furiously laying groundwork for the next 20+ hours for each of their respective areas of responsibility… from setting up Rails scaffolding and image servers to putting the responsive design structure in place.
…All until the wifi crashes for the first of many times throughout the hackathon.
Our hack is named “300Feet” and will deliver near real-time aerial intelligence to optimize weekend travel plans in a city like San Francisco.
To make this possible, we have joined forces with a team of aeronautical engineers and founders of Airphrame, an aerial intelligence startup that deploys fleets of small scale drones to capture image data and 3D models for commercial use.
Applying technology and data from drones to the travel industry felt like an obvious, yet untapped opportunity to-date.
So, we tap it.
Bret, Airphrame’s CEO and co-founder, is busy coordinating with some of his teammates offsite. At that time, they are busy flying drones around San Francisco capturing real-time images of local hotspots such as Marina Green, home of the 2013 America’s Cup this same weekend. These images are ultimately used in our hack.
Time quickly starts flying by… faster than expected. Around 4 p.m. we decide hourly stand-ups will become every hour-and-a-half standups.
Home page is already up and running, both the mobile version and web. Now, Maegan, our front-end developer, is busy figuring out how both will work together responsively.
Barrett is busy working his magic on the Rails back-end, while I am 'busy' writing the initial version of our 60 second pitch… A pitch I will learn 20 hours later will turn into the bain of my existence as I start editing version 23 around 9am.
Philip, our lead UX designer, finishes designing a couple of the internal pages… and also manages to kick a chair, which he asks me to take note is 'not a great idea' while wearing flip-flops.
Davis, one of our back-end developers, successfully gets the app to hit our server and pull dummy test images.
The next 90 minutes are spent trying to execute a front-to-back pass through of data. The goal is to have that completed in time for the 7:30pm stand-up.
The time the front-to-back passthrough is actually completed.
From here things start to get a little fuzzy…
Sometime around 2:00am:
We decide Mark should give the pitch. Hackers should pitch at hackathons – bottom line. And, we walk through the first working version of the app via mobile web at 300Feet.com.
Six hours later/8:00am:
Approximately 90 minutes before final code submissions are due, we notice a small bug with the map rendering properly on each screen.
This is the moment when the ability of any team either breaks loudly, or shines brightly.
Our sleep-deprived group knows the maps not working will kill any chance we have to be in the competitive mix… so they go noticeably silent, and do what they are best at… rise to the occasion when the pressure is on.
Mark begins the process of completely switching out the Map APIs, knowing he has now 80 minutes to teach himself how to implement a completely new API via documentation, actually implement it, test, put it into production and finally submit the final version of the app, all before our 9:30am deadline.
Just as Mark is about to begin implementing the back-up solution, Barrett finds and fixes the bug. All is right with the world.
And then we press SUBMIT.
Immediately we go into turbo mode refining and practicing the pitch with a very sleep-deprived, yet still incredibly eloquent Mark.
We draw pitch number #178 out of 263 teams, meaning it will be a few hours before we actually go on stage.
#HackDisrupt pitches begin in front of nearly 2,000 hackers and attendees in-person, as well as nearly 5,000 more watching the live stream of the event online.
Mark’s inevitable yawns slowly begin… and so we do what any team should do - feed him five-hour energy and sugar-filled snacks, hoping the crash doesn't come before they call #178.
The audience has just been blown away by a nine year old female coding prodigy, a hack that turns into a John Denver singalong and an offensive pitch that leads to an anti-TechCrunch Twitter firestorm of drama.
Finally, it is our time to show and tell.
As Mark and Bret take the stage, I watch anxiously as the judges perk up and pay attention. This is success, regardless of anything that comes next.
Mark needs just a few more seconds to round out what I – being completely biased – can say is an awesome pitch.
But, what follows the pitch turns out to be more valuable than any score judges award to our team.
Being officially TechCrunched!
What 260 'Losing Teams' Like Ours Learned That Weekend
We didn’t place in the top three. And for that matter, we might have come in dead last for all we know. It’s top three, and everyone else. All 260 teams of us.
But what we learned coming out of this experience was that the hands-on knowledge, unrivaled by any of our experiences prior, of our team’s ability to work under extreme pressure, against the fiercest technical talent in the world, on an incredibly challenging project… that ultimately required collaboration with a brand new startup-turned-partner who had never before worked on any project related to travel… all of that, was priceless.
And that is why I highly encourage anyone reading this to take advantage of the same at events just like THack.
By participating at events such as #HackDisrupt, the Launch Hackathon, and even more importantly industry-specific events such as THack, we can all compete for something much more valuable than cash prizes or hacker pride.
Instead, we push each other to ultimately deliver a truly better experience for travelers. And that’s more valuable than anything those of us with a passion for this industry could ever achieve or deliver.
So… on that note… here’s to travel hackers everywhere.
NB: Entrance, chewy and audience images via TechCrunch on Flickr.