First Hack Dallas – A Hackathon for Newbies

Wow has it been a busy month. I’ve been settling into my new role as an Apprentice Bootcamp Leader(ABL) at Coding Dojo, I’ve been learning a 4th stack – Python – at the same time as assisting the new cohort in it, I’ve been trying to work on a static website that I was contracted to do a while back, I’ve been dealing with ‘life’ stuff and I’ve been one of the organizers for First Hack Dallas and all that it entails. Between all of that, I’ve tried (or at least wanted to try), to also continue writing posts for this blog, but failed. I’ll dive deeper into most of the happenings in future posts (which will come more frequently, I promise!), but this post is all about First Hack Dallas.

So what is First Hack Dallas? Well, you can go to firsthackdallas.com and get the answer to that easily. I prefer to go over the story first.

Back in August I was in the career services workshop at Coding Dojo along with others from my cohort including Terry Thomas (previously profiled Coding Ninja), Oscar Cortazar-Luebbert who had just graduated and adopted member of my cohort (also a Coding Ninja) and Ryan Culpepper, whose cohort hadn’t graduated yet but he was ahead of the class and therefore joined in on the career sessions early. By the way, Ryan is also an ABL here at Coding Dojo who started on the same day I did.

During the workshop we were discussing meetups and places to network with the career advisors and one of them asked us about hackathons. None of us had been to any and we weren’t really aware of any either in the DFW area (later on we did come to find out about a couple), to which she said, “sounds like an opportunity”. And with that there was a little spark and the 4 of us started throwing around ideas about organizing our own hackathon and writing them out on the whiteboard.

Pretty much right from the start we decided to help out others that were like us, still new to the coding community, and make it a hackathon for newbies. I believe it was Ryan who came up with the name First Hack, which was a fitting name because not only was this going to be for newbies, we wanted to make sure it was as un-intimidating and welcoming as we could make it.

We all heard of these huge hackathons with teams that create amazing projects and all felt an intimidation factor in wanting to join something to compete against people that have been programming for years. Some people never go to hackathons because of that. And while that may or may not be an unfounded fear, we still wanted to provide something to act as an entryway into the world of hackathons, and thus … First Hack (the Dallas was added since this is starting local and it appears a ‘domain investor’ has taken the name and is asking for a substantial premium).

Moving on, within the next day, we asked Cody Williams (yet another Coding Ninja), who was at the Dojo anyway
since he’s also an ABL, if he wanted to take part, to which he enthusiastically responded yes.

We also had the idea to not only help other newbies with the hackathon, but also help the community. We decided to try and find a charitable or non-profit organization that needed a website or application but maybe didn’t have the resources to get it done themselves. This made us instantly think of Tiffany Thompson (yup, a Coding Ninja too!), who we knew had done some volunteer work.

She was actually at the Dojo for career services that week but wasn’t able to come the day this all started. So we reached out to her and she was happy to join the team. About a week or two later, some of us were at the Dojo for Ryan’s cohort graduation and Farhan joined in on a meeting we were having and became the 7th member of the First Hack team.

With the team in place, now the real work began. Turns out there’s a LOT more to organizing a hackathon than any of us thought. We try to have weekly meetings and spread out the work as much as we can. First we agreed on some basic details, like how long the hackathon would be, how many people could we accommodate, getting sponsors, mentors(more on this in a second), where it would take place, when it would happen, how we would handle the website, who is in charge of what, finding the organization to help, etc., etc..

Here are some of the details we eventually agreed upon:

  • It’ll take place on Saturday, November 5th, 2016
  • It’ll be 12 hours long starting at 8 a.m. and ending at 8 p.m.
  • We’ll allow teams of up to 5 members with around 50-60 participants max
  • The site (firsthackdallas.com) will be built using Ruby on Rails with each organizer in charge of a page

Now that we have a starting point, one of the first things we had to figure out is where to host it. We got pretty lucky here. Since we were all Coding Dojo alumni, we agreed to ask if they would be willing to host. Just starting out we knew money would be an issue and sponsors would be needed. Coding Dojo was not only nice enough to allow us to use their Dallas campus for the entire day, but they also agreed to provide one of the meals for the hackers!

Next up is the website. Cody got us started with the overall look of the site, setup the rails project and database, took on the Home page, registration page, login, added bits here and there and essentially acts as the project manager for the site. Terry handled the About page, Ryan the Events page, and I’m in charge of the Contact page. Even though we had our assignments, everyone contributed somewhere, whether it was our logo, getting sponsor logos, styling, making the site responsive, etc., this really was a team collaboration.

All the while building the site, we were also hard at work trying to find our cause and figure out other variables. One of which was mentors. Since this hackathon is for newbies and a chance to not only experience a hackathon but to learn at the same time, we decided to bring on mentors to help out the participant teams as needed. These mentors would be experienced programmers who would be donating their time to help out. This would also increase the chances of a viable, higher quality product for whatever organization we were helping.

We also found our cause, something that will benefit the community. To keep things fair for the hackathon, we aren’t releasing the info on the project ahead of time, so that anyone who signed up early doesn’t get an advantage by being able to work on it prior to the event. I CAN say we’ve been working closely with this organization and have the basic guidelines of what they’re looking for out of this project. These guidelines will be produced for all participants the morning of the hackathon. At the end of the day all of the teams projects will be donated to the organization. After which they may use the winning teams project or take bits and pieces of others to use how they see fit.

With everything coming together and version 1.0 of the site ready, it was time to go live. Since I have an interest in DevOps, I jumped at the chance to take charge of it, but in all honesty, it was more than I could handle on my own at the time and Cody has been helping out with that as well.

I had already secured the domain name, and we set our first real deadline. Nodeschool Dallas was having their monthly meetup on September 21st and Coding Dojo was hosting it. We agreed to not only all attend the event, but to have our site live and officially announce the hackathon.

The deadline came up really fast, and on September 21st, the day of the meetup, we were still polishing up the site and hadn’t deployed it yet. Later that afternoon, about 2-3 hours before the meetup, Cody and I got onto AWS and deployed the site. It was finally live!!!!

It wasn’t done yet though, now that it was deployed we had to point the domain name to it. It was frantic for a while, we were looking up docs, figuring out how AWS’s Route 53 works, how DNS settings work, got it all set up and BAM….”it may take up to 48 hours for the DNS settings to take effect”. This meant until that happens, the only way to get to the site was by typing in the exact IP address.

People were scrambling trying to come up with any idea to bypass this issue, even if only temporarily, but nothing we thought of would work. Luckily, the warning said ‘UP TO 48 hours’, and the DNS changes took effect with less than an hour before the meetup.

Phew, what a day that was! During the meetup we officially announced First Hack Dallas, and the organizer of Nodeschool Dallas was able to pull up our site on his laptop which was hooked up to a projector. I can’t tell you how nervous I was for that moment as he was typing in the url about it not working, but it did, and I think we all breathed a big sigh of relief. And with that there was no turning back, we were really doing this!

Since that day we’ve been having meetings, nailing down logistics, and just getting the word out.

Part of getting the word out is obviously social media, and somehow I became the one in charge of that. I realize I have this blog, as well as a Twitter account, Facebook, linkedin, etc., but I’m naturally not a very social person. Not that I don’t want to be, but I have to fight with a lot of anxiety when in social situations, even if those situations are online. I’m getting a bit sidetracked here though, so anyway, I got Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn setup for First Hack Dallas.

We’re still all working hard at getting everything ready. Those logistics I mentioned we’ve been nailing down? Well, there’s a lot more to them than you’d think, it’s almost overwhelming, and something I’m glad we have a team of 7 to work on. Parking, setting up e-mail, letters, notifications, security, legal waivers, coffee, snacks, judging criteria, scheduling for the day, t-shirts, how to sort out the prizes, getting prizes, the grand prize, who are the judges, getting enough food to feed 70 or so people throughout a 12 hour day, how to handle a waiting list if we get more people register than available spaces, getting enough mentors, getting volunteers, checking people in, finding sponsors, working out details with the project beneficiary, and a bunch more little things that I’m sure I’m forgetting at this moment.

As involved and tough as organizing a hackathon is, I’m glad we started this and can’t wait to see how far we can take this. For now though we just have to focus on November 5th, and do everything we can to ensure we meet our objectives of helping ‘level up’ the participants, making sure the environment is un-intimidating, welcoming, and that we end up with something that helps the local community.

This is something we’re all pouring our hearts and souls into. None of us are making anything from this and all of our efforts and time are being donated to this idea. But we will get something out of this. Hopefully by improving the lives of others, our own will be improved, and hopefully we make some new connections and relationships in the process. Who knows, maybe this could lead some of us or even some of the participants to their first dev job.

As of this writing, we have 55 people registered (about 10 teams), 14 mentors, and 7 sponsors. Hype is building faster than any of us expected and we have just over 3 weeks until the hackathon. We could still use a few mentors and we definitely need sponsors. We haven’t been asking for much and we’re still short for what we need to cover all the expenses as well as prizes for the hackathon. If you’re reading this and are in a position to help sponsor us, please message me through this blog or contact us at info@firsthackdallas.com. If you know anyone that might be able to sponsor us, please pass along the info.

In closing, I want to first acknowledge and thank the First Hack team for all the hard work put into this venture so far. I want to thank the mentors that already signed up for volunteering their time on a Saturday, and finally our sponsors thus far:

First Hack Dallas Sponsors

Author: Chris Ulanowicz

Full-stack web developer made in Detroit currently living in the DFW area. Always trying to learn as much as I can about everything I can, especially new technologies and programming languages. When I have time I'm into gaming, comic books, ice hockey, drag racing, and spending time with my family of course.

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