Participating in the Big Build Hackathon

If you ask me what will stay with me from the Build conference 2012 (Redmond / Seattle), I’ll tell you definitely the hackathon. I would give away my new Surface ( I got it as a present from the Build conference) just to do the hackathon again.

There are so many things that made this event memorable but I would like to start with a few that could’ve been better. The communication was so minimum that it hurt us. I wish I knew before I registered it’s not an 8 hour event but a 5 day event. I wish every participant at Build had a chance to participate. Like everything else at Build 2012 only the fastest and the luckiest got to register. After the registration there was an email with the schedule (3 days before the event). I couldn’t adjust my schedule on the late notice well enough- I missed the first two days because I had already planned my time (yup, the binder full of parties).

My biggest regret is we had no good way to network with people on different teams. I know we were all in the same room but we were all so observed in our own apps and teams. I wish we had our own little Mixer after the competition- I would’ve loved to talk to the other teams and ask questions about their apps. We were competitors the whole time and we should’ve had time to be friends. It was a wasted opportunity for us and for Microsoft to bring us together. I wish there was a tweeter group or something along those lines.

Food was served at the hackathon – all except lunch which was a problem. We wasted a long time walking back and forward to the outside tent with the attendee lunch. I didn’t understand why- it was just a waste of time. On Friday we actually didn’t have lunch because we wanted to see the demos- and by the time the demos ended the lunch tent was closed.

Even that things could’ve been better it was a brilliant event.

Let me tell you about the many things I loved of the event. We were encouraged to team up with people we never met before. I would’ve never believed that that could work but it worked like a charm. It was genius! Our team was originally five people but only three of us kept on going. We had to sacrifice the sessions and beer fest. At the start there were around 45 entries (from teams or individual participants) and most of them didn’t go to sessions, keynotes, parties and worked very long hours (sometimes the whole night). Almost every team had a participants from different countries.

We were given what felt as unlimited resources. There were at least 20 experts- the best of the best Microsoft employees ready to answer any question and guide us to accomplish anything we wished for. We were teamed up with mentors. Our mentor was Paul Batum- a truly impressive Azure mobile services expert. We were not limited to our main mentor- we talked with many of the mentors in the room. And there was email support for the people who worked remotely.

We all took advantage of Team Foundation Service ( tfs.visualstudio.com ). Teams of 5 or less can use TFS on the Cloud for free. It worked great- we all were checking in and checking out the pieces of the project we were working on. I love it!

Looking back I believe these were my mistakes- I didn’t sacrifice my first 2 days, I didn’t trust the team model at the start, I didn’t talk to many people(everybody was just coding) and we should’ve chosen to make a consumer app (not a business app).

There were no rules about what kind of app you should develop and no guidance was given but let me tell you- the apps that ended up being chosen were cool apps, ideas that you haven’t heard about before. We choose to develop too trivial app- a small business expense report system. Talking with other participants we came up with the conclusion That Microsoft is a bit tired of being seen as a business solution- they were looking to see cool consumer apps and these were the apps that were chosen to be demo’d. All apps that won used successfully Azure mobile services and the winning Windows Phone 8 apps used NFC.

There were 3 categories- Windows Azure, Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8. All apps needed to be started at the hackathon. The apps were officially judged on:
(34%) Innovative: Is this app meeting an existing need in a new way?
(33%) Applicability: Would this app be useful and appealing to a broad audience?
(33%) Technical Achievement: How difficult was it to build this app?

The prizes were not big (I have seen hackathons with prizes in the 6 digits). The total money won was $10K split between 9 teams (and teams were from 1 to 6 people). The biggest prize for the 1st place winners was the exposure. On Thursday everybody needed to submit their app by email to the first round of judges. 13 apps were chosen to be demoed in front of the celebrity judges. Celebrity judges included people like Scott Hanselman. The exposure to demo in front of the judges helped some people get job offers on the spot.

What we accomplished with our app was to implement the fast and fluid design of Windows 8. We had our screens, charms, contracts implemented. We had Microsoft account authentication (with the Live SDK). We used Azure mobile services and we were successfully writing data from our app to the cloud and displaying it back. We implemented the photo/file picker and the image upload to the cloud. We felt as we had a great app and a strong technical implementation. We didn’t even consider that we will be eliminated before the demo. The idea was reasonable- you submit your expense report (take a picture of the receipt and enter the information) and your boss receives and approves it. We were eliminated silently. We spent a lot of time, we sacrifice sessions and events, we accomplished a lot and I strongly believe we deserved the 3 minutes in front of judges.

The apps that won first place were:

Windows Azure category- the winner is QBranch. A team of 6 people from different countries developed a Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 applications that used Windows Azure mobile services to store data. The app allowed you to have a digital queue for different events or places like DMV. The Windows phone 8 app reads NFC or QR codes to put users on the queue and uses push notifications to alert the user when their turn is up. It is developed in XAML and C#. The windows 8 app is used by the administrator to manage the queue. It is developed in HTML5.

Windows Phone 8 category – the winner is Social Squirrel. I felt this was the Microsoft favorite team and app- two people from Canada. Scott Hanselman offered them a job in the middle of their presentation. The rumor is that this team has already more than 10 apps in the Store. The app uses Facebook API and allows you to play a game and answer quizzes about your Facebook friends. The developers used the accelerometer to allow people to shake the phone and arrange the tiles randomly. NFC was used as well so two phones can communicate by touching. It is developed in XAML and C#.

Windows 8 category – the winner is Crowd Sourced Memories. A team of 4 attendees developed this cool app. At an event like a wedding the guests may use a Windows 8 machine to take pictures, videos and sign a message. All messages and photos are in the Cloud and can be played back in chronological order- even messages that were played back dot by dot as signed. The team mentioned they plan to have a windows phone 8 app and to implement NFC. It is developed in XAML and C#.

The winners have it all. They were interviewed for channel 9 and they truely deserve the fame and the prizes. What amazing work they did!

There is a big open question at the end of the hackathon for my team and most of the other teams. I believe Microsoft needs to help us with the next step. It would be such a waste if we don’t publish our apps to the store. We were encouraged to make teams. Most of the teams are international. How do we publish as a team? There are legal and accounting questions but the answer may be similar for each of our teams. I think this is an important last step that Microsoft should not overlook.

Dan Fernandez was the face of the Build Hackathon and he worked really hard. I suspect he barely slept for the duration of the hackathon. His efforts paid off. We all have memories to treasure and an experience to cherish. We learned a lot and we got inspired. I formed a team with two people that I just met and we created a strong bond. What a joy to see so many masterful developers and bright minds in one place! The experts in the room were phenomenal- extremely smart and knowledgeable Microsoft employees. I wish I had the names of all the mentors to give them credit. I’m so sorry I will miss your names and I only know your faces. Here are the names I know Paul Batum, Josh Holmes, Michael Johnson, Jeremy Foster.

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4 thoughts on “Participating in the Big Build Hackathon

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