What To Expect At A Hackathon | LBMC Coding For A Cause

Nine students and two alumni formed 3 teams and gave up their weekends to help Horse Haven of Tennessee and tnAchieves as a part of LBMC’s Code For A Cause hackathon. The three teams were as follows:

  • Lynn Samuelson (alumna), Emily Lemmon (Cohort 20), Eric Palmieri (Cohort 21), and Jeremy Wells (Cohort 21).
  • Ryan Tanay (alumnus), Geoff Webb (Evening Cohort 5), Bryon Larrance (Cohort 21), and Malcolm Ford (Cohort 21).
  • Gilbert Diaz (Cohort 21), Teresa Vasquez (Cohort 21), and Tyler Barnett (Cohort 21).

What made this hackathon exciting is the teams worked with and for real clients, nonprofits selected by LBMC. “The hackathon allowed us to work with a real client and find out how the development process really works,” shared Tyler. “This included getting initial client requests, check-in calls with them & a final presentation of the solution and the opportunity for them to ask us questions about app features and possibilities.”

The first organization was tnAchieves. They exist to increase higher education opportunities for Tennessee high school students by providing last-dollar scholarships with mentor guidance. tnAchieves needed an application to filter and search through over six million email and text messages in a database. Their current solution was to export all of their data into Excel spreadsheets, but the large volume of data had made this solution unmanageable.

Lynn, Emily, Eric, and Jeremy worked on this project for tnAchieves. They created a user interface, a simple user and admin authentication system, and an API to handle the database interactions. They used AngularJS, Node with Express, mySQL, and Papa.parse for converting user uploaded files to the database. They didn’t quite reach MVP (minimal viable product) during the hackathon, but the team is planning to complete the application in the coming weeks. Emily shared, “Even though our project was not chosen by the stakeholder, we all still want to finish it because we invested so much in it already, and learned a lot, and we want to see it through to a working app. Plus it wouldn’t hurt to have another project on the list for our resumes and personal sites!”

The second non-profit LBMC chose was Horse Haven of Tennessee. They work with law enforcement to rescue abused and neglected horses and needed a system to help them track horses, service providers, adopters, and the costs associated with each horse. They also needed a web interface to access the data and create reports.

Ryan, Geoff, Bryon, and Malcolm used the hackathon as a great learning opportunity and used the back-end framework one of the team members was learning in class. They built their application using Angular and Microsoft .NET Core with a Postgresql database. Malcolm shared, “I had an amazing time, learned a lot, and was drowned in food. The organizers were absolutely amazing.”

Gilbert Diaz, Teresa Vasquez, and Tyler Barnett Gilbert, Teresa, and Tyler built their application with AngularJS, JavaScript/JQuery, Bootstrap, Firebase, and Grunt. They reached MVP and their application was selected by Horse Haven of Tennessee to be put into production! They will be meeting this week to begin that process. Teresa expressed, “I am happy we won, but I’m more happy about the real life experience it brought!.”

Hackathons are a Great Learning Experience

Every NSS participant I talked to learned something new at this hackathon. Here are just a few of their comments.

“This was definitely a great learning experience. I became more familiar with building front-end apps with AngularJS, as well as learning about more of its downfalls. I got to see how the front-end code connects with the back-end code, which is something completely new to me, since I’ve just begun the back-end program at NSS.” - Eric Palmieri

“It was a really great experience solving an authentic problem and being able to present and describe our product to a real user.” - Jeremy Wells

“I was really impressed by the willingness of everyone (even people on technically competing teams) to help us out when we got really stuck. I learned a bunch of new Node stuff thanks to some members of other groups this way.” - Emily Lemmon

“I learned how to create a healthy balance within the team. I had to listen every point of view, (team members, business requirements, possible app growth) and make decisions at a fast pace.” - Gilbert Diaz

I learned that I can actually do this...believe it or not, even with all of my experience and education level, it is hard to get a seat at the table. I know that when I start telling people about my experiences with being a woman of color in tech, eyes start to roll and this makes me question not only my experiences, but also my abilities. Often times I have to be 10 times better than my counterparts just to be invited to the table, which means a lot of the time I either don’t get the opportunity to participate or have to participate on teams that are either not on my level or have different goals.

With this experience, I felt like I was a valuable member of the team and because the outcomes were very important, I was able to spread my wings and fly. I learned that I need to open myself to more opportunities like this so that I can continue to grow and also help my community. - Teresa Vasquez

“This hackathon really gave me some perspective on what I’ve been learning for the past few months. I was able to walk into a room with just 2 other people and in less than 48 hours we had a functioning application that will make everyday work easier for someone. The fact that the client’s work is nonprofit made it even better.” - Tyler Barnett

They also shared 10 tips for success.

10 Tips for Success in Hackathons

  1. Build with frameworks and languages that the team is most familiar with.
  2. Choose a leader right away (if one is not already established) that can set realistic goals and keep the team focused.
  3. Time is short. Efficient planning and communication are key.
  4. Focus on reaching MVP, then add extras. “Just because a feature would glitter, doesn’t make it gold!” - Teresa Vasquez
  5. Contribute. “Everyone can help solve problems and make suggestions even if they don’t fully understand the code.” - Eric Palmieri
  6. Listen to both your client and your teammates.
  7. Trust your teammates and leave your ego at the door.
  8. Be honest with yourself and your teammates about your skills.
  9. Clear your calendar. If the hackathon is multiple days, plan on spending time outside of the hackathon coding.
  10. “GET ALL THE SLEEP YOU CAN BEFORE THE EVENT! There won’t be time for that during the weekend, which is a large part of the fun!” - Teresa Vasquez

Why should you participate in hackathons?

Nervous about joining a hackathon? Here is some great advice from those that participated this weekend.

“(Hackathons) will definitely make you more confident as you continue to learn, even if you weren’t able to contribute much to the group. I was able to make some suggestions for fixing issues in the back-end code even though I only have a rough understanding of Node.js and SQLlite.” - Eric Palmieri

“Be prepared to struggle and fail. The experience will be worth it, regardless of whether you “win” or even finish the project you are working on, but don’t let it get to you if you don’t make those goals. Also, be open to new ways of doing things, because you will be working with people of different experience levels from your own, as well as different tech stacks. It can be hard to figure out where to find middle ground, but it will be extremely helpful practice to try.” - Jeremy Wells

“Definitely do it! As students, you are not only learning how to code but how to manage people and work in teams. During the hackathon you will measure all those skills. At the end you can evaluate yourself and adjust to be a better developer.” - Gilbert Diaz

“Absolutely get out there and do it. It’s a great way to put what you know into use for a defined purpose. Don’t hesitate to try new things, but it’s probably not the time to attempt to build with/learn an entirely new language/framework. Focus on getting MVP ASAP and then go for the bells and whistles.” - Ryan Tanay

So when is the next hackathon? Hackathons are put on by a variety of organizations throughout the year. HCA’s Hack for the Community will be next spring and several one day hackathons always pop up. Watch our social media accounts to learn about more opportunities to participate.

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