Last month a few of us at Calico decided to buy tickets to Vancouver Startup Week’s Hackathon. We wanted to test our skills in building something useful in a short amount of time. Once the tickets were purchased we then promptly forgot all about it. Fast forward and it was the Thursday before Vancouver Startup Week’s opening event and the Hackathon started on Saturday. Oops.
As is tradition among developers and slackers everywhere, we put our heads down last minute and started to brainstorm an idea of something we could build. The theme of the hackathon was mobility, as in moving humans, transportation, transit and all that good stuff. A lot of the focus was around the sharing economy. This includes things like: rideshare, last mile bus service, etc. We jumped right in and chose to focus on a bit of nostalgia - road trips.
We chose to make planning a road trip easier. It involved making a simple app that tracks where you want to go, what you want to do and how much you spend. Once your trip is completed the app gives you a simple breakdown of who owes what to whom. The app also allows you to take pictures and videos and share them with your friends. Oh yeah, and be able to pay your friends back. Our idea was formed and we went with the all too perfect name “Backseat”.
We broke down the data model along with the the API and the basic screens we would need for the app. We decided early on that we're not building a web app so we started with an Android app; and we hit the road... as it were.
For the backend, Robbie and I hit the SailJS trail building out a simple data model and relying on the Waterline ORM and the blueprints Sails has to do the heavy lifting. On the Mobile front, Liam and Trudy built out the screens, layouts, and activities in Java (bleh.). Finally, Kris drove the UI design. We put our tools to the test using Android Studio, WebStorm, DataGrip, Postgres.app, Sketch, Zeplin, Slack, Sails.js and Waterline.js.
The stars of the weekend were Kris, me (Dany), Liam, Trudy, and Robbie (peeking from the corner there). We gathered at the BCIT Tech Hub in downtown Vancouver and started building our awesome new app. However, like all projects, there were a few curve balls that we didn't expect. A large part of the evaluation criteria was actually related to the business plan and market viability. Which we had not really considered at all (we're developers after all).
As the mentors and judges made their rounds they very quickly highlighted the gaps in the lack of our business plan. It let our team pivot our pitch to line it up to a larger market segment. Initially, we thought that we'd target room and board inventory to those travelling the roads but very quickly we figured out that this is a very saturated market. We decided to dig deeper and get a better understanding of the room and board marketplace and the peer-to-peer payment eco-system. The outcome is that we had a pitch.
Having split the team, we started dumping a few quick notes into Trello to coordinate what we were actually completing. After the first few hours we had a basic working backend. However, perhaps we should have connected with the folks working on the mobile components earlier. It turned out that we had a misalignment with the JSON data consumption that our APIs generated and the Android app. As a result, we spent a bunch of time building out APIs that were never consumed. One of the key takeaways from that whole experience was that communication is key! I really can't stress that enough. Even when you are hacking for 48 hours, sitting next to your entire team, it’s easy to get out of sync. Having touch points with the rest of your team is crucial.
Anyways, as time was running out we got together and focused on putting together an application that we could demo for our pitch. Like the superstars I know our team members are, we pulled it all together in the last hours before our 11AM hard stop deadline and came in the top 10!
The hackathon was a really cool experience and the venue was excellent. The sponsors, the organizers and all of the participants really made it a positive experience for us at Calico. We can't thank them enough for the support and enthusiasm everyone brought to the weekend.
As for our team, I think we all came away with a bit of insight on how to deal with tight deadlines and to communicate more efficiently. It was also a nice confidence booster and reminded us that we’re not so bad at coding. Above all we walked away knowing we shouldn't be afraid to try something a bit outside our comfort zone and that maybe we should plan at least a little bit in advance…
If you’re thinking about joining the Vancouver Startup Week’s hackathon next year, we highly recommend it!