A 24-hour hackathon with a twist or why mentoring really matters

Published in Learning, Mobile, WebComments

Two weekends ago, we gathered a bunch of smart students who like to develop mobile and web apps, and gave them an opportunity to compete among themselves, supercharge their knowledge and win some cash along the way - we organized our first Infinum Student Hackathon

We mostly used social networks to find students interested in software development and ended up with 10 teams, each consisting of 4 people. Many more students/teams applied, we had to bite the bullet and narrow down the selection since we were limited by the size of our office.

To make this event happen, six of us had been working on organization for about 4 weeks. We had a budget of around $4,500 (25,000 kuna) at our disposal plus the man hours we all invested in this project.

A large part of that money was set aside for prizes. We opted for cash rewards because cash is convertible - it can be used to pay for better education or buying a new smartphone.

To make things interesting, prizes were given in a binary notation:

  • 1st place - HRK 213 (HRK 8,192)

  • 2nd place - HRK 212 (HRK 4,096)

  • 3rd place - HRK 211 (HRK 2,048)

Also, two companies helped us - the Red Bull team came to give us wings, while Atlantic Grupa contributed with Corny granola bars.

Who joined the battle?

Below you can see the structure of competitors by gender (Graph 1.), as well as by the university they are currently studying at (Graph 2.). As expected, most of the participants were male, and from FER (Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing), where most of our programmers typically come from. But don't jump to conclusions just yet, 'cause you might be surprised.

title Graph 1. Participants' distribution by gender

title Graph 2. Participants' distribution regarding the university they are studying at

With a little help from our friends

First of all, we asked ourselves - how can we make the participants happy and provide an optimal working environment? Lots of food, beverages (with emphasis on the caffeine), motivation and a plenty of humor could do the trick.

We also wanted the teams to produce as much as possible in 24 hours. What if the teams run out of ideas on how to solve an issue bugging them for half a night? What if they have a great idea, but not enough experience to turn it into reality in 24 hours? The solution was simple - we decided to set up a mentoring process.

title Mentor of team FOI I in action

As it turns out, this was the best decision we made. Mentors proved to be the spirit and the strength of our hackathon, differentiating it from other similar events. Our mentoring system consisted of 10 dedicated Infinum employees with several years of experience, who spent almost 24 hours working with their teams.

Since programmers are typically not the best at design-related issues, we also had a special Design team mentoring all the teams.

title Mentors. Chilling.

They motivated them when their spirit was low, gave them tips and showed them tricks, gave them crash-course tutorials on useful technologies and sometimes even jump-started the creative flow with a fresh idea. On the other hand, mentors were strictly forbidden from coding, so the main burden of development was still on the participants.

The addition of mentors put another spin on the skill-set and mindset required to excel. Although having coding skill, dedication and good ideas was still essential for success, the best teams were those who were smart and, in a way, humble enough to seek advice and soak up the knowledge provided by the mentors.

The winners and their projects

After an intense 24 hours of coding and designing, it was time to choose the winners. It wasn't easy, but the jury had some predefined and strict criteria. Our management team was the jury (Tomislav, Matej, Nikola and Josip), and they were also present for the 24 hours. We also had the audience as the fifth vote.

title Like Formula 1

Remember the surprise I mentioned earlier? Well, here it goes:

The three winning applications were made by teams of students from the Faculty of Organization and Informatics (1st and 3rd place) and Polytechnic of Zagreb (2nd place). So despite FER being the strongest college of the three, in this competition, it didn't have any representatives on the victory podium.

1st place - WishBucket

WishBucket by team FOI II won first place. It is a web and Android application for creating wish lists by reading the QR code of any product. Your friends using this app can see your wish list and choose a gift they will buy for you. However, you don't know what they will buy you since the app keeps it a secret, not spoiling the element of surprise.

2nd place - PlayToPay

Team Rocket won second place with their PlayToPay application. It is a mobile representation of the popular phone stack. At dinners and parties, people activate the application and start it. The first one to touch and/or use their phone is the loser, paying for everything. For it to work, one of the players' smartphones acts as a server and others connect to the "server" by reading the QR code from the "server's" screen.

3rd place - Communicake

The third place was taken by the Communicake application, developed by the FOI I team. It is a web and Android application. After registering, the data from the smartphone and the web part of the app connect. Communicake allows your smartphone to send a message through the web browser.

What did the participants say?

In the end, it was time to ask the participants what they thought of the event, how they felt, and get feedback to help us improve. We asked them anonymously about their overall satisfaction, what was good and what we need to improve for next time. This is what they said.

Graph 3. Participants' overall satisfaction with the event Graph 3. Participants' overall satisfaction with the event

"You took care of everything - working environment, food, drinks - everything was excellent!"

"Great help from the developer and design mentors during the entire hackathon. It was very useful and I have the feeling that in these 24 hours I have learned more than in the years of formal education!"

"A relaxed atmosphere and great, experienced people, who spent their free weekend helping a bunch of students."

"Mentoring was a great success. Even mentors of other teams helped us. They were on disposal for 24 hours, a good company, helping with their comments and suggestions. The atmosphere was great - relaxed, but optimal to get a lot of work done. Thumbs up for an excellent event and I hope you will organize hackahtons on a regular basis!"

title

Future plans

What we plan to do better next time:

  • Ensure more space to accept more teams into the competition
  • More LAN cables to avoid suffocating the WiFi network
  • A few more places to take a short nap
  • Easier way to present mobile apps for different platforms over the computer and projector
  • Even more food and caffeine

All in all, we are satisfied with what we've done, content to have helped students and gave them some practical knowledge and a new set of skills. This was also a rich experience for us, teaching us how to transfer knowledge and contribute to the student society.

As our first hackathon proved to be such a success, we plan to make it a regular event, mentors being our trademark.

In the end, I would like to thank all of my colleagues for great help in organizing the event, as well as the participants, who swept us away with their creative applications and loads of fun we had!

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