My Experience at TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon 2016

Last weekend, I participated in the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon in New York City. Here’s my demo.

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The story of how I got on that stage with that project is slightly more complicated.

I originally went to the hackathon as part of a team: me, Tom, Lowell, Shabnum, and Scott.

The hackathon took place at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, a very industrial-looking place.

We were one of the first teams to arrive, so we got to pick a good table.

Our project was in EdTech, and we called it Mindset. Scott has written about it here. My job was to set up and implement the Natural Language Processing backend server and its API endpoint. The application would send the server a syllabus, and the server would parse it into topics, tag each topic, extract dates and deadlines, and return a nice data structure with all of this information. Its topic extraction would be powered by IBM Watson’s Concept Insights API.

The hackathon began at around 1:30 PM on Saturday and the deadline to submit projects was 9:30 AM on Sunday. We worked on it without facing any real problems all through Saturday afternoon and into Saturday night.

The hackathon had tables for 89 teams total, plus a number of booths for sponsors.

Soon enough, it was past midnight. We were starting to get tired but we were fueled by three things: teamwork, our goal to complete the project, and caffeinated beverages.

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Still going strong at 2:15 AM.

Before we knew it, 4 AM rolled around. Some of my teammates went home to take naps or freshen up. Some found places to curl up. Regardless, we were driven by a singular purpose: submit our project before the 9:30 AM deadline and wow the judges at the 60-second demo.

Finally, at around 5:30 AM, we had completed what we’d set out to do! Our website was up and running, my NLP server was making calls to IBM Watson and interpreting the results correctly, and our backend server was fully functional and robust.

My team started prepping for the demo. I didn’t need to be involved, so I was left to my own devices. I was wide awake at this point, and I had around 4 hours to burn, so I decided to do some work on a project I’d been thinking about for a while.

I had been planning to make a Twitter bot that uses Agolo‘s API to summarize the contents of any URL you tweet at it. This would be a follow-up to a similar Slack bot that I created a few weeks ago. I thought to myself, what better time to get started on this project than 6 AM at the TechCrunch hackathon after having stayed up all night?

I got to work on it. I picked Python because I have some experience working with Tweepy, a Twitter library. I knew that I had to circumvent the 140-character limit somehow, so I had the idea to use images to display the summary. I used the Python Imaging Library (PIL) for that.

I set up the Twitter account, got my code running on my AWS server, and started testing it. I had to make a number of tweaks to the way I was using PIL in order to make the text look good enough to demo. PIL doesn’t automatically do word wrap, so I had to find a way to insert newlines into the text where it made sense.

Finally, with around 20 minutes left until the deadline, I hacked together a working Python script that could achieve my project’s goal!

I submitted it, deathly-tired, forgetting one important detail: submitting a project means I have to give a demo onstage. I was about to fall asleep, but this realization was a shot of adrenaline that kept me awake.

It was time for the demos to start.

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The auditorium from halfway back.

I sat in the audience and mentally prepared some things to say at my demo. I checked, double-checked, and triple checked that my project was working.

Meanwhile, my teammates Tom and Shabnum went up to present Mindset. They did a wonderful job despite the technical difficulties they faced. I was proud to see the end result of a long night of hard work being presented up onstage.

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Tom and Shabnum setting up the laptop for their demo.

They called up the next batch of presenters to wait backstage. There was a 10-minute break during this period, so I got to practice my speech a little and meet some of the other presenters.

Backstage at the control booth. The black wall with the green lights at the top is the stage’s backdrop.

Finally, I was next in line to go onstage, set up my laptop, and wait for the previous presenter to finish.

Photos taken just offstage. I was balancing my open laptop in one arm as I took these pictures. I probably should not have taken this risk.

Then, I presented. I don’t remember most of it. The lack of sleep, combined with the adrenaline, put me in a state where I was giving an impassioned presentation of my project instead of paying attention to the hundreds of faces looking at me from the audience.

I walked offstage and back to my seat. I came down from the rush, and my tiredness finally took over. It took a lot of effort to finish watching the rest of the presentations and the awards ceremony. Then, I finally stepped outside for the first time in many hours.

Finally, sunlight and fresh air. Well, as fresh as it gets in NYC.

It was sunny for the first time in a week. It was a strange feeling to finally feel the sun on my skin after many days, punctuated by an intense experience like that.

I somehow made my way home.

Then, I slept for 14 hours.

All in all, it was a really fun experience. It was like a marathon, but with my team to keep it light and make it enjoyable. My 6 AM decision to start working on my own project turned out well, but I wasn’t in my right mind when I made that choice. However, sleep-deprived-me chose to take a big risk instead of playing it safe, and that’s a lesson I can learn from him. My main takeaway is to challenge myself and push my boundaries whenever possible, because the reward is often underestimated and risk is often overestimated.