It was the perfect opportunity. In the lead up to Dreamforce 2013, Salesforce had announced the largest ever Hackathon prize in the history of computing industry. I had a brilliant idea in mind. And perhaps enough time to turn that idea into a reality. There was lots of support from all corners – friends, family and colleagues.
[Warning – Long post with lots of personal emotions, passion, rants and lots more – written on a 15-hour flight with no Wi-Fi 😦 as I prepare to arrive for the Salesforce Hacakthon this year]
Dreamforce is the biggest technology conference in the world. Of course, there are people who question the fact that it’s a technology conference at all but that’s not the point here. Last year, Salesforce decided to further up the “technology” quotient of the conference by announcing a Hackathon with a top prize of $1 million. The objective was to build a mobile app on the Salesforce platform to be judged on innovation, business potential, user experience and user of the Salesforce1 platform.
Understandably, there was lots of excitement in the Salesforce development community. The social media circles were abuzz with lot of activity – everybody from the newbies to the veterans seemed to be in a mood to have a crack at the coveted top prize.
The Glorious Past
As someone who wanted to build his reputation as a Salesforce mobile expert globally, this had to be my true homecoming. I had already been a runner up in the Salesforce Mobile Developer Challenge in year 2012 with Noteprise – a Salesforce-Evernote mobile integration that I conceptualized and built from scratch. A year later, a couple of mobile developers from my team built ‘Socialforce’ – a mobile mashup between Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Salesforce Chatter. They came in as second runner up in the Salesforce Mobile Dev Challenge year 2013 and although I was not directly involved as a developer, it was heartening to contribute ideas and see them executed well enough to clinch a podium finish. I had written articles on the Salesforce Mobile SDK and was often the go-to guy in the Developer Community for mobile-centric discussions.
Of course, the prizes handed out at the Salesforce Mobile Dev challenge were a fraction of what was being offered at the Dreamforce Hackathon. I was buoyed by my earlier success and I had a firm belief that I knew this domain as well as anyone else.
A few people reached out to me asking if I would participate in the Hackathon and if I would team up with them. I wasn’t sure of how things would work out for the next few weeks so I decided to go solo.
Last year, Salesforce announced the Hackathon early and participants were allowed to start cranking out code from the word go. I started off brainstorming ideas, identifying gaps and building use cases. I’m fortunate to have a wife who’s a PhD. in Computer Science and has never refused to be a sounding board for my often-silly ideas. A couple of days later, I had narrowed it down to what I would build.
Of course, my 6-year old daughter was convinced that I should be building a game like Angry Birds or Temple Run on Salesforce to have any chance of winning 🙂
The next week was spent nailing he use cases, design and getting the skeleton code structure and stubs in place. I realized early enough that the task at hand was monumental and I would probably not be able to build out all the use cases I had in mind.
The build up to Dreamforce is always crazy and it was no different last year. I had to finish a ton of things at office before I was stipulated to leave to for the onsite round of the Hackathon and the conference. For next couple of weeks, I virtually shut myself up in a room working late into the nights, operating at 3-4 sleep hours and often no sleep cycles.
It was tough but the adrenaline rush kept me going. And before I realized, it was time to take the long flight to San Francisco – the home to some of the world’s best developers and hackers. The app was about 80% of what I had in mind but I was confident that I would be able to still finish it on time.
The Dreamforce Hackathon Arena
I had attended a number of hackathons and coding competitions earlier but the moment I landed at the Dreamforce Hackathon arena, I was blown away. It seemed like one giant geek factory – a huge sitting area, lots of food, drinks, snacks and experts round the clock to help you out.
Salesforce is always known to take good care of its developers but this was well beyond what I had in mind.
I spoke to a number of developers getting a sense of what they were building and was in general, very impressed with the overall quality of competition. I also interacted with a number of Salesforce employees who were there to help out and got a lot of positive feedback for my idea.
Apart from attending business meetings and developer sessions, I spent most of my time at the Hackathon arena finishing up the last few things on my app. The days and nights went quickly and soon it was time to finish my several weeks of hard work and sweat (literally!).
To be honest, I didn’t really what to expect until I started receiving feedback on my app via social media circles and via in-person discussions. It was a huge confidence boost when someone posted that they believed I could pull it off.
The YouTube video stream soon started having a lot of encouraging comments, thereby making me believe that I was in with a genuine chance to win a million dollars.
And to be honest, I think this is where I goofed up. It was as if I’d started working on my Oscar speech too early without giving it a careful thought. The prize was too big and I built a mental block around myself that I couldn’t lose from here on.
Those advancing to the next round would be announced during the night and everybody would be informed of their fate via email as soon as the judging process is over. I didn’t sleep, kept checking my email every now and then. At nearly 2:45 AM, I got an email stating that I did not make it to the next round. There was no more detail and I was left asking myself several questions.
To stay that I was gutted would be an understatement. I did not know how to react and whom to speak to. I spent some time talking with my wife and then headed for the beach near Fisherman’s Wharf at an unearthly hour during the night. I spent the next 3 hours there sitting and listening to the sound of water hitting the shores – pretty much blank. I came back at 6:30 AM, got ready and headed out for the conference – pretending it to be business as usual.
I had worked with a lot of passion and it was difficult to accept such a setback. Anyway, I consoled myself that surely there are more deserving entries that made it to the finals.
I then attended the demos given by the top 5 entries and I started coming up with reasons of why my app wasn’t good enough to be in there.
Of course, the easiest thing would have been to crib and publicly complain about the judging but I’ve always been taught to Be humble in your victories and be dignified in your defeats.
Over the years, I’ve gained a lot from being part of the Salesforce community. I have been recognized for my contributions and won several awards. I had full faith in the fairness of the judging process so I did not go any further on that front.
The finals were to be held at the Parker & Benioff keynote on Thursday afternoon. I decided to skip the finals and instead sat at the Yerba Buena gardens near the conference venue reading Sharyl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ book which I picked up earlier during the day. I was curious to know who would win but it made sense to stay away from the action if I did not belong there.
The next couple of days were interesting to say the least as there was a lot of media scrutiny around the Hackathon results. I mostly stayed away from everything but it was heartening to see some people vouch for my entry being a finalist.
I think Salesforce has already done a number of things “right” this year when it comes to the Hackathon
- The Hackathon is not during the Dreamforce conference that makes it better managed and less chaotic.
- “Be My App” – a professional company, is managing the Hackathon this year. They already did a successful dry run at the ‘Summer of Hacks’ this year.
- Prize distribution is more even. I strongly believe that a prize as big as $1 million can kill the true sprit of Hackathon and often leads to below the belt tactics. This year there are nearly 30 prizes (+ 5 open source prizes) that make it a more level playing field.
- Prizes are categorized much better this year. Even if you are not a Salesforce developer, you could build a mobile app + an app using Java, Python, Ruby or Node using Heroku and still compete. If you are a Force.com guy, you could build either pure Force.com or chose Force.com + Heroku.
My plans for the Hackathon are a bit different this year – simply because there isn’t much of a plan. I thought about participating in a team this year and I reached out to two of the best developers I know – a Force.com expert and a kickass Java/Heroku guy but unfortunately the former wasn’t convinced with my idea while the latter isn’t going to attend the Hackathon as he recently became a father of twins.
I am still in discussion with a few folks whom I met on the #df14hack Twitter stream but there’s a strong likelihood that I will be going solo again this year.
I have a couple of wild ideas in mind and I’ll pick one after getting a sense of the competition at the venue. My company has a booth at the conference this year so a lot of time has gone into planning for that as well. Plus, I am presenting a couple of sessions at the Dreamforce conference this year – one on Monday and one on Thursday so that’s kept me fairly busy.
To top it off, I’m visiting a couple of clients before I arrive in San Francisco for the Hackathon so I’ll be following a crazy schedule this week anyway. Plus the rules have changed so I’ll need to build whatever I can during the Hackathon hours.
In a nutshell, it’s not ideal preparation but then I didn’t expect to lose after preparing like hell last year so I’ll just take it in my stride and see what happens next.
I realised that I missed the true Hackathon spirit of having fun last year. There were expectations and they weighed me down. This year I’m going in as an underdog who’s not overly concerned with the eventual outcome. I’ve a decent idea which I believe has lots of potential, I’ve the skills to execute it and hopefully the fire in the belly to work round the clock for 40 odd hours to make it all come together.
If you see a dark guy with specs sitting in a corner at the Dreamforce Hackathon Arena with a lot of gadgets around him, that’s me – come by and say Hello.
See you at the Salesforce Hackathon at Dreamforce 2014!