First Time Ever Hackathon

I have never been to hackathon before. In my imagination, hackathon is like a festival for people who have passion about creating cool stuff during a limited amount of time. Hackathon is going to bring tons of fun if you can work with dedicated people on some interesting idea and try to make the idea into reality. Luckily, Early Professional Hire (EPH) Hackathon event hosted by China Development Laboratory (CDL) meets my expectation perfectly.

Experience Recount

When I first time heard about the hackathon on EPH Day 5, I’m a little intimidated. This is because the solution demo you present at last needs to fit in certain hackathon topics. The topics include business platform innovation, light-weight e-commerce reinvention, blockchain, application of Watson technology into medical services, and integration of Watson technology with 3D demonstration. All these topics are super cool, very advanced and I barely have a chance to get touched in my day-to-day work. So, I’m not sure if I can handle those topics well. However, I want to give this hackathon a shot: not only because this is part of EPH program but, more importantly, one of the topics really catches my eyes- that is, the integration of Watson technology with 3D demonstration.

This topic actually has a name, which is called Watson Introspector. It is a cognitive tool for understanding software, answering questions, and interacting with software architecture and data flows in 3D.  This topic suits my interests perfectly. It has always been a challenge for new comers to study a code base especially when the code base has been evolved for several years. What sets of functions or data flows get involved in certain feature of the software has always been the type of questions we are asking all the time, especially when bug fix or enhancement request kicks in. Conventionally, there are tools to help us to visualize the code path like debug trace, UML graph, and so on. However, none of them are straightforward and fun to use if we put them under new comer education context. I can hardly imagine some guy will choose staring at the debug trace on Friday night over going out for a date. So, I think the visualization of code path in 3D and get some question answering system integrated (like Watson) may probably make our software developer’s lives much easier.

After I set the topic that I want to work on the most, the next step is to get a team. Originally, there are four team members besides me within the team. All of them don’t have any experience with any technology involved in the topic. This is perfect because neither do I. However, all of them are testers, which make my situation a little bit difficult. This means that  I am the only developer in the team and I will take much more responsibility than I thought I would. But, that’s OK because my teammates want to grow with me and want to give the hackathon a try. So, I become the captain of the team.

Everything goes quite well for the first two weeks. We narrow down the architecture of the solution: we are going to make a 3D space game just like the classic snake game. In the study mode, player is free to explore the 3D world, which is constructed from the classes and functions parsed from a random-selected Java project. Inside the world, the player can interact with Watson on what kind of feature he wants to learn and Watson will return a code path that best meets the player’s request. Then player can spend his time getting familiar with the call stack of the functions along with the purpose of each function. In the test mode, the player is required to visit the functions he just studied in the correct function call order so that he can win the game. Our goal of making this game is to offer a fun way to learn about a source code project and we believe educational game best suits our needs.

Then, on September 14th, everything is just changed. Once we settle down the architecture of the solution, two members decide to quit with the excuse of limited time. I got this feeling that someday they are going to quit but I didn’t expect this timing. They refuse to work on the solution outside of the work time. This makes me quite frustration because anyone who attends hackathon should expect that he is going to spend fair amount of time outside of work to finish a demo. Even worse, this means we probably don’t have enough resources to finish our solution. It looks like mission impossible with only one developer and one tester left with the team.  But, a second thought comes into my mind. I work as the president of IBM Diamond & Ring Toastmasters Club. One important lesson I learn from it is that as a leader, the first priority task is to take responsibility and get the job done no matter how difficult the situation is. Under my current situation, my goal is to at least finish this hackathon, and I need to make this happen. Plus, I’m not alone: I still have a teammate, Rachel, who wants to give out all she has in order to succeed in the event. I just cannot let her and myself down.

In the final week,  we work super hard with our adviser, Trent, in order to get a demo working.  Even during Mid-Autumn Festival holiday, we still come to the office around 2 pm in the afternoon and hack through the rest of day to 1-2 am. That has been the theme for the whole week. On Tuesday, September 20th, right before the final day, we work over 30 hours to 4am, September 21th to do bug fix and 3D modeling. Rachel and Trent live closer to the office, so they rush home to get some sleep. I, however, live really far away from the company (I live southern 4th ring of Beijing) and unfortunately, I have to take a nap at the office coach to avoid being late for the team show order decision draw happened four hours later.

Even we almost live inside the company, we still haven’t finished our demo on the final day morning. There is some performance issue with our game during the launch phase: since we talk with Watson at the same time the game assets are loading, the framerate of the game drops significantly. In addition, we haven’t figured out a way to grow our character body just like the classic snake game. These put a lot of pressure on me because there isn’t enough time to fix everything in a nice clean way. However, we somehow manage to finish all this by the demo time. We adopt agile practice. Maybe we cannot fix these problems nicely but we can definitely walk around the problem just for the demo’s sake. We do incremental world object construction during the game loading phase: we only load the objects that player can actually see through the camera and we use a big skybox to block unloaded part of the world from the user. For the snake body problem, each time the character hits the target, we put a sphere behind the character and we somehow manage to let the newly added part follow the movement of the character. Maybe the movement doesn’t mimic the snake body movement nicely but for the sake of demo, that’s enough.

During the demo time, everything works well. Thanks to the public speaking practice I have kept doing at the toastmasters club, I delivered a successful presentation to the senior management level at the lab and we obtained 2nd place in this hackathon with the fewest team members among all the contest teams.

Here are some interesting stats that are worth mentioning:

  • We have 0 experience with the technology stack of the hackathon
  • We originally have 4 team members but down to 2 halfway through the event
  • We only have 1 developer and 1 tester eventually
  • We only have 1 person with sufficient programming experience
  • We work to the super late nights for at least 3 days
  • The longest non-stop hacking lasts for 30 hours
  • We consumed 50+ bottles of water and bags of snack
  • We watched 60+ hours video tutorial on YouTube and safaribooksonline.com
  • We write 2500+ lines of code for the demo

 

Hackathon Takeaway

Always remember you’re the captain

There are couple of times I want to quit the event. Thankfully, I don’t actually do that because I always remind myself I’m the captain of the two-man squad. When you set a goal to meet, you have got to do whatever you can to reach that goal and get the job done. Thanks to this hackathon event, I can now clearly see this point.

Stay positive during the difficult situation

There are downtime during the whole hackathon event. Face the technology we only have never actually experimented with when we enter the contest; Two of the original team members leave the team; Unfamiliar with the development tool; Debug the code to the late nights … All these things can drag the moral down pretty quickly. However, I’m the leader, I cannot do this. So, even in these difficult moments, I try to call the team for a short break and entertain ourselves by coming up jokes or have some random chats. These techniques work amazingly well because we don’t feel stressed and we can actually enjoy the whole problem-solving process. Without fun, the hackathon will never be the same to me.

Don’t be afraid of making the tough call

To be honest, I’m the chief solution architect of our demo and sometimes I have to make some tough calls, especially when both options look tempting. For instance, implementing the game like the classic snake game or like Super Mario are both good options. However, if we put time and various other resource limit under consideration, two options cannot be the same. Super Mario has its advantage in 3D exploration and the snake game reflects the core idea of our solution – make the body grows with the code path. I have to make the tough call on what path we want to pursue and I have to say, it’s always not easy.

Motivation and hardworking is the key to success

Motivation will give you the courage to take your first action but only can hardworking make you reach the goal. In this hackathon, I feel lucky that I follow my interest and choose Watson Introspector as my topic to work on. My interest provides me enough motivation to power through the whole event. However, I know that in the deep of my heart, I want to win and I want to my demo to reflect the technical expertise we equip. That requires hard working. Thankfully, we don’t let ourselves down and we work super hard towards our goal. I’m so glad we finally make it.

Public speaking is crucial

I feel our solution may not use all these fancy technologies like some other group does but I feel the public speaking or the presentation skill well compensated for this “disadvantage”. During the presentation, I use numbers from above to define our hackathon experience with the speech style like Steven Jobs and our beloved CEO, Ginni Rometty. This delivers a concrete message to the audience: we come here to win and we deserve it. I want to give the judges the feeling that we are 120% confident with our solution and more importantly, we feel proud of it.

All in all, this hackathon has become one of the moments that I’m extremely proud of myself as an IBMer and I do learn a ton from it: not just technical stuff but how to be a leader as well.

I want to end my post with the slogan of our project:

Evolve ourselves, beyond the limit!

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