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Winning the Baltimore Hackathon

I participated in the Baltimore Hackathon this past week and had a ridiculously awesome time. How great: we won!
I wanted to talk about my experience and our strategy, although it will probably not be instructive to anyone.  I had had a weekend project sitting in my queue for more than a year.  As is well documented in other places, I had read a story about how the Huffington Post split-tests headlines for their articles and had thought, “WordPress blogs should have that!” A little research had implied that such functionality did not exist, but I thought it seemed easy to build using the WordPress API.
When I read about the Hackathon, I thought it sounded like a perfect place for me to try and scratch the itch: If I could get one good coder for 2 days, we could probably get it done. In spite of this, I assumed that I probably would not be able to attract a developer to work on such a simple project, but I figured I should take a shot so I could knock this off my to-do list.
When I got there and did my chat about my project, only two people self-identified as PHP developers – both college students that seemed uninterested in the small scope of my project compared to other ambitious plans to build entire web apps. Then, right as I despaired at attracting sufficiently skilled talent to be able to bang this out, Pete Bessman jumped in and said that he loved the idea and wanted to work on it. What did Pete love? As he said repeatedly, “The reach to grasp ratio on this project is very good.” Pete and I hunkered down in the quietest corner of the Hackathon (hence I think there are fewer pictures of Pete and I working than any other project at the Hackathon, I suspect) and got to work. While Pete started working on the basic infrastructure of the app, I dissected some WP plug-ins to understand how WP handled things like namespaces. I found the first few API calls that Pete needed to implement and I wrote the algorithm we would use for testing headlines. Pete then implemented everything lickety-split. By the end of the first night, I had realized two things:
  1. My wife wasn’t going to let me disappear all weekend
  2. We would finish way ahead of schedule
Our project was far less ambitious than most of the other projects going on, so I started thinking at the end of the first night about how we win and my answer was “user adoption”. Certainly, we could have added many more bells and whistles, but I have always had a “ship early and often” philosophy, so Pete and I agreed that we should tightly limit the feature set and get it out there. After spending the morning of the second day writing code for the admin menus, I then moved onto marketing the plugin while Pete finished making it sing. By Saturday night we had established a relationship with prominent WP plug-in blogs and had an account on the WP plug-in official site. By Sunday, we had positive reviews of our product, some tiny level of adoption, and the look of something with some traction.
While I did not attend at all on Sunday, Pete presented our success on Sunday afternoon and by all reports was awesome. He has a nice flair for showmanship and we were able to turn our story of rapid user adoption into a successful Hackathon victory. As Pete told me when I asked him about our performance relative to other Hackathon projects when it was time for the judging, “every project there was more ambitious than ours in some dimension but many of them had last minute problems completing their work that made it hard for them to win and none had the 24 hours of rapid adoption to endorse their product like we did.” Further evidence that tightly controlled scope was very effective.

Huge thanks to all involved – having events like this to help people like me scratch an itch is awesome. Also, I got a much bigger job done: As I told Chris Brandenburg when I saw him the first night and he asked what I was doing there, I said: “Scouting for talent”. His response: “Yeah, me too.” Pete Bessman has a job for life. He is awesome. Thanks to all my friends at Millenial. I would like to think that when Millenial doubled the prize money, that was really Chris hooking me up as he anticipated my victory. Thanks Chris!

Obviously, I should thank my wife as well.  She watched the kids Friday and Saturday while I indulged my inner geek. It is very tough for old guys like me to do things like this, but supportive significant others are critical for career success and we saw further evidence here.

4 Responses to “Winning the Baltimore Hackathon”

  1. John Trupiano Says:

    Hey, great story Brent and congratulations!

  2. brent Says:

    Thanks John, of course, I could have easily gotten whooped, most of the other ideas were significantly more ambitious.

  3. pete Says:

    Totally agree with your analysis. There’s also an element of luck, but I feel we were as good at recognizing what we *ought* to be doing, as well as actually doing it. Getting both things right is critical, and getting either one of them right independently is hard enough. It definitely wasn’t a sure thing. There were some scary-smart people in the room that weekend!

  4. Bradly Kierstead Says:

    I’m having a little problem I cant subscribe your rss feed, I’m using google reader fyi.