A Hackathon Is A Microcosm Of A Startup (Everyone Hacks!)


At my next hackathon, the biggest change I will make in my approach is to start with a more reasonable scope of project.

By Alyssa Ravasio (Student, Dev Bootcamp)

This weekend, I learned that a hackathon is a microcosm of a startup.

Initially, both are just ideas. As much as you want to build the next Google, success requires scoping out a realistic project and executing extremely well.

Then there’s the team. Recruiting great people is probably the most critical element in both hackathons and starting a company. Without the right people, nothing else matters.

Finally, hackathons and startups both create these extreme highs and lows that separate entrepreneurs from the people who are just intelligent and ambitious. It takes a strange type of human to charge into situations where the odds are heavily stacked against them with all the passion and energy they possess.

As a business person, I stayed away from hackathons because I didn’t understand the appeal of building a disposable product. But now that I’m on the development side, I see hackathons in a whole new light. As a beginning developer in Ruby on Rails, Javascript, and HTML/CSS, a hackathon is the perfect environment for intense learning.

The event opened with a series of lightening talks. GDI teacher Liz Howard encouraged us to reduce our idea into a smaller idea, and then choose one feature of that smaller idea to build. She called it the “less than the MVP.”

My pitch for a local community time-bank where you learn skills from your peers resulted in a genuinely awesome team. We selected Node.Js, Express.Js, and Bootstrap for our stack. Our first meeting turned into an electrifying product brainstorm. “Curriculum!” “Reviews!” “Machine learning recommendations!” Liz’s words were a distant echo as our brains buzzed with new ideas and visions of grandeur.

But the dawn of morning brought with it a harsh reality check. There was no way we could build all this in two days. We started slashing and burning features, simplifying our idea into something achievable. It felt like infanticide –these features barely had a chance to live! I kept a secret list of what we’d cut with ambitions to sneak the gutted features back in later.

Two amazing days later, this list had only grown. What had felt Spartan now seemed optimistic in hindsight. As I prepared my final pitch, I looked back on my naïve self only 48 hours earlier with fond nostalgia (ah, to be young and foolish).

There were moments this weekend when our entire product broke, including just a couple hours before final presentations. At one point we coded a full mockup, only to learn that the source file had been updated and our work was useless. What had seemed like a reasonable development timeline was rendered laughable by Javascript libraries, Git, Heroku, and various syncing issues.

But the setbacks were softened by an awesome team of recent strangers rapidly evolving into close friends. And the frustration paled in comparison to the ecstatic joy of seeing a figment of our imaginations morph into Skilljam, a real product in just 48 hours.

I’ll definitely be back.

Women 2.0 readers: What is your takeaway from attending hackathons? What would you tell a first-time participant at a hackathon?

About the guest blogger: Alyssa Ravasio is a student at Dev Bootcamp, the ten-week intensive programming course in Ruby on Rails. She graduated from UCLA where she created the individual major Digital Democracy so she could study how the Internet is changing the world. From the Internet policy at the US Department of State to multi-dimensional roles at early-stage startups, she is still learning. Follow her on Twitter at @alyraz.