Making TreeHacks Your First (And Not Last) Hackathon: The All-You-Can-Read Survival Guide

You’ve entered a strange world.  Everything in it looks familiar (unless you go to school in the Northeast, in which case the palm trees might be a little foreign), but it behaves quite differently. Time seems to pass irregularly, ebbing and flowing at random. Evolution must have pulled some switcheroos, as the people here are decidedly more centered on a few key traits than what you’re used to. Your senses are heightened.  For the moment, though, it’s all fun and games. And if you do it right, it will continue to be.

No, you’re not dreaming, and no, you’re not in some parallel universe.

You are at TreeHacks, your first hackathon.

If you’ve never hacked at a hackathon before, no doubt your first will bring some surprises. Hackathons aren’t exactly par for the course that is a college student’s life. Trying to find somewhere else that will house you, feed you, and give you more swag than you can carry for an entire 36 hours will probably result in a pretty fruitless search (if you’re wondering how exactly that’s possible, it’s all because of our awesome sponsors!  Check them out at http://www.treehacks.com!)  Looking for a place with the same density of computer programming talent and nerdy camaraderie will, in all likelihood, be equally futile.  But it’s all part of the magic.  Hackathons can be an incredible experience – just ask any college student who moonlights as a hackathon hacker, and they’ll launch into a long list of why they love what they do.  In time, you’ll get there too (if you haven’t already!).  We know that the first time around can be a whirlwind, though.  With that in mind, here’s your complete hackathon survival guide.

PREPARATION (or, an oddball packing list)

Luckily, hackathons are pretty easy to prepare for.  There’s the essentials:

  1. Your computer. As it turns out, it’s pretty hard to hack without one of these. And in case I need to say it, desktops are very much not advised.
  2. Whatever you want to plug in to your computer. If you’re a mouse person, bring it! If you’re an external keyboard person, have a ball (preferably a ball that fits in your backpack)! If you’re an external monitor (read: “big screen”) type of person, I might kindly advise restraining yourself. But hey, I’m not a cop.
  3. Whatever else you hack with. Picture yourself going to work on a long project or essay, and you’ll know what you need.
  4. Phone charger, preferably of the USB type. Not only will this help you if you decide to build an app, it’ll come in handy in case access to electrical outlets gets tight.
  5. Any hardware you want to hack on – arduinos and the like are definitely encouraged!

And then there’s the other stuff:

  1. Things having to do with sleep. Personally, I’m a blanket-and-the-floor type of guy, but I’ve also been known to fall asleep on large rocks, logs, and just about every moving vehicle in existence. The bottom line is, have a plan, and make it adaptable. Treat it like camping, if you want. Also, odds are you’ll be sleeping at some interesting times of the day and night, and that other people won’t necessarily be doing the same.  So if you’re one of those people that needs absolute silence and darkness to get some shuteye, bring a mask and some earplugs.
    1.  If you want to know more about hackathon sleeping, read this! 
  2. Clothes. This isn’t Stanford’s fashion week, but it’ll nice to have a change or two, especially right before judging starts.  Also make sure to have some layers and warmth – believe me when I say your body is not used to producing heat at 4 in the morning.
  3. Toiletries.  Just because you’re hacking doesn’t mean you can forget personal hygiene, ya filthy animal.  And even something small like brushing your teeth can make you feel like a new person when you need it most.

That should do it!  One more tip: try to keep your bag on the smaller side.  We promise we won’t try to sardine everyone, but 500 college kids in one place can only mean so much free space.  Bringing less will make your physical footprint a little smaller, and will give you less stuff to keep track of so you can keep your focus on hacking!

ARRIVING AT TREEHACKS (or, more nerds than you’ve ever seen in one place)

However you’re getting to the hackathon, you should do at least two things while en route:

  1. Brainstorm ideas for what to hack on.  If you can’t come up with anything, don’t sweat it – it’s not totally abnormal to only settle on an idea an hour or two in.  But knowing exactly what you’re going after when hacking starts will allow you to dive right in.
  2. SLEEP.  Like, as much as possible.  Depending on how hard you go during the hackathon, trust us, you’re going to need it.
    1. SLEEP.  Seriously.

When you get to Stanford, point yourself towards the Arrillaga Alumni Center.  Don’t just search for “Arrillaga” because, as any Stanford student will tell you, half our buildings are named that.

And now, for the fun part – the hackathon! When you get there, in all likelihood, it’ll be a little bit of a hot mess. Don’t worry, things will calm down as everybody settles in to their hacking.  Find the registration tables, wait in line a little, get checked in and get some swag, and then get ready!  Wander around, pick a table, and start getting set up to hack. People will be milling around, and you should too!  Make some new friends!  Say hi to some old ones!  Go check out the awesome sponsor companies – they’ll be able to give you the lowdown on any API’s they might have for you to hack on, or other cool things that could come in handy later. Worst comes to worst, you’ll probably come out of your sponsor tour with some free swag, and maybe a contact to hit up for an internship after the hackathon ends.

Eventually, make your way to the opening ceremony.  You’ll know it’s time because everybody else will be doing it!

HACKING (or, ironically the part about which I can give you the least amount of helpful advice)

This one’s mostly on you.  You’ve got 36 hours, go for it!  Try to pick a project that’ll be manageable, but challenging. Part of the fun of hackathons is learning something new!  Bonus points for projects that have good divisions of labor. Picking something that requires every piece to be built out in succession won’t make maximum use of the fact that you have a team to work with. Projects that have pieces that can be worked on in parallel are oftentimes better. Either way, find some form of version control and collaboration to use. Personally, I’d recommend github but use whatever you feel best on! And if you get stuck on a problem, take advantage of the mentorship system we’ll have in place to get help from someone who really knows their stuff.

While you’re hacking, don’t forget to take care of yourself. Eat when you need to, sleep when you need to. You’ll be surprised at how much more quickly you’ll solve problems when you’re fully alert and awake. Tracking down a missing semicolon can be just about impossible when you’re tired, and finding flaws in your logic will be miserable. You’ll make much shorter work of both when you’re rested, even if it’s only a short nap.

As far as sleeping (and yes, you’ll have to do it at least once during a 36 hour hackathon): sleeping at a hackathon is an art unto itself.  Suffice to say, make sure you do it.  For more tips, go here!

FINISHING UP (or, more scrambling than a plate of eggs)

It’s the 11th hour (or 35th, as it were), and things are (hopefully) just about finished.  Towards the end of the hackathon, you’ll want to start thinking about judging.  If you’re going for prizes, you’ll want to concentrate on the functionality that you’ll be able to show the judges. Nobody expects your hack to be perfect, but “Look what my app does!” goes a longer way than “It probably could do this, if we hadn’t spent 6 hours getting that div to line up a pixel to the right” (although don’t underestimate the appeal of showing where your app will go, given a little more time).

Old man Murphy can (and probably will) be a bit of a pain. If you’re like most people, the last few hours are where anything and everything will crash, maybe on the merge of various pieces.  For that reason, leave a little extra time for bringing the parts of your project together. And if it happens, don’t worry!  Do your best to sort everything out, but if you can’t, showing the separate pieces of your project to the judges isn’t the worst thing in the world.  This is also where tools like github come in handy.  If a stretch goal code change crashes everything, you can always revert back to your working version relatively painlessly.

Lastly, don’t forget to submit!  Get your hack out there!  Show the world!  Chances are, it’s pretty cool. 🙂  And putting it up on challengepost will leave a permanent trace for you to refer back to on things like resumes.

BREATHING (or, everything else that you haven’t done for the past 5-36 hours)

You should do this. You may not have a lot of time, but take a few seconds to relax. You’re done with your first hack (and almost your first hackathon!).  Be proud!  Whether you came a little short of your initial goals, or your hack turned out to be more than you could have ever dreamed of, rest easy for a few seconds.  Coding for as long as you have is no easy feat!

EXPO (or, thought you were bug free?  Nope.)

Get ready to show your hack off!  By this point, you’re probably going to be tired.  Maybe hungry.  Maybe both.  Keep it together, you’re almost there!  Set up wherever you’re assigned at the tables, and hang out.  When the judges come up to you, just show them what you’ve done.  Believe that what you’ve done is cool, and it’s that much more likely to come off as such.  If your hack freaks out as you’re showing the judge, don’t sweat it, just refresh and go for it again.  I find it best to keep your demo to a specific set of actions that you know will work well.  But hey, if you get the sudden urge to go rogue, I won’t stop you!

CLOSING CEREMONY AND DEMOS (or, how the heck did they do that…?)

Eventually, judging will come to a close.  Top projects will be picked.  If you’re one of them, congratulations!  Keep doing your thing!  If not, sit tight and chill.  Watch the top demos – they’ll be pretty good hacks, and might even inspire you for a future project.

AND FINALLY…HEADING HOME (or, your bed never felt this good)

Bask in the glow that comes with finishing your first hackathon. Sleep!  It may take a day or two to feel normal again, but that’s fine.  Wear your TreeHacks shirt the next day because, hey, your earned it!  And start looking for your next hackathon adventure.

See you at TreeHacks!

MORE RESOURCES:

These are some resources compiled by the TreeHacks team.  By no means do you have to read all or even any of them!

A. READINGS:

B. SETTING THINGS UP:

C. LEARNING THINGS

Even more resources…from text editors to wireframe tools to web hosting

Post by Alex Bertrand

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Alon Cohen, Co-Founder of Houzz: Realizing the American Dream

Alon Cohen, an immigrant who came to the U.S. in his thirties, first asked the room, “How many of you were born outside of the United States?” To everyone’s surprise, half of the students in NVIDIA raised their hands. In a room filled with people who identify as immigrants, entrepreneurs, or in some cases, both, Alon’s story was particularly inspiring – a vivid example of the American Dream.

Alon worked at eBay before taking a risk and starting his own company with his wife, Adi Tatarko. It didn’t make much sense to leave a stable job while raising a family, but Alon identified a problem that he wanted to solve. When discussing this transition, he smirked and said, “Of course I had trouble explaining it to my mom.”

Sometimes the most rational decision isn’t the best one.

A few years back, Alon and Adi wanted to remodel their traditional ranch house and were surprised to find that there was no efficient way of doing so. They spent hours at Borders shuffling through dozens of books and magazines to combine ideas and come up with a vision for their home. In the 21stcentury, when everything is streamlined, from online grocery shopping to connecting with someone who lives 10,000 miles away, this was an anomaly. Alon wanted to make the process of home remodeling easier. His motto is to try and “make complicated things simple.”

6 years later, his company Houzz, is disrupting the interior design industry and is one of the hottest startups in the Bay Area. Alon explains that there were many instances when he hit a wall along the way, but he had to keep moving forward. He bootstrapped through every hiccup. Although he knew that raising money and monetizing where important parts of the process, he couldn’t stress the value of the team enough. Alon and Adi personally interview every potential employee who walks through the door in order to decide whether they are the right fit for the company’s culture. His two key pieces of advice: 1) pick the people you work with carefully and 2) no matter how talented you are, work incredibly hard.

Alon’s story shows that there is no secret sauce to starting your own company. Sometimes, you just have to pinpoint a problem, take a leap of faith, and be persistent in trying to solve it. Whether you are oozing with Silicon Valley ideals, or feel like an outsider in this little bubble, you have the ability to make something complicated in this world just a little simpler.

For the full lineup of ETL, visit the website

By Zabreen Khan

The Winner’s Circle (Part 1): Switchmate

SwitchMate (Product Showcase Winner 2014)

“Every time we went to Home Depot, we got kicked out. But, every time we were there, we learnt a ton.”

When Daniel Peng, Co-Founder of SwitchMate, spoke to users about their perceptions of home automation, they responded with very similar answers. “Most people don’t know what it is, and if they did, they didn’t want to call an electrician. Or they were at an apartment, so they couldn’t rewire,” Peng said. The adjectives they chose to describe home automation were often “cumbersome,” “complicated,” and “expensive.”

Born in the Stanford Mechatronics lab, SwitchMate was inspired when Co-Founder Robert Romana “wanted to turn his lights off from bed.”

Along with co-founder and electrical engineer Ashish Dua, the team learned about an industry that could be worth $52 billion by 2020. “We all met in college 6 years ago in the Bay Area,” Daniel said. “At the time, we were working on different projects.”

Throughout their user research stage, they more clearly realized that most people were deterred from home automation because it was not simple enough. With continued feedback, Daniel revealed, “We were able to use a 3D printer and iteratively make prototypes to ship out to our beta testers.”

Before long, the team entered the BASES Challenge with SwitchMate. Their focus: “How are we going to make a demo stand such that when people come by and play around with it, they’ll get it immediately?” Ultimately, Daniel used very few words to to showcase their product: “Hey, are you interested in simplifying your home lighting system?” Afterwards, users who tried it “set the prototype, smack it on, and they understood it immediately.”

The BASES Challenge helped SwitchMate “validate their idea” because “people really liked where it was going.” After the competition, Ashish and Daniel quit their jobs to commit themselves to the team full-time.

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When asked about the culture of their company, Daniel was quick to respond: “Team dynamic was extremely important. The biggest thing is believing in the mission of the company, such as loving the product and caring a lot about our customers. There are a couple of things that we all definitely agree on.”

With the 1st Place winnings, the team bought a 3D printer to more flexibly iterate over their prototypes. A priority on customers has allowed Switchmate to make great strides towards a common mission. As an entrepreneur, Daniel explained, “We all went through the education system, and while we learned a lot from classes, there’s nothing like just going out there and trying it ourselves. Learning by doing is one of the biggest things for me, and entrepreneurship is an awesome way to do that.”

On the future of SwitchMate, Daniel was quick to answer: “Our vision is to make home automation extremely simple, so people can use it without even having to pick up a screwdriver.”

To learn more about Switchmate, visit their website http://www.myswitchmate.com/

By Vincent Chen

Architecture as Vehicle for Expression: Jeanne Gang at ETL

If Jeanne Gang were a bird, she would live in this kind of nest.

She flips to an image of suspended, teardrop shaped forms hanging from the branches of a tree. The design of these nests is perfect: they push the boundaries of their material, and they create community.

Though unorthodox, this was probably a clear window into her thought process and a great way to begin the talk. How do we experience the spaces around us? How do we elevate space and craft it to achieve an ideal? She is a slim woman with dark hair, simple clothes, and an even voice. She is also a MacArthur Fellow and the founder and driving force behind Studio Gang Architects. Studio Gang has reimagined skyscrapers, boathouses, schools, and lakefronts. The Folsom tower rises and ripples on the San Francisco skyline, and the Arcus Center for Justice and Leadership is a tangible representation of the configurations that break down social barriers. Each work is the physical manifestation of an idea, and showcases remarkable intelligence, sensitivity, and creativity.

We don’t often think of bird nests as the greatest achievement in user-centered design, nor can most of us wrap our minds around manipulating physical space to evoke an idea. But as potential creators there is something delicate and definite that we can take away from Jeanne Gang’s architecture.

Both a bird’s nest and a building can be sublime.

By Vivian Hare
Photo: Zabreen Khan.

Exploring Beyond the Norms of Engineering and Tech With Shah Shelbe, National Geographic Society

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Shah Shelbe walked into the auditorium sporting jeans cuffed at the bottoms, a slim blue button down, and a light brown sports jacket. Although his long beard suggests that he is indeed the type of man that has spent some time in the wilderness, at first sight he did not come across as being a National Geographic Explorer. But who is to say that all explorers must wear rubber boots, hiking shorts, and carry a walking stick? Definitely not me. Just as I was quick to conjure up an image of an explorer based on my own preconceived notions, Shah urged us to think beyond the “norms” with regard to engineering and tech.

Engineers have classically been portrayed as nerdy and socially awkward specimens. But Shah, a chemical and propulsion engineer, reminded us that there is not a sole cookie-cutter mold for all engineers. He is relieved that engineering has increased its “coolness,” and stands by the belief that engineers give us the tools necessary to uncover humanity’s mysteries and save its treasures.

Currently in society, as Shah explained, companies that were invented in the 1950s and 60s are being rebuilt with the emergence of the tech industry. He says, “We are living in an amazing and remarkable time.” And as is commonly the case at Stanford it is particularly easy to fall into the trap of trying to create the next big thing – be it a new social network or an addictive app. But Shah encouraged us to think beyond the Silicon Valley bubble, promising that there are a myriad of problems beyond it that long for innovative solutions.

The Boeing employee, turned Engineer Without Borders volunteer, turned Stanford grad, turned fish savior, turned National Geographic emerging explorer (in a nutshell), is a testament to his own idea that “opportunity exists everywhere, especially in the least expected places.” Shah, the enthusiastic conservationist and Explorer, a title that most Stanford grads don’t have in their job description, inspired us to find our own inspiration because as he says, “the world needs you.”

Next Wednesday, Jeanne Gang, Founder and Principal of Studio Gang Architects, will be speaking at NVIDIA Auditorium @ 4:30 PM. To see the full lineup of speakers for this quarter, go to our website etl.stanford.edu

By Alejandro Rosenkranz

BASES Challenge KickOff…And We’re Live!

The BASES Challenge season has officially sprung into action.

BASES Challenge is Stanford’s oldest and largest student startup competition. As an annual startup competition, Challenge awards funding to aspiring Stanford entrepreneurs. Students and alumni enter their business or social venture ideas to compete for $100,000 in prize money and developmental opportunities. The application process begins with an electronic written application and culminates in two rounds of live judging.

Naturally some might find this process intimidating, perhaps even unattainable. As sophomore Simar Mangat spoke at the event on Monday, he described being a Freshman last year with little formal knowledge of entrepreneurship, but simply found some friends, united over a fiery passion, and just went for it. His novice team actually went on to win Challenge.

And, it’s true. BASES hopes this opportunity is a learning process in itself—one that anybody and everybody can get immersed in with innumerable chances along the way to make industry connections, get your name out there, develop closer bonds with fellow student entrepreneurs, become inspired, and, of course, strive for that ultimate gold at the end of the rainbow that could truly kickstart your venture.

In parallel with BASES’ goal to lengthen the reach of the competition to a wider audience, a couple new initiatives have been launched this year. Perhaps the most exciting is the initiative, BASES Funds. In the words of BASES Co-President, Brandon Garcia,”BASES Fund is a new initiative we’re piloting with the objective of eliminating financial constraints from students’ endeavors to work on their own projects. The fund seeks to distribute grants to students doing legitimate work. All we ask for in exchange is regular updates to our blog to keep the wider community in the loop about the technologies being developed.” There is also a greater chance for social ventures to take home money with this year’s altered Challenge prize structure.

As the evening concluded, those at the Kickoff last night got to hear some frank advice from Michael Baum, CEO of Founder.org and entrepreneurial enthusiast who left the audience with 8 thought-provoking tips for any entrepreneur to keep in mind while starting a startup. He described the lifestyle of an entrepreneur as something like no other than a lifestyle that “ is so worth it in the end.” He encouraged everyone in the audience to leverage the innumerable resources Stanford University has to offer while we are still students here—from the Maker’s Lab to opportunities like BASES Challenge to meet industry professionals to, of course, the rich diversity of minds we have the opportunity to be surrounded by everyday. So, why not take a chance?

Garcia and Michael Longoria, Director of Challenge agree that “Kickoff brought together future participants, past winners, and industry professionals to share their excitement for the BASES Challenge competition. A great keynote by Michael Baum, awesome demos from incredible Challenge alumni, and a great audience contributed to a successful 2015 launch of Stanford’s largest and oldest venture competition.” And with that, here’s to another season of BASES Challenge pitches, creativity, uncertainty, memories, and passion.

As Mangat encourages, “you won’t get the chance to go through something like BASES Challenge again. The timing is never “perfect” so even if you’re on the fence…just go for it!”

Apply to BASES Challenge!

Want more specifics about the prize structure? Find it here

Curious about BASES Fund. Apply here!

BASES Challenge Timeline

Jan 19: Applications go live

Mar 07: Applications due at 11:59pm

Apr 09 – Apr 10: Initial Judging Round

Apr 12 – May 1: Workshops + Office Hours

May 08: Finale Event

By Divya Saini

BASES Startup Career Fair – 79 Companies. 900+ Students

Last Thursday, the BASES Startup Career Fair attracted 79 companies, featuring up and coming startups like Travelnuts to more established companies like Intuit. From 11am to 4 pm, over 900 students arrived at the lawn between Gates and Mudd to seek summer opportunities and even permanent positions with premier companies in the valley.

“The BASES Startup Career Fair is a great way to get yourself out there and find new opportunities,” said freshman Isabela Becerra. “Although this is my first career fair, and I didn’t know what to expect, there’s so much energy. I’m having a great time.”

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Having a lot of freshman in attendance was a new highlight in this year’s career fair. Although upperclassmen typically compose a majority of the demographic, many underclassmen have already started looking for summer opportunities.

“I’m pleasantly surprised by the number of freshman here. It’s great to see so many underclassmen interested in startups even early on,” said BASES Co-President Andrea Sy.

Sy also noted that this year, there were a lot of startups present that wanted to disrupt older industries like healthcare and construction.

“It’s fascinating to see what types of companies come to the BASES Startup Career Fair each year. I think it’s interesting to see how well the change in industry focus of attending startups correlate with the changing entrepreneurship ecosystem,” said Sy.

From a company’s standpoint, many were excited to be exposed to the incredible pipeline of talent: Stanford students. Shay Fidel, Stanford alumnus and head of growth operations at Plan Grid, “loves how Stanford fosters entrepreneurship,” in its students and “is trying to incorporate this in Plan Grid’s culture.” On the other hand, Oracle recruiter Amanda Johnson notes that “Stanford students are from so many different backgrounds,” so it makes her job “easier and exciting.”

“The BASES startup career fair was a great opportunity to engage with passionate students and get them excited about or mission. I love how Stanford students are both entrepreneurial and technically inclined,” said Upstart CTO Jonathan Eng.

After talking to a wide variety of companies, many students walked out feeling satisfied, some even getting interviews immediately afterward.

“After talking to a wide range of companies today, I already received an email about a potential opportunity. This event was truly worthwhile,” said freshman Natalie Ng.

For those of you who couldn’t attend the event, the startup career fair talent portal is still open for you to submit your resume! Click here. 

Complete list of all companies at the event can be found here

By Valerie Huynh

Empowering the next generation of Stanford entrepreneurs and beyond

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