MHacks: Coding in the North

Written on Feb 18, 2014.

I have been getting increasingly involved in and learning about the startup scene, and hackathons are a big part of it. I attended a couple last year to get a feel for them but this time at MHacks in Michigan was my first complete hackathon.

It started with my roommate, Harrison, telling me about the roadtrip to Detroit that the online team at the Daily Bruin was planning. Given my nomadic nature and the promise of a fun time hacking with friends, I agreed immediately. It was eight of us on the trip: Calvin, Kenny, Daniel, Jeff, Aman, Amos, Harrison and me. We flew from LAX to Chicago's O'Hare airport on the 16th of January and rented cars to Detroit.

Getting to MHacks

The hackathon, going to three other states in USA and sub-zero temperatures (yes, Celsius) were among my many firsts on the trip. I was more excited than apprehensive about the latter because it had been a while since I experienced snow, (I lived in Shimla for a while but was too young to form any memories of it).

So, with foggy breaths and layered clothes, we departed the airport to get the rental cars. A simple task which should have gone smoothly, if not for our frost-addled brains making us (accidentally) drive out the wrong car. It was a minor mix-up which caused Amos, Harrison and me to be late and miss the Willis Tower Skydeck but our disappointment was appropriately compensated by Chicago's famous deep-dish pizza at Pequod's. Two large cheesy monsters from the depths of Pequod's oven served to satisfy eight ravenous boys. If you are in Chicago for a day or two, definitely go there. Maybe climb the stairs to the Skydeck beforehand to burn off the calories?

With full stomachs and happy hearts (aren't the two the same anyway? ), we proceeded to the Marriott in Hammond, Indiana for the night. Nothing notable happened there apart from my dismay at the hotel's gym which consisted of one treadmill, a single bench and one rack of weights. When the other laggards finally woke up, we called upon the Yelp gods to find a local diner for brunch (Riviera Restaurant, if you're interested) which served omelettes and hash browns in sizes which were only rivaled by their taste. After the sumptuous meal, we braved our way back to our cars, defying the icy winds which tried to impede our way and began the final lap of our journey to Detroit. A few hours later, after a drive filled with siesta, snow and storming for hackathon ideas, we arrived at The Qube.

36 Hours of Coding

The check-in line looked about a mile long but we were done in about five minutes thanks to multiple counters to parallelize the process. We quickly grabbed dinner from the tables on the 8th floor of the Chase building and descended to the 7th floor which was our assigned hacking station.  Daniel, Jeff and Kenny started working on a postal service using the Lob API, Calvin on Unoya <links> and Aman on his resume. Harrison, Amos and I worked on an iOS app which would give you clothing recommendations for your trip based on the weather forecast using the Pinterest and Weather Underground APIs. We ran into trouble on the server-side, so weren't able to get a demo ready in time but there were plenty of other cool ones to check out. From Quidditch using an Oculus Rift to an automated nerf gun, there were numerous fantastic projects that were born at MHacks over the course of those thirty-six hours. We met hackers from all over the country, reached levels of sleeplessness which even made writing loops hard, ate enough junk food to double our body fat and had enough zapping out magical code that we would do it all again within two shakes of a duck tail.

From Friday night to Sunday morning, we exhausted ourselves staring at our laptop screens and when it was awards time, everyone except Amos and me had passed out. What were the best and worst parts? Logistically, it was a very well-organised event. Everything from the talks to the check-ins went smoothly but they failed at food. Quality tends to suffer when you have to serve a thousand people but quantity was lacking too. On the brighter side, Calvin won two awards for Unoya, the Dwolla API prize ($250) and the Causes prize (Four Raspberry Pis), effectively paying for his trip. After finishing up, we headed to the Adoba hotel for the night while Daniel, Jeff, Harrison, Amos and Calvin crossed the border to hit up Canadian bars. Kenny, Aman and I had a succulent meal at the best Mediterranean restaurant in Detroit, so I didn't feel too miffed about not going to the land of maple leaf.

Snow time

Monday turned out to be a great last day thanks to the impromptu stop at the Great Lake of Michigan. We spent an hour prancing about on the frozen waves where Aman and Jeff proved themselves to be the bravest (and reckless? ) of all of us. They went a quarter mile out on to the ice while Calvin, Harrison and I stood back and waited for them to slip and break their necks. Watching the ice stretch out to the horizon felt surreal. If not for the houses on the beach behind us, it would have felt like a different planet. Almost makes me curious enough to check Antarctica sometime later this decade.

When we got tired of being goofy kids in the snow, we rushed to the airport, grabbing spicy Gorditas from El Pollo Vagabundo on the way, only to find out that the flight was delayed by a couple of hours. After twiddling our thumbs at our gate and crashing the touchscreen at the nearby kiosk, we boarded our flight home. Back in LA's warm weather, we bade farewell to each other and returned to our regular lives as superheroes in disguise.

Not for too long though. LAHacks is just a quarter away.