5 tips to winning a hack-a-thon competition

August 7, 2009

On July 31st, a group of Singularity University students and I decided to attend iPhoneDevCamp at Yahoo HQ – for an impromptu field trip. Our goal: to gain first-hand experience of the rapid pace of innovation in Silicon Valley. And maybe build a cool app to enter into the hack-a-thon competition. The result was an app called “Gettaround” (www.gettaround.com).


20,000 lines of code, 2 days, and just 4 hrs of sleep later, our app won the “Best Money Making App” category (sponsored by Mobclix) in the hack-a-thon. Here is a short clip of our presentation for the judges:

Here are some members of our very talented development team:

Team Getaround
Charles Du (Me) Product Manager
Elliot KrooDeveloper
Anand GuptaDeveloper
John VargheseDeveloper

Our team also included Jonah Williams (not pictured)

The talent and experience of our development team was a strong factor in our success. But I’d like to share what I believe to be five additional key factors to our success that are independent of the development team. Factors that are more dependent on preparation, passion, and environmental awareness – that any team can repeat with little or no cost at the next hack-a-thon.

1. Prepare to recruit the rockstar developers in the room

Talent makes or breaks any project. Even with the best idea, the lack of talent to implement would kill it. Out of the 500 developers, product managers, and marketers that attended iPhoneDevCamp that weekend, we had to find four rockstar developers who are passionate enough about the “get-around project” and could put it together in one weekend. And to say that recruiting, filtering, and motivating talent is hard would be an incredible understatement. Ask any CEO in Silicon Valley…

How we did it? Two days before iPhoneDevCamp, we created a developer recruitment plan, and assembled a “GO Team” to execute. Two great members of the group – Jessica Scorpio and Bentley Turner – stepped up as recruiters. I coached them through what to look for in a rockstar iPhone developer, and we practiced possible dialogue scenarios including which ‘tough’ questions to ask. In typical last-minute fashion before iPhoneDevCamp, we designed and custom-printed three green American Apparel T’s. (Mine read: “Rockstar Product Manager,” and Jessica and Bentley’s read “Wanted: Rockstar Developers”).

Recruiting Team

The result was a marketing and recruiting team, dressed in “get-around green,” who are fluent in Map Kit, augmented reality, JSON, and Cocoa Touch lingo. At iPhoneDevCamp, we also posted flyers with our contact information in highly trafficked places to broadcast our message – develop with your fellow rockstars. Within minutes, we received dozens of text messages indicating interest for our project.

Through the evening, our team spoke with more than 200 people. In the end, we found four rockstar developers that were definitely some of the best in the world, and also a joy to work with.

2. Be the Vision. Bring the UI.

The idea for the app was hashed a couple of days before iPhoneDevCamp. Once the decision was made to attend iPhoneDevCamp, we worked with Sofya Yampolsky, a very talented SU student on the graphic design. (She also did a fantastic job of polishing up the UI during the hack-a-thon).

UI concept before dev cam

This saved us a LOT of up-front time. Armed with the UIs and a solid vision for the app, with the entire team in pitch mode, it was quicker sell for recruitment.

3. Talk about code ownership before any major design is done

Nearly all of the weekend was going to be spent creating valuable code, so it was extremely important to agree on the ground rules on how to use that code. We ended up deciding that all of us (developers and product manager) would be able to access and reuse the code, but not open it up for other parties. By agreeing on these ground rules, we were able to focus on developing the product without the risk of arguing over who owns what and how at the end of the competition.

4. Have a backup location with Internet access ready

The facilities at iPhoneDevCamp closed at 11pm every night. Of course there was no way we could let this limit our productivity. We entered iPhoneDevCamp with two backup facilities for late night development. After iPhoneDevCamp closed on Saturday night, we moved the dev team to the SU students’ residence and worked until all four developers’ code was successfully merged, and the UI was completely finished (all buttons and graphics PNGed). Final end time on Saturday – 4AM Sunday!

5. Present in video instead of a live demo (if possible)

We started off on Sunday (final day) with a lot of uncertainty. We succeeded in merging the code of four people, but had not finished the views yet – no transition was done. Our team seemed to be looking into the jaws of defeat. (I’m pretty sure we weren’t the only ones, because every team that we talked to was trying to buy more time or present last).

Every team faced the intense pressure of needing to prepare and present on a product that wasn’t fully baked. And, we all had just 3 minutes to present. The lifesaver for us was our presentation style. Most teams decided to do a live demo, but we decided to demonstrate our product in an edited video. Through the video, we could fully share our vision for the app and tell a story that the judges could connect to (especially with the iPhone commercial music in the background). More importantly, the video gave us the control we needed to keep it under 3 minutes.

Because our team was finishing views and transitions in real time, editing our presentation video was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had. As soon as someone from our team finished a view, I recorded a clip and edited it. I shot and edited in real time. But, by 2pm (deadline to enter), we were only 70% done connecting our views to our controller. All we could do was hope that we were picked later so we could finish. As teams went up and presented, we blocked them out and kept working. I was impressed by the focus of the team, given the seemingly insurmountable time pressure. When we were finally called on to present, I was literally exporting the video file with running battery red on my Macbook Pro! It doesn’t get much closer than that for a finish!

I’ll close this post by saying that winning the hack-a-thon with such great people was one of the coolest experiences of my life. Shoutouts and congratulations to our 4 rock star developers: Elliot Kroo, Anand Gupta, Jonah Williams, John Varghese, and to the supporting cast: VJ Anma, Jessica Scorpio, Sam Zaid, Bentley Turner, Sofya Yampolsky, Miguel Elasmar, Gregor Hanuschak, and Sarah Sclarsic.

Looking back, I’m still amazed at what you can accomplish in one weekend. With a vision, a plan, and a great team, anything is possible.

Good job with iPhoneDevCamp