I saw the future of the Triangle tech scene last night. And the future is bright.
Hackathons aren’t new by any measure. They’ve existed for years at more progressive companies. Totally tooting my own horn here, but I won Automated Insights’ most recent hackathon back in November. And we nearly hired someone not too long ago who had multiple hackathon wins at CBS Sports.
Yes, that CBS Sports.
Note: This story is being offered free of charge for a limited time. WRALTechWire Insiders will have access to exclusive, selected content like this soon.
But the idea of a hacktahon that extends beyond the walls of a single company has only gone mainstream in the last couple years or so – and hardly at all here in the Triangle, at least formally.
The idea goes like this: Just as a company hackathon improves and energizes that company, a community-wide hackathon purports to improve and energize the entire technical community in that area. Actually anywhere within driving distance.
The American Underground Hackathon is a reincarnation of Durham Epic Hack Day, an all-day session held back in September and masterminded by a group that included Adam Klein, then an executive at the Durham Chamber, the American Underground (where Klein is now), and local startups Adzerk and Shoeboxed.
Adzerk founder James Avery served as organizer last time, having taken on the project in an effort to create a Startup Weekend type experience, but without all the pressure of starting and maintaining a company.
That little wrinkle allows for a broader pool of participants, drawing not only techies who want to be entrepreneurs, but those who are already entrepreneurs as well as those who couldn’t care less about being an entrepreneur but just want to spend a weekend working on something fun and exciting with awesome and talented coders.
Like the geek version of a punk rock band.
“A strong startup community starts with the hackers and engineers – not with MBAs and business plans,” said Avery. “Events like this are about building up that community.”
The Next Startups
Events like this also draw a younger, more technical, and frankly more idea-diverse group of kids. They’re more concerned with firing the rocket than protecting intellectual property. Whether they know it or not, these are our next generation of startups.
For this hackathon, the organizing was handled by the Kristian Bouw, CEO of local startup Thryv, which is in the current class of incubator Groundwork Labs. When Bouw recently moved here from DC, he was intent on replicating some of the startup and tech community cohesion that he found to be prevalent there. Most recently, he put on the Lean Startup Conference simulcast at the Underground in Durham back in December.
The hackathon was originally planned for later in March, but an opportunity came along to get the Startup Bus involved.
I know. I asked the same question.
There are six Startup Buses that travel from various cities to Austin annually for the South by Southwest mega-con. The buses become moving hackathons, and as the riders create new companies, the buses make various stops along the way. The first stop for the New York bus was to be in Durham in early March.
Because this is the Triangle, and not Silicon Valley, any chance to turn a story about startups into a bigger story about startups is a chance that should be taken. So with a little creative organizing, they moved the hackathon up to coincide with the arrival of Startup Bus, giving Bouw less than two weeks to put everything together — space covered, sponsors covered, meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and, of course, beer.
A Marathon – for the Young
When all was said and done, around 40 hackers, from high-schoolers to more experienced developers, shuffled into the large classroom at American Underground Saturday at 6 p.m. to get started. A few of the coders in the room were people I already knew from the startup scene. A very few.
Kacy Fortner, formerly of sponsor Adzerk and now of early-stage startup Archive Social, told me he’d slept until 3 p.m. to prepare for the all-night hack. He pitched an idea for a local shopping app (I’m purposely being vague about the ideas) that found a team.
“I look around the room and there’s a lot of people I don’t know,” he said. “Usually when I go somewhere I’m the youngest person in the room, so this is kind of cool.”
Sure, the crowd definitely skews younger when the words “code” and “all night” get together. There was also a vibe of inclusion. No one came prepared to go it alone or with a pre-planned team, and in fact everyone who pitched was looking for help in at least one area of expertise.
Winston Howes, whom I met when I was a judge at the Carolina Challenge last year, is a sophomore at UNC building his own startup, GoPhish. He pitched an idea that also earned a team, but he ended up working on something else, something that came out of conversation while getting to know some of the coders.
That’s the way this kind of thing goes.
Levin Brown is also at UNC, in the med school, in fact, but he knows enough Python to be dangerous. He lived in San Francisco for a while, and sees all kinds of hackathon benefits for the startup community.
“There’s tons of this kind of stuff going on out there,” Brown said. “It’s cool to see it happening in the hot spot in Durham.”
Brown pitched an app and he, too, found a team.
The group kept going overnight. When Avery and his kids brought bagels and doughnuts in the morning, he found people dozing in chairs and one kid laid out on the concrete getting a quick nap.
It’s a young person’s game.
Turns out almost all of the hackers stayed throughout the night and into the presentations.
And the Winners Are …
Those presentations ranged from great ideas that failed to demo to sneaky, simple ideas that were presented elegantly and came across flawlessly – along with everything in between. Even one or two that were borderline criminal, and the judges had respect for those.
Howes team’ (the most borderline criminal hack), won an honorable mention for their idea to crack the college class registration system. It was an awesome concept that worked well but with a lot of legal questions.
First runner-up was Varnish, a Javacript-based documentation overlay.
The winner was FastBack, Levin Brown’s idea for real-time lecture and presentation feedback, something that has an immediate need and a built-in audience. Brown put it together with two young coders who he had never met before the hackathon.
“This team got more done in 24 hours than six people I was working with in San Francisco over four months,” said Brown.
They’re not sure if they’ll make something out if it, or if it’s just something to put back in the drawer and work on in the spare minutes they have between jobs, projects, you know, life.
But the main benefit, and this was repeated almost universally, was getting to know people and work on something they wouldn’t have worked on normally. To expand their boundaries a little bit in the hopes of producing something they couldn’t achieve on their own. Hacking on something to elevate those around them.
Editor’s note: Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer, and speaker. He is VP of Product at Automated Insights and the founder of startup network and news resource ExitEvent. Follow him at @jproco or read him at http://joeprocopio.com