Inaugural First Hack Dallas Success Story

It’s now been a week since our first hackathon, so yes, this post is a bit overdue, but I can say the actual event was a success!  I won’t go too much into the beginnings of it though, since I went over that in a previous post called ‘First Hack Dallas – A Hackathon for Newbies‘.

In the time between that post and the day of the event, we added a few sponsors, held a ‘rehearsal’ a couple days prior, figured out IP/liability waivers, and scrambled to figure out how to pay for enough food to feed everyone with the limited funds we had available.

I think it’s safe to say we all had some jitters the night before.  I was especially feeling it as I stayed late at Coding Dojo to clean up the place and prep it as much as possible for the next day.  All that was left to do was to re-arrange all the tables/monitors and setup the registration desk. We all agreed to be there by 7 am at the latest to get a start on the day.

Saturday morning comes, and I wake up to my phone vibrating to a google calendar alert for First Hack Dallas … at 7:30 AM!!!!!!! Not a great way for an organizer to start the day of an event that officially begins at 8 AM.  Especially when said organizer lives 43 miles away! I don’t think I’ve ever jumped out of bed, taken a shower and got out the door as fast as I did that morning, well, maybe except for when I was in bootcamp for the US Air Force.  So what happened? I did set my alarm the night before, BUT, it’s the same alarm I use during the week and I completely forgot to add Saturday to it!  I called up Terry in a panic to tell him I’m trying to get there as fast as I can.  Luckily, he was able to calm me down saying that everything was being handled and going smoothly at that point and that it wasn’t an issue.  I walked through the door into the Dojo at 8:24 am.

Being our first hackathon ever (not just in organizing but attending as well), I was worried I was going to miss the start of it.  Turns out I didn’t miss anything at all.  Participants were still coming in and we ended up delaying the start of the hackathon to allow for more people to show up.

Registration Desk in the front lobby of Coding Dojo
Registration Desk in the front lobby of Coding Dojo

To help welcome everyone, High Brew Coffee setup in front with samples and enough cans of cold-brew coffee to last almost the entire day.  Through our website, we had 70 participants signed up along with a waiting list of about 10 people.  We had been getting some cancellations that week  and expected more so we went ahead and notified the people on the wait list to just come in.

In the end we ended up with 44 hackers, making up 9 teams.  3 of the teams were actually current Coding Dojo students.  Some of the other teams had people from other bootcamps, University of Texas – Arlington, University of Texas – Dallas, TCU, as well as other schools and a bunch of self-learning code newbies.  I think there was even someone who drove up  from Austin!  Hey, we ‘hacked’ together this little hackathon so to us, someone driving from over 3 hours away to come to it is a big deal.

Just after 8:30 am we decide to kick off the day.  Ryan, who handled most of the presentations that day, started by telling everyone about who we were, why we came together and some general info for the day.  Then he passed it off to me, where I talked about social media, raffle drawings, and   that I would be tweeting throughout the day with announcements.  I think I’ve said this before, I am NOT an extrovert!  I’m getting better at talking in front of large groups but it’s not always easy.  Plus, how did the anti-social shy kid end up being in charge of social media?  By the way, you can go to the First Hack Dallas twitter account and scroll back to that day and see what else went on.

Ryan Culpepper kicking off  the inaugural First Hack Dallas
Ryan Culpepper kicking off the inaugural First Hack Dallas

Then it went back to Ryan, who introduced Brent with is the organization we partnered with to be the focus of the project for the day.  He put things in perspective for everyone and started with an emotional scenario, role-playing getting a phone call from a friend who just learned he has HIV.  He went on to all the questions and thoughts that would be going through that person’s mind.  What do I do now? Where do I go? What will people think? What do I tell my employer? Where can I get help?  This hackathon wasn’t just about us, the organizers, networking, the hackers learning, or just building some website, this was about something bigger, something that could make a meaningful impact on people’s lives.  It was a somber moment, but a necessary one.

It then moved on to Cody Williams, who presented the scope of the project along with some guidelines. currently only has a very minimal static site.  What we were trying to build was a complete application that allowed users to register, create a profile, and access a database full of resources and services tailored to their own specific needs and criteria.  We wanted to give everyone a general guideline but also wanted everyone to have creative freedom.  As I was listening to Cody present the scope (which had a LOT in it), I was actually starting to feel a bit intimidated, and imagined how a new developer would feel.  This was something we set out to NOT do to the participants.  So I talked to Ryan about this and felt we needed to bring it up.

Ryan capped it off by going over the rules, judging, and bringing up the possible intimidation factor.  He did a great job of relaying to everyone that they shouldn’t worry about not doing enough or getting every single sought after feature done.  This day was about the experience, about learning, and helping out a great cause.  We also extended the event a little and decided to have everyone submit their projects at 8pm for judging since we had a late start.

Throughout the day we were all kept busy, bouncing around the Dojo, dealing with issues that popped up, like participants showing up late or not having registered prior, handling ‘bathroom issues’ (trust me, you don’t want me to get into those details), making announcements, working with mentors, getting the meals, etc.  We even helped as mentors ourselves at times.

Mentor Kyle Taylor of DrawAttention giving some advice to Team Specters of the Earth
Mentor Kyle Taylor of DrawAttention giving some advice to Team Specters of the Earth

Speaking of mentors, this was probably one of the highlights of the event. Since everyone there were students or new developers, they routinely ran into various roadblocks, either having installation issues, database issues, not being able to get code to run the way they want, or even just wanting to understand why something they did actually works.  This is where the mentors stepped in.  We didn’t want hackers to spend 2 hours trying to fix some bug.  As a new developer this can get really frustrating, so we made mentors available to help whenever they were needed.  This doesn’t mean they wrote any code for them, but merely either guided them in the right direction or removed obstacles.

Mentor Greg Yut helping out Team Coding Mojo
Mentor Greg Yut helping out Team Coding Mojo

I want to go ahead and acknowledge our mentors who came out and volunteered part of their Saturday to help.  Kyle Taylor, Marshal Culpepper, Austin Akers, Daniel Miller, Greg Yut, Greg Spagnola, Brent Wiethoff, Jeeves Betigeri, Jared Farrish, and Chris Tran.

By the way, Chris Tran was an unexpected surprise.  For 5 of us organizers he was our original instructor at Coding Dojo who left after a couple months.  To say he made an impact on us in that short amount of time would be an understatement.  None of us had heard from him since then so seeing him walk in unannounced was one of the best parts of the day.

Then there were the prizes!  At several parts of the day we gave away various prizes by raffle.  Since we’re all developers, instead of using raffle tickets, Cody just wrote a short function that randomly chose the winners from the database of registrants.  Unfortunately the database had the registrants that didn’t show up too so there were a few times we had to go through a few names before getting to someone that was actually there. (something we’ll fix the next time).

Winner of an Amazon Gift Card courtesy of Women Who Code Dallas
Winner of an Amazon Gift Card courtesy of Women Who Code Dallas
Winner of a DrawAttention laptop whiteboard sticker
Winner of a DrawAttention laptop whiteboard sticker
Winner of a month membership at Fort Work (coworking space)
Winner of a month membership at Fort Work (coworking space)
Winner of a Raspberry Pi Kit courtesy of Odyssey Information Services
Winner of a Raspberry Pi Kit courtesy of Odyssey Information Services

Prizes included a dozen DrawAttention laptop whiteboard/blackboard stickers, Amazon Gift Cards from Women Who Code Dallas, Month-long memberships at Fort Work and The DEC, and a Raspberry Pi Ultimate Starter Kit from Odyssey Information Services.

This would be a great time to thank all of our sponsors who provided prizes, financial support, services and even mentor support.  This hackathon would never have been possible without them.  Coding Dojo not only hosted the event (which included all the extra monitors that hackers were very appreciative of), but also the dinner meal and part of the Grand Prize.  Other prizes were courtesy of Women Who Code Dallas, DrawAttention, Fort Work, The DEC (Dallas Entrepreneur Center), and Odyssey Information Services.  High Brew Coffee brought in cases of their canned cold-brew that fueled the hackers throughout the day. Financial support came from Boost Stream, Modern Message, and Minecraft U.  Last but not least is Dialogs Software who provided the cash Grand Prize and also brought a couple mentors.

sponsor logos

Now we’re towards the end of the day.  It’s getting to be crunch time, and at 7:30 pm there’s a team all packed up and halfway out the door.  We go over to them to see what’s going on.  They were building a web API and were having issues connecting to it, so they figured what they had wasn’t good enough and wanted to leave.  It took some convincing but we persuaded them to stay to the end and at least submit what they had.  I’ll come back to this in a moment.

Now it’s getting close to 8 pm and we make a last minute change.  Originally we were just going to have one person on each team have their project loaded up while everyone went around looking at them.  We realized this wasn’t going to work out that well given the number of people and time available.  So we told the teams that we would have each of them hook up to the projector and present what they had to everyone.  Don’t forget, this was our first hackathon so we knew there were going to be some lessons learned, this was one of them.

I wish I had some good pictures of the presentations, but none of us had a good camera and the pictures came out where either you could see the presenters but the projector screen was super bright white or you could see the screen good but everything around it was super dark. Another lesson learned for the next time, have a good camera on hand.

So the presentations went on.  Before hand, the projects were submitted to our Github repo, that way the technical judge was able to look at the code while the teams were presenting.  Regarding the judging, we made up a rubric for the judges but other than that we stayed out of it.  We didn’t want there to be any question about bias, especially since we’re all Coding Dojo alum and there were a few teams made up of Dojo students.  One of the judges was also a board member of  We also had the participants vote for their favorite project which counted as 25% of the final score.

It was interesting to see what everyone came up with in less than 12 hours.  Some teams focused a bit more on the front-end, while others kept most of their focus on the back-end and database.  Projects were built with Ruby on Rails, Python, Node.js/ES6, and C#/.NET along with a mix of other technologies.  There were full-fledged web applications, a web API and even a Facebook bot.

Back to the team that was packed up and almost scooted out early.  They’re the ones that built the web API and while they didn’t end up winning, they easily had the most votes from their peers.  After tallying up the judges scores they actually came in an extremely close 2nd place.  I don’t really want to bring up imposter syndrome, but this is a great example of why you should never discount your work and that you’re usually better than what you give yourself credit for.  This project was a huge undertaking for new developers, especially given the short timeframe, and no one was expecting perfection.  Moral of the story is, never cut yourself short.

And the winners were….Team Name Here!  They had a really good presentation and were the ones that built a Facebook bot.  By winning they took home the grand prize of $500 cash, some Coding Dojo swag, and a $2000 scholarship towards enrollment at Coding Dojo for each team member.  Hopefully they also gained some knowledge and a good experience!

Winners of the Inaugural First Hack Dallas - Team Name Here! with Shiraz Sultan of Coding Dojo in the back and Ryan Culpepper presenting the grand prize.
Winners of the Inaugural First Hack Dallas – Team Name Here! with Shiraz Sultan of Coding Dojo in the back and Ryan Culpepper presenting the grand prize.

Wow was that a loooooong day! The winning team wasn’t announced until around 9pm and we were EXHAUSTED.  After some cleaning up, we left the Dojo about 10:30pm and even as tired as we were, we all agreed previously to go hang out afterward and enjoy some beer.  All except one of us at least, but that person was literally passing out near the end already anyway and there was no convincing no matter how hard we tried.

Overall it was a great success.  We got some excellent feedback from the participants as well as the sponsors and mentors.  One mentor who was exceptionally impressed didn’t believe us at first when we told him that none of us had ever been to a hackathon before.  He had been to a few and he told us ours was one of the smoothest working ones he’s been to.  That was honestly one of my biggest worries.  I was scared that someone that may have already been to a hackathon showed up at ours and would be disappointed and think “What an utter cluster…. this was”. But that didn’t happen.

So, was it all worth it?  Absolutely.  No, we didn’t make any money off of this, and so far no one that we’re aware of has a new job because of it.  But we all made some new connections, found new friends, opened up some doors, gave back to the community and hopefully helped some students and new developers ‘level up’.  Most importantly though, we grew our own friendship and bond that started when we were students ourselves going through the rigors and trials of a coding bootcamp.  Often times people go through school, bootcamp, etc. and afterward part ways never to see each other again, but that’s not us.

L to R: Farhan S, Oscar Cortazar-Luebbert, Ryan Culpepper, Terry Thomas, Cody Williams, Chris Ulanowicz, Tiffany Thompson
L to R: Farhan S, Oscar Cortazar-Luebbert, Ryan Culpepper, Terry Thomas, Cody Williams, Chris Ulanowicz, Tiffany Thompson


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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