Demystifying Hackathon

The last ray of light has gone. I’m in the middle of a weekend hackathon, in complete darkness. There are no lights on in any of the houses in this village in the middle of nowhere. In a classroom at a local schoolhouse I have stared at a computer screen all day. I can barely see shadows of trees on the side of the street. I have to find a bed, the only way is to keep on moving. I can feel asphalt under my shoes. I put my hands in front of me - so I won’t hit anything.

First there was just mist, now it’s 3 a.m. and even though I can see some stars in the sky, on street level I’m walking in darkness.

It’s my third weekend hackathon. Even though most definitions of a hackathon talk about developers and about hacking software, I don’t code. So far it has not hampered me much. On my first hackathon I ran a team which was the runner-up. I can still remember the adrenaline kick which lasted days, despite hour-long conference calls at my day job at the time over the naming of internal committees.

So what really is a good weekend hackathon? Many of them are set up like this Garage48 event I’m attending on e-Residency. It’s on the small island of Vormsi in the middle of the Baltic Sea. On Friday the teams are formed around ideas - from Friday evening to Sunday, teams work on the idea with the target to show a working prototype at the final event on Sunday evening. You can present your own idea or just enjoy the weekend and join some team - like I am this time. Find a team with a good idea who need your skills the most.

Working in darkness. On the left Taavi Kotka, head of Estonia's e-Residency team. Photo: Maido Parv

What follows is a simple teamwork exercise. Our SparQ team of 8 people, 8 nationalities, divides the tasks and starts to work in the classroom designated to us. A team of 8 is a large one to manage, but at the same time with 8 dedicated people you can create a lot over just a weekend; with four developers, a lawyer, two marketing people and a project leader, Tsutomu, an e-resident from Japan. We start to build a page which would enable the setting up of an Estonian company with a few clicks, from anywhere in the world.

The e-Residency is an Estonian state platform for identification on the web. It reaches out to people around the world. So far the novelty has attracted more than 5,000 people to join, but while in Estonia most services can be used with the ID-card; including banks, healthcare and telecom services, there is limited supply for outsiders.

By Saturday morning we launch a crowdfunding campaign to sell our service. When I mention this at the lunch table to a developer, he seems surprised.

Working through the night on Vormsi. Photos: Maido Parv

“Your product is ready?” he asks.

“Why would you think so?” I have to reply.

Crowdfunding brings a fun element to a weekend project - you can actually sell your product globally.

We had our first 10 paying customers less than 24 hours after the team was formed. This is lean startup at its best.

On Sunday morning we demonstrate a working prototype to the judges. They are pleased with what they see. In the remaining hours our key developers smooth out the product. We are ready to win this when we go to the stage.

And then the demo PC crashes. F*?*!

Bad luck. No second tries.

Tsutomu will see the project through and help all paying customers set up their companies.

Two lessons that I take away for the next hackathon - the team leader on stage pitching and the one organising the work should often be different people. And triple check the demo PC.

Eventually, I will attend again. I am yet to win one.