My first hackathon experience was the first Marcato hackathon in 2014. At the time, I was seventeen years old, and the youngest person there. I went in not knowing what I was going to make or how I was going to do get it done within two days. At this point in my life, I was working on a 3D game built with Java, but most of my time went to balancing high school with recording my own music. The goal I had in the back of my mind for this hackathon was to make something simple and useful.

I really enjoyed being in an environment where I there were so many other coders like me in one space. But also, I have to admit I felt totally in over my head. I didn’t know anyone there! At the time, I was super quiet and even more introverted than I am today. It just felt like everyone had much more experience than me, and it was overwhelming. So I kept to myself and observed from a distance. Baby steps.

The guy who was sitting in the spot next to me probably noticed that I didn’t know anyone, and he chatted with me about programming languages and tools. At school, I didn’t know anyone else who was nearly as interested in programming as me. So it was a great experience having someone else with the same hobbies to talk to. This is why more kids need to get into programming at an early age!

days[0]; // coming up with an idea.

I spent most of the first day playing around with Java and just trying to come up with something to build. I got started with the Twitter API because I was comfortable with it. Before the hackathon, I had used it to build a simple program that would help me find potential fans for my music, based on the followers of similar artists.

While I was trying to figure out what to build with the Twitter API, I decided to check out JavaFX and it seemed like a pretty cool way to build user interfaces. I noticed it had a chart/graphing library built in so I played around with that and got the idea to use it to display some sort of data that gets pulled from Twitter. Boom, Tweetographics was born.

Tweetographics was a simple program that lets you view the geographical demographics of a Twitter search. I started trying to pull the geolocational information from the Twitter user’s profiles but that provided to be too imprecise as users would enter inconsistent information (example: “My Room”, “Mordor”). I knew that Google Maps sanitizes all this information and corrects it when you type a location name into their site, so I checked out their API to see if it could handle this for me, which it could! I added it to the chain of APIs I was using my program was starting to look like something useful. Perfect!

days[1]; // presenting it.

By the end of the first day I had a working demo. I spent most of the second day tidying it up and adding different chart types. I also chatted with the CTO of Marcato, Morgan, and I showed him my game I was working on. Showing what I was working on to something with experience gave me a boost of confidence because I really didn’t show too many people what I was working on at this point.

Then it came time to present. Oh man. I hadn’t ever presented my programming stuff to a room full of people before. I almost backed out, but finally worked through the anxiety, and got up and got it done. It went better than I expected. Once I got up in front of everyone, the anxiety just kind of disappeared. The hardest part was working up the courage to stand up in the first place.

days.slice(2); // every day after.

Those two days definitely marked a milestone where I started spending more and more time coding with a different outlook than I had before. I started taking it more seriously and changed from my idea of going into music production as a career, to computer programming.

Not long after that, I picked up PHP and started taking a closer look at web development because it’s the most streamlined way of getting software to another person’s computer letting them use it. I wanted to start building things that other people could use, rather than just building things for myself.

Hackathons; what are they?

Hackathons

noun, informal

  1. an event, typically lasting several days, in which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming.
  2. “a series of 48-hour hackathons to build new web and mobile services”

They’re these cool events where nerds unite to compete in programming competitions. In other words, something every programmer needs to try at least once. I’ve participated in two hackathons, both hosted by UIT. I attended the 2016 Halloween event and another that didn’t really have a theme, but was more fun.

The Halloween event was teams of three. I was paired with Spencer and Bobby and we made a timer that counts down from the time you input and plays a scary sound when the timer hit zero. Obviously, it was designed to be hidden on an unsuspecting victim’s computer to catch them off guard. The team that won made a spooky trivia game that would scare you if you got the answer wrong.

More recently, we had a smaller hackathon where the class was divided into two teams of three, and we had four days to come up with any project that required us to learn something new. My team was with Spencer and Riley. I learned to use Python to make a Reddit bot that went around subreddits replying to certain trigger words with a random Chuck Norris joke from the ICNDB. That account got banned from a ton of subs, got less than -100 comment karma, and was reported ten times on /r/spam. I would link to the bot but people have replied to it with death threats directed at whoever made it. People didn’t seem to appreciate my art for some reason.

How can I spam Reddit without people realizing?

hackathons

reddit loves cats.

I decided to try a new method to shamelessly grab karma, so I set up a new bot to go in /r/CatsStandingUp. In this sub, every comment is just the word “Cat.”, so all the bot does is reply with the same message. This bot has received over 1,500 upvotes and no reports on /r/spam as of May 22nd.  Spencer made a variation of my bot that would grab comments with the word “banana” to reply with Rob in his banana suit. The other team made Wump. A Wikipedia article summarizer that writes in the style of Trump tweets. It’s awesome and they won, but our’s was definitely cooler (not really).

Hackathons are a great way to practice and learn coding. They also get people talking, which can be a problem for a group of nerds. If you have any interest in coding, I can’t recommend it enough just to get out there and try. It’s more fun than you’d think. 

Startup Stuff

A demonstration of what BidSquid’s layout looks like

After the Christmas break, I teamed up with Dave Hachey, a fellow UIT student, to work on the technical side of his startup idea. The idea is a two-sided market for locally produced commodities. Typical markets such as Kijiji only show you one side of the market: the sellers. This idea allows you to view and be a part of both the supply, and the demand. Think of it like a stock market, but totally relative to your location, and for local goods and services (for example apples, firewood, or plumbers for hire).

Submit a bid, asking for a good or service, and name your price. The higher you’re willing to pay, the more likely a potential seller will be willing to contact you. Submit an offer, offering up a good or service, and again, name your price. In this case, the lower you’re willing to sell for will be what attracts potential buyers to your listing.

I signed on as the technical co-founder, to help bring this idea to life. I’ve heard it before, that you need one person with the industry experience, and one person with the technical know-how to make this type of idea work. Dave has the many years of working in the stock market as well as operating a small farm, and I have the passion and drive to build a platform like this. Together, we’re building BidSquid – you can see the simple landing page I’ve put together, which is live today!

Communications Stuff

Another thing that’s gone on at UIT is the communication classes, taught by Ian McNeil. We’ve covered public speaking, dealing with the media, and interviews. There was a lot of really solid advice jam-packed into two months, and I’ve already had the chance to use what we learned in the real world.

Just the other day I was on CBC radio with Mike Targett, to talk about my experience at hackathons, to promote UIT’s hackathon they just had (which I unfortunately missed!). I had the chance to make use of some of the interview tactics I learned in Ian’s class, and there are definitely going to be a lot many more. From doing interviews on radio to just dealing with answering questions in everyday life, I feel like it will be a long-term improvement to how to better answer and ask questions.

Business Stuff

I was always a coder, and I always will be. I always pictured myself working at another company, writing code. But looking back, I think deep down I always wanted to do my own thing. In fact, you can actually still see the website for my ‘company’ I had when I was maybe 13 or 14 years old, called OxygenSoft.

I can’t see myself being some kind of business guru one day, and I know that my domain is in the technical side of things. But as a coder I always preferred to build something from the ground up, rather than starting off from something that’s already established. I always felt more acquainted with the code and the product itself by the time it was working. And I think it’s almost the same way for entrepreneurs – rather than starting off working at a company somewhere, it’s the want to build something from nothing.