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Weekend at a Jersey Hackathon 💻

"You're doing what this weekend?!", my sister exclaimed when I informed her I was attending a hackathon. "Isn't that illegal?"

I encounter some form of the above when I tell non-techies that I enjoy hacking. The term "hacking" has been misattributed to purely malicious intents. In it's purest form, hacking means to generate a novel solution to a problem in a non-intuitive way. I was formally exposed to the term through reading Steven Levy's brilliant book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. On a side note, I can't recommend the book enough, and it's accessible to all ages.

Sure there exist hackers who are in it to exploit organizations and people for personal gain, but you probably won't find them spending the weekend generating novel solutions to problems we all encounter, such as pollution and traffic jams. And that's exactly what you do at a Hackathon, find novel solutions to problems.

After deciding that I would like to attend the hackathon, my next goal was to assemble a team of programmers in order to compete against the other teams. Yes, that's right, there's a competitive component to hackathons. There's also food and swag and I like food and swag.


The person I asked to be apart of my team is my good friend William Dyrland-Marquis. Will and I attended the same software engineering bootcamp and share a mutual interest in food, computers, and coming up with clever disses. Will also has to remind you that he's from Montana at least once a day.


I met my other two team mates through the hackathon's Slack Channel. Both Julian Henry and Kevin Steven Kihata sought to form a team with people outside their immediate circle, which I find commendable. It's easy to stay in your comfort zone, but it's takes real initiative to try something new, particularly in a competitive environment.


Before I continue, let me say a word about the Hackathon itself. Will and I decided to attend HackTCNJ 2020 because of the excellent interactions we had with the event organizers over the Slack channel. Sophia Goldberg, Shm Garanganao Almeda, Madeline Febinger, Thomas Orth, Alyssa Popper and Michael Mongelli answered all the questions we had thoroughly and were excited that students with non-traditional tech backgrounds were joining their event.


Will and I drove all the way from the East Haven, Connecticut to Ewing Township, NJ, which took about 3 hours. And then we had to participate in the 24 hour programming frenzy that awaited us.

It was cool, though. The drive was scenic and Will is an excellent conversationalist. Once we found Julian and Kevin after the breakout, we started working on our problem. We chose the environmental impact track and the idea we had was to use Google Vision API to scan and predict a person's body size to produce an accurate reading of their clothing size. The flow of logic was this:


Kevin was the front end guy on this project, while Will and Henry worked on the back end. I was more of a generalist, jumping in wherever I could.

Don't think it was all work and no play. The organizers at HackTCNJ 2020 provided ample opportunities for networking, gaming and food. And bunnies. There were bunnies, too.


What we didn't anticipate was the trouble that Google Firebase gave us in the initial setup. We were all used to using Amazon Web Services, which is quite a breeze to configure for projects, so I attribute the difficulty we had with learning a new system. Once it was set up, everything was smooth.

We decided to call it in at around 4:00am. While our app was kinda functional at this point, we realized we probably should have reduced the scope of our problem. By performing some research and toying around with the computer vision API, we discovered that the technology just isn't here yet to solve this kind of problem. We tried, and we had fun doing it.

Finally, when we awakened from our slumber, we had to dash to complete and practice our PowerPoint presentation for the judges. I think they knew that we tried our best.


While we didn't win the competition, we won in another big way. We made friends, had fun and made memories. I couldn't ask for more. In fact, I had such a fantastic time, that I'm signed now signed up for HackTCNJ 2022.


Will the sequel be better than the original?