HTML5 Hackathon @ Google

Through the codechix email list, I found out about the HTML5 hackathon at Google. I decided to give it a go and check it out. It was just half a day, 12p-9p. I knew very litle about HTML5 at the time, but I heard that it’s great for mobile (later found out it’s great for mobile b/c it just works for mobile as good as a full blown website).

Before I went, I spent about an hour reading about HTML5, so that I wouldn’t be completely clueless at the hackathon. Audio and video seem to be the big things.

When I first arrived, the Eventbrite guys were checking people in with a mobile app.  They were also participating in the hackathon.  Google provided lunch. I sat next to a guy from Israel who will be attending Washington University at St. Louis. On the other side of me was a friend of mine who is originally from France. There were quite a bit of folks from other parts of the states, especially leaders of Google technology user groups.  There weren’t too many women as alway with tech events.  About 100 people in total.

After lunch, Google did a one-hour presentation on HTML5. They asked who has submitted to the Chrome store and only one guy raised his hand. Not sure how to interpret that. They then announced that the grand prize for the hackathon would be a Chrome computer and some HTML5 t-shirts. The clause to win is that the app must be in (or submitted to) the Chrome store and have in-app purchases. Hmm, okay, let’s get started!

Like most other hackathons, people get to pitch their ideas and then form groups around the ideas. Since Jonathan’s Card (more here) had been on the hot list, I decided to pitch a mobile HTML5 app that helps people tweet stories about their donations and free coffee receivings. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Jonathan’s Card, Jonathan donated $90 to his Starbucks to be used by anyone. At the same time, anyone can donate more money to the card. My Jonathan’s Card story idea was well received. I got 8 other folks to join me. Unfortunately, not everyone had the same skills, about half knew a set of languages and the other half knew another set of languages.  Also, half of us were beginners in web technologies.  I ultimately took on the role of product manager instead of coder because the other set of skills were chosen (python, jquery) which were not my forte.

I focused on the product requirements, worked on figuring out the look of the UI and backend functionality. In the middle of it, we lost our jquery guy and one girl who’s well-versed in html/css stepped up to take over. We had one person looking into twitter integration as that was our main way of sharing the stories of coffee donations and receivings. To sum up the technologies, we used jquery (including html5 and CSS3), python, google app engine, and twitter. Oh, dinner was served somewhere in between, pizza, mmm, food of choice for hard-concentrating geeks. :)

At the end, we were able to demo how a person can share a free coffee story using Jonathan’s Card and twitter. We called the app JCard+. Get it? Like Google+. We didn’t have all the be bells and whistles of HTML5, but it looked pretty and animated nicely for a web mobile app.  The winner that day was the dinosaur team.  They made a kid’s app where you can make the dinosaur’s arms move and change color of the dinosaur.  Second place was a podcast commentary annotation marketplace (don’t ask me to explain, I’m still figuring it out).

Unfortunately, my team won’t be able to finish the app post-hackathon because Jonathan’s Card has been shut down. Someone wrote an article on how to buy an iPad with Jonathan’s Card, basically ruining the social experiment for the rest of us. Also Starbucks doesn’t allow sharing of Starbuck cards, but they made an exception for Jonathan’s experiment. Bah!

I’m glad that I attended as it gave me a reason to learn about HTML5. It would have been nice to have seen more schwag be given out. I love schwag!  Of course the free meals were nice.  Thanks Google for a good hackathon!

Some tips for a good hackathon experience:

  • Learn about the technology before attending, there isn’t much time to learn from scratch at these events
  • I always recommend pitching an idea at every event, if your idea sucks then no one will join you, if it has potential then the number of people will tell you, it helps to think of an idea beforehand too
  • If it’s not obvious, bring a laptop with power cord and plenty of water
  • Good project management skills keep the team on track for the hackathon deadline, hopefully someone will step up to break down the milestones
  • Decide whether you are attending to build upon an existing idea, work on a brand new idea, or there to win the prizes, each have different goals and attitudes about the hackathon
  • If you are want to be the people’s choice award winner, pick a sexy idea and show a sexy demo, a sexy demo will take time to perfect, allot time for it
  • Remember not everything in your app has to work, show the most critical user scenario, the demo will suck if you show too shallow of functions all over the place, you might even confuse the audience by clicking all over the place
  • Know what skills that you have on your team and keep recruiting over the weekend to fill in the skill gaps, sometimes people switch teams if the prior team doesn’t need their skills
  • Network, network, network, you are there to meet new people too
  • If you don’t have a Twitter account, get one before attending so that you can communicate with rest of the attendees leveraging event hashtags

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