The Hacker Games

Milk Made sent Cathleen Cher down to SXSW where she took part in the festival’s first 24-hour music app hackathon as that rarest of hackathon creatures: a female non-engineer.

When you say “hackathon," most people conjure up the scene from The Social Network where hackers compete for a spot on the Facebook team, furiously coding on computers while pounding drinks. I participated in SXSW’s first hackathon last week and it’s a much different experience, albeit just as intense. During the 24-hour marathon, people took naps on makeshift chair "beds" and in corners, randomly blasting songs from jam boxes to stay awake while chugging enough energy drinks and coffee to rival the beer intake of a college frat party. Spontaneous cries of excitement and high fives rang out when programming obstacles were overcome in what was generally a very positive and supportive, yet competitive environment.

For SXSW’s hackathon, the music focus drew companies like Beats Music, Ableton, Gracenote, Spotify, Rdio, all of whom were vying for engineers to code with their APIs (Application Programming Interface). My team consisted of my little brother, Justin, his friend Waj and me. They were experienced hackathoners, young recent college graduates and engineers who had won many prizes in many hackathons past. I was the designated designer and pitch person and had the idea of creating what I described as, "an IMDB for music."

The beginning of the hackathon was a networking frenzy. Team leaders pitched their ideas in order to attract more people to their team. After our pitch, several people came over to tell us we definitely had “the best idea at the hackathon." One older man pulled up a chair behind us and sat there for most of the night, spewing excitement about our idea because he liked it so much. We didn’t quite know what to do with him, but I guess it was encouraging to have someone that eager to help out. I realized later on that having a “good idea” is barely the beginning of this stressful trek.

I had to leave twice for DJ gigs and to attend the Kanye & Jay Z show. They were both welcome breaks from that enclosed room humming full of computers, but the stress of not being there to help made it hard for me to enjoy my time away. After the concert, I came back to a quiet room filled with people glued to their laptop screens. After a couple hours of doing the same, I had to take short nap on the floor until I woke up in a panic because we only had 2 hours left and nothing concrete to show yet.

With tensions running high, we redesigned the entire webpage and I began eating breakfast tacos doused in hot sauce to distract myself. I yelled at my brother for “not doing anything.” Nothing seemed ready, but he calmly responded that it was because I didn’t understand "what it takes to be a programmer." I was in a completely different world, and this project would definitely take longer than 24 hours with just 2 engineers on my team.

When presentation time came, we could show only a skeleton of our idea. Our 2 minute presentation went by in 2 seconds and I barely had time to explain our creation. We went back to our seats exhausted and defeated. I looked around the room and realized that I was indeed in a whole new world where I was one of just three females and one of the very few with no engineering background. A learning experience for sure.

We didn’t make it to the finals like the teams designing apps for karaoke for Google glass app; location based playlists; thermogenic dance; and a Tinder-like music dating service.

I now have an increased respect for engineers who create the apps that make our lives easier and more exciting. To all of my non-developer friends who sit around when we’re drinking beers thinking that we’ve come up with the best new idea for an app… well, ideas mean nothing until they’re actually made. And that process is a whole lot harder than we probably know.

Photography by Koury Angelo

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