Failing at a Hackathon
I am sharing a story of when I failed. To show I’m not super-human, all the time.
This failure follows a previous failure and I share how I failed at a hackathon, specifically, the NASA SpaceApps hackathon 2013.
Failing is not the end of the world, even when getting up in front of a whole group and saying nothing. I didn’t die, you won’t either.
This article will take about nine minutes to read.
This story coincides with a previous failure story. Learning that I wasn’t really into a role I was not 100% into.
I had to ask: what was I into? What did I want to do with the rest of my life??
One thing I did know, I used to program for a living and at that time, the tech scene was growing. Let’s see if I can fall back on that.
I got out and attended programming meet-ups, every kind of meet-up. I even joined a new coder meet-up, Code Crew.
Even though I had experience as a programmer, I needed to figure out the current landscape. I didn’t work as a programmer where I was living and my programming experience in C wasn’t en vogue, as much as I hate to admit it.
At the Code Crew meet-up, the organizer talked about attending other events together, like hackathons. This was a great idea to go together, at least we wouldn’t feel so “alone” if we went together.
I found a hackathon that involved… NASA. The NASA SpaceApps Hackathon NASA and an organizing committee started hosting hackathons around the world. NYC was one of the host cities.
If you don’t know what a hackathon is, it’s about creating something new in a limited amount of time, usually a weekend, not breaking into a secure system.
With the event in place, organizer liked the idea and suggested to other members. Some people from the meet-up group were on-board and decided to attend as a group.
It was my first time at a hackathon and I did some research on the projects from the NASA SpaceApps hackathon challenges page. I had an idea since my wife was studying environmental engineering to do something related to that.
I had this idea to focus on pollution since there was weather data available to us and if we could analyze it, a cool hackathon project would “pop-out”.
Easy Peasy, right?
Pitching to Others
I used this preparation as a basis as a pitch to other people I met at the hackathon. At the same time, new people came in and asked what we were doing.
I was pitching this idea and new people started joining our project because it sounded cool.
At one point, we filled one of the largest rooms at the hackathon, over 20 people were there. We had a project manager, graphic designers, coders, etc. A larger team than most startups!
Hackathons: More than just Coding
While this was happening, there were other events that were going on at the hackathon. Sponsors were giving demonstrations and asking participants to use their technology, food events - lunch, dinner, snacks, etc.
It was a lot of fun. At the same time, everyone was meeting each other as well.
It was electrifying. There was something happening everywhere.
The event energy changed after dinner. Dinner was one of the last “food event” for the day of the hackathon. I was planning on going back as I originally promised my wife I would go home.
I felt it all around. People were packing up and shuffling out.
Before I left I started talking to the team about leaving and how to meet up again in the morning. One team member said they would not be going home. They didn’t live in NYC and were going to stay all night and would do what they could for the “project”.
Fight or Flight??
As the “leader” - I felt an obligation to stay as well. How could I expect someone to stay all night working on my project while I go home and sleep??
My original plan with my wife was to go home. Let’s say that when I called my wife to tell her I would stay all night with these strangers, she was less than happy, in fact the opposite of happy. Really far opposite…
I stayed with the new friends that decided to stay and kept working on something. Since we were so distracted by all the other events in the hackathon, we basically got nothing done.
Time to get to Work…?
When things quiet down and I looked at the data sets from the hackathon challenge page more, it was nuts. I couldn’t make left or right of the data.
I reached out and just decided: let’s focus on air quality. That was part of the data, easy to interpret and present to others.
Instead of hacking out a solution by “programming”, I was in… a spreadsheet, graphing out a description of the problem. Taking that graph and pasting it into a presentation for another team member to program.
Remember how I was pitching this idea to others at the beginning? The reality was nothing like what I was pitching, so far from it.
Countdown to Presentation
Each team had three minutes for their presentation with Q&A time from judges. Teams registered and when it was their time to present, they were no shows.
That made me more anxious - every person ahead of me gave me more time and every person would be more “competition”.
Run or Present??
I knew I had nothing to present. I just didn’t get anything done! Instead of running off, I stayed and presented. I had enough experience as a Toastmaster to know that stage fright won’t kill me.
At the same time, I didn’t want to let the team down by not presenting on something everyone slaved away.
Worst, imagine how my wife would have felt if I stayed out all night only to come back as if I didn’t present - the whole reason to stay out was to get a result!
When the MC called my team’s name, I went up and did whatever I had. I was running on no sleep and no results. Let’s do this.
I didn’t even get through all my slides in the time limit.
The judges were so kind when my time limit was up by asking leading questions on the next part of my presentation. Indirectly extending my presentation time.
When announcing prizes our team was never called. Part of me was hoping to hear our team, since so others were no-shows and lots of prizes.
No prizes at all. :-(
Alas, we did not even place in anything.
I felt like a total failure.
What did I Fail at?
The whole hackathon experience was a whirlwind for me. New event, new people, new process.
When I think about what did I fail at, I have to say the thing I failed at the most:
Not Delivering Results
The end result, I didn’t deliver anything I promised at the beginning of the hackathon. I felt I was just trying to get something going. Looking at my presentation, it was just vapor. I contributed zero code to the project. Hell, even the project manager contributed more than me, the shame!
How did I Fail?
It definitely stung presenting basically… hot air!
Looking back, I have to ask: “how did things go wrong?!”
- I had a great idea.
- I had lots of people.
- I put in the time and stayed overnight!
Two reasons summed into one sentence:
I over-promised and under-delivered
The worst of both worlds.
I started the hackathon saying I had a great idea from the little preparatory research I did and sold the idea as something I could do.
I had a little bit more information than others, by researching a bit, consulting with my wife. This made me look like I had a lot more information than they did.
I over-promised everyone a great project.
When it really came down to get the project done, I didn’t have the right programming skills for a hackathon. Sure, I could program anything, in C.
I didn’t have the right skills to ingest the “all new to me” data, process it, and make insights from it within a weekend.
There were people doing this as their full-time job and would have a hard time. How could I even hope to do it?
The result did not even match the promise.
I under-delivered on my promise. In a way, I didn’t even know what I promised!
Why did I Fail?
Understanding how I failed is easy. Let’s understand why I failed.
The idea of doing something related to NASA, like the space agency of putting someone on the moon, made me excited and increased my ambitions beyond my capabilities, especially I was basing my capabilities to ones that I had years ago, not the current capabilities in a new world of programming.
In a previous job, I coded out a whole video player in just C with my bare hands, the same hands writing this article.
If I could do that, I can do anything, right?!
You Don’t Know…
The adage of: “you don’t know what you don’t know” definitely applied here.
It was my first hackathon, ever. I didn’t even look at what past presentations were or even consider looking at what other hackathon pitches were like. I had no idea of the success metrics. I kinda took the idea at face value: hacking + marathon. So just keep programming and you’ll win, right?!
I did not know what I was getting myself into.
What did I Learn?
Even though the hackathon did not go in my favor, I learned that:
- my relationship to coding
- the value in staying overnight at a hackathon
- success metrics of a hackathon
As I was coming off another failure, I was looking for meaning for my life. Even though I did not do any coding at this hackathon, it taught me that I do want to program for my career.
At the same time, I could have bailed on the hackathon at anytime, especially after the last dinner or even right before presenting.
The fact that I saw the whole process through told me I wanted this more than I realize.
Hackathons are an interesting event. During the day, there’s so much going on that it’s hard to be productive.. The event mood changed after dinner. As things got later and later, things got quieter and quieter.
Those that stayed were different than those that left earlier. People came by and still asked what we were doing. Instead of looking for a group, they were just taking a break. Asking us how we were doing. Give ideas on solving problems we had.
I found those that stayed the night at a hackathon were the real coders while those that were only around for the day were the posers.
How will I Integrate these Learnings?
My immediate takeaways from this experience:
- Staying the whole night at a hackathon is a great way to meet real coders and to get a lot of work done without distractions of a hackathon
- Be open to changing situations - new ideas, new people, people leaving, pivoting
Why won’t this happen again?
Presenting a project that’s just “hot air” really stung. It’s an embarrassing feeling that I never want to have again. ever.
I didn’t die from the experience, it definitely felt like that in front of everyone.
The sting of failure is a great teacher. It’s a feedback mechanism and moving forward, I will always remember that feeling and look for ways to not be in the same situation again. Either by solving that problem first or mitigating it.
If I could do it all again?
What would I wish I knew if I did it all over again?
What got you here; won’t get you there.
When doing anything new, be open to new processes, not focused on delivering result. In this case, figuring out the result.
This is a small step in a bigger journey in the right direction for you.
No matter how bad you feel now, you won’t feel this bad again, and it won’t kill you.
My first hackathon experience was a total bomb. I recruited people into my team by over-promising on an idea I had no idea how to deliver. When I presented, I really had hot air and nothing to show for staying out all night.
I did learn how a hackathon works, the roles each participant plays in the whole hackathon event. Why staying overnight is important in meeting the right people.
Most importantly, I learned I enjoy coding and wanted to get better at it again.
If you want to see the presentation or video of my presentation contact me and I’ll send you a link!