(The above image is a screen grab of a video posted by ViaSat on YouTube)
When I first heard the word “hackathon“, I thought about a scene from the movie The Social Network where a group of young web developers compete against each other in an alcohol-infused contest to be a part of the Facebook team. This past summer, I took part in the ViaSat Summer Hackathon at the home office in Carlsbad, California. I was part of one of the teams from the Denver, Colorado office. In less that 30 hours, Jasmine, Kyra, Manthan, and I (I’m the gray-haired guy in the blue shirt listening to my teammate’s insights in the image above) put together a prototype website specifically designed to offer interns resources (housing, social activities, shopping, etc.) when they move to a new location for an internship.
In that 30-hour period, I witnessed the remarkable collaborative efforts of not only my team members, but also of the other interns brainstorming nonstop in that campus building. There were bleary-eyed people writing lines of HTML code for hours. Some were building remote-controlled robots and testing them in the corridors. Conference room whiteboards were filled with new ideas and makeshift diagrams. Senior ViaSat leaders would come by and offer suggestions to us about our projects. Not having an extensive web development background myself, I offered my team creative suggestions on what content (public domain and Creative Commons images from WikiMedia, Pixabay, etc) we could incorporate in the front end of the website. Fortunately, it wasn’t all work and no play. There was a BBQ dinner where we all had a chance to chat with ViaSat CEO Mark Dankberg, a table constantly full of highly caffeine beverages and fast food (including In-n-Out burgers), and a trip to a local Carlsbad beach complete with surfboards, s’mores, and a bonfire.
I can’t say I learned a lot of about HTML coding during that time, but the experience gave me some insight into the potential benefits of hackathons. Often times, a hackathon is less about a website or an invention but more about the potential benefits of an new idea. There have been hackathons tackling topics such as homelessness, social injustice, and renewable energy. In addition, hackathons teach people important interpersonal skills and collaboration techniques. Personally, I found out that a middle-aged Gen Xer like myself has something to contribute to team members 20 years younger than myself. Then again, no amount of free Red Bull will keep me from getting a little more sleep!