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The anatomy of a Calgary hackathon: Way more ’emotional and psychological’ than one expects

At the time this story is being written, there’s likely at least one Calgary hackathon team questioning if they can even get their project completed in the next 24 hours.

(If you’re still hammering out the idea, the chances are… slim.)

They may even be packing up their laptop, shaking the empty Coke Zero cans on the table to see if they can squeeze out one last drop of inspiration, ready to call it day.  Then it hits them. This whole thing can work. 

Laptops open. Chatter begins again. The electricity of ideas fills the air. Then silence, and nothing but the clatter of a keyboard.

But this isn’t just about a bunch of coders getting together for a hack weekend; there’s a real journey at a hackathon, said YYCHacks founder and Pixeltree CEO Serene Yew.

“It’s actually way more emotional and psychological than you’d expect,” she said.

Teams were huddled together at the Platform Calgary Innovation Centre on Saturday morning working into the afternoon.  Whiteboards were filled with ideas, timelines, and basic outlines; tables were littered with coffee cups and papers.

Work was being done. The teams are tasked with putting together an idea that showcases Calgary as a winter city. The event is happening in tandem with the popular Chinook Blast festival in Calgary. Seems like the perfect fit.

It began Friday night as teams formed (though some teams entered together). 

Many people need some ice-breaking with one another. That often means volunteers get involved to tear down some of those hurdles.

“That’s already a little bit of a barrier that they have to get over to meet other people and introduce themselves,” Yew said.

Thankfully, there’s at least one familiar face in the room. A lady who’s there to give a bit of a pep talk. Mayor Jyoti Gondek.

 ‘The ability to solve problems in a meaningful way’

Mayor Jyoti Gondek talks to participants in a fireside chat with YYC Hacks organizer Serene Yew at Platform Calgary on Friday, February 3, 2023. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

The fireside chat between Yew and Mayor Gondek started off challenging the status quo and talking about more females and minorities in positions of leadership.

The mayor talked about some of the challenges she’s faced in her political role, dovetailing it with gender roles that are often reserved for women.  She talked about being the primary caregiver – for aging parents or for kids – and also being the one to run the household.

“There’s a lot of things that come along with being a woman, and the world changed a little bit, it’s not bad,” she said.

“We’re starting to divide labor a little bit more equally, but it hasn’t changed completely.”

The mayor did speak about the city’s burgeoning tech scene, explaining questions she often gets around Calgary as a tech hub and how they’re attracting talent.  She said it starts with not talking about the tech industry as a standalone thing.

“Tech is actually the ability to solve problems in a meaningful way,”

“I don’t see any of you as being tech people. What I see you as being is people that understand there are pretty complicated, pretty wicked problems that we need to solve.”

Mayor Gondek said tech isn’t an independent sector. It has its hand in many of the city’s different economic sectors.

“I view it as an absolute game changer,” the mayor said.

Time to kick things into gear

Ania Bilik (centre, maroon) works with her team during the YYCHacks hackathon at the Platform Calgary Innovation Centre on Feb. 4, 2023. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

If you’re familiar with group work, you may also be familiar with the phrase: Storming, forming, norming and performing.  A hackathon compresses all that into about 36 hours.

Yew said once teams are formed, they start tossing ideas around. Maybe some have done their homework and come in with ideas. Often, they debate, but most teams have a plan by Friday night’s end – that’s a timeline Yew said they’re encouraged to follow.  

“Saturday should be a whole workday, where they’re just coding and building,” Yew said.

Ania Bilik was working with a team developing the Chinook City project. She’s a UX designer, along with many of her teammates.  Their team won second place in the last YYCHacks hackathon.

That first day is often ideation, she said. This year, however, one member of their team had an idea, and they were able to get right to work.

“I think every year you start from a different side, like it’s a different perspective,” she said.

“Today the idea came, and it started coming to life which is really exciting to see.”

Yew said by Saturday afternoon there’s always a team or two that begins panicking. They’re worried they won’t be able to get everything done by noon on Sunday.

“People start talking about quitting. We have to kind of play therapists a little bit and talk them through it and get them to stay,” she said. Mentors are there throughout the hackathon to help at these critical junctures.

“I think that like learning to stick it out and deliver something is a really important lesson that they need to learn – especially the students here.”

Bilik said last year they did go through that uncertainty. They lacked confidence.

“This year, we are more confident because we know how it’s going to work,” she said.

“We know. We’ve already been there, so I think it’s way calmer.”

The Sunday morning lineup

The doors open at 8 a.m. Sunday. Who knows, perhaps there were some all-nighters pulled along the way.

Panic has set in, and the teams are lined up outside waiting to get in and right to work. No time for a ping pong game to warm up this morning.

“It lights a fire under their ass and gets the blood pumping a little bit and there’s a little bit of passion about it,” Yew said.

This year, the projects are being judged on a scoring system (135 points, system here). Yew said previous hackathon feedback suggested teams thought there was too much subjectivity, or that there wasn’t enough emphasis on a finished product.

There are even 10 bonus points on the table for using an open data set. After all, this is to help make Calgary a better winter city.

The finished projects will be presented in four minutes on Sunday starting at noon. A winner will be crowned by 2:30 Sunday.

First prize is $3,000, second is $2,000, and third is $1,000.