Takeaways from HackSC
I published the following piece “Some Thoughts from HackSC” on Medium.com recently. Was recommended to write on Medium about two months ago but never got around to doing so. Last weekend, we put on one heck of a hackathon on campus and as it turns out, that was the inspiration I needed to push out a post. Enjoy.
How do you build, maintain and inspire an ecosystem on an academically fragmented college campus? Have students build very relevant “hyperlocal” solutions over a 2-day period.
This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to check out HackSC, @USC’s first campus community focused hackathon. The motivation behind the setup is quite straightforward — we asked both university departments and the general student body about what problems — class scheduling, dining hall menus, selling books, and others — they wanted to see solved on campus and after some curating, we used the most popular pain-points as themes for the event — Hacking for USC.
When I was at @GoldenGateVC this past summer, I spent some time thinking about how we might encourage startup communities to explore new ideas. What @USCACM (Association for Computing Machinery) did was quite spot on — just go out and ask people what pains/problems they wanted addressed. The result: a variety of very cool apps from a very talented group of student devs.
Without further ado, here are my top 5 takeaways:
- It was inspiring to see freshmen (1st years) actively participate in the Hackathon: Aside from the super talented high school hackers, for many of the freshmen who participated this weekend, HackSC falls on their 9th week of being college students (it was open to all students regardless of majors). At the Kick-Off, there were students who had never touched webdev, scripting or much of anything related to building things. Additionally, think back to when you were a freshmen in college — it’s daunting! It’s scary to come into your first college hackathon and wonder how much more experienced everyone else must be. To the freshmen teams (of which, there were many), thank you and congratulations. Some in the top 5 were freshmen teams.
- I really enjoy demonstrative/interactive pitches: @JPaine talked once about this “traction pitch” that garnered a lot of attention because it showed exactly what investors wanted to see — traction. For us, usability and interactivity were key. One team hacked out a USC-specific facebook search tool and for the bulk of their presentation, as one student commanded the stage, another student typed various inputs (e.g. free food on campus) into a search bar that yielded highly relevant responses (Fb event for free food). It was a lot of fun and highly memorable.
- Not all problems required “technically” difficult solutions: To start off, it was neat to see undergrad and grad students participate together in this hackathon — USC is not famous for close collaborations between the tiers. Furthermore, it was definitely very cool to see seasoned developers address problems that demanded higher tech specs. To those devs, your apps reflected the subtleties that are only learned by experience. That said, there were other relevant problems, such as the poor USC Dining Hall menu updates that did not require hyper sophisticated backends — One freshmen team whipped up a quick-and-dirty webapp to address this.
- Being memorable is kind of a big deal: While presentations are never quite representative of teams, products or ideas… a very well executed presentation (of course with an equally cool product) might just be what it takes to win. In our debrief, it was obvious that there was one team really caught our attention — their presentation, in the form of a beautiful short-film, was clean, well coordinated and definitely had high production value (will include names after Thursday).
- Awesome teamwork shows … especially on stage: Working in teams is seldom an easy, seamless endeavour. Difficulties with task delegation, social loafing and unnecessary drama are just a few of the bread and butters of group interaction. Now you add a 48-hour ticker to the mix? It’s stressful! This all showed when teams were on stage — the great teams had members who were comfortable, engaged and supportive of each other. These are also key things we value in investible startups — do the founders have what it takes to follow through?
So those are some thoughts I wanted to share. I really do want to congratulate USC ACM on the great event — I had a lot of fun chatting with teams and hanging out with the judges. Shout out to @NathanDoctor @samfankuchen @hadardor (@LAHacks)— thanks for coming over all the way from across town.
Finally, organizing a hackathon (as with any large scale event) is a logistical nightmare and watching @chuxtina run around this weekend was absolutely inspiring.
If any of the teams are interested in pursuing their projects after this week, I want you to know that there are resources at USC that can help. The @USC_USG Academic Fund is dedicated to helping students with their research (includes dev) projects. Feel free to contact me if you need help.
I’m the Director of Discretionary Fund at USC USG (Undergraduate Student Gov) and I helped feed hungry hackers. I also like tech.