My week with Hack Lodge Boston
Boston, MA — February 16, 2019
At MIT we have a pretty long winter break, which is designed to give us a lot of freedom with how we spend our time. Some students take on short internships, hang out on campus with friends, or even teach classes abroad. I decided to spend my last week of IAP with Hack Lodge Boston (HLB), a week-long hackathon held off-campus with a bunch of other MIT students. Here’s how it went.
After sleeping through my alarm (as usual), I eventually woke up, excited for the week ahead. I don’t pack for anything in advance, so I quickly put seven days of clothes into my duffel bag, brushed my teeth, and walked to the nearest bus stop. Half an hour later, I arrived at the hack lodge.
HLB was held in a 4-story townhouse with enough beds, kitchens, and workspaces to host about 25 people. After stepping inside, I claimed my bed before heading upstairs for our first standup. Since nobody had created anything yet, we spent the time introducing ourselves, assigning chores (e.g. cooking, cleaning up), and discussing how the week was going to unfold. Once the standup was over, we broke off into teams and got to work.
Most of the HLB participants came with their teams and ideas already prepared. My team had met up a couple days earlier, so we already knew each other’s names and had figured out our general idea. Here’s our pitch: MIT students use email extensively. In order to advertise events to the student body, people “dormspam” to the whole student body, effectively sending an email to 4,500 students. Anybody is allowed to dormspam, which means that everyone who is subscribed can receive upwards of 25-30 emails per day. As a result, many students unsubscribe from dormspam emails, and are shut off from event advertisements completely.
There has to be a better way. We decided we were going to scrape dormspam emails to try to find event details, and display these on a calendar, on a website that’s simple and easy for all MIT students to use. Furthermore, any student would be able to log into our site and configure the types of emails they’re interested in, and we would send them a personalized digest every day or so, listing the emails that went out to dormspam. This solves a couple of problems with the existing system, and allows everybody to stay in the loop without having to manage a crowded inbox. We were excited not only to solve the technical challenges with our hack, but also to build something that could be useful for the MIT community at large.
We started by loosely splitting up into two teams: frontend and backend. I was on the frontend team, and we spent the first hour designing the app. We chose to implement it with React, since I had a little experience with it, and my teammates wanted to learn more about it. We worked for a few more hours, until dinner arrived and our first speaker came to HLB. Kelly Peng, CEO of Kura Technologies, talked about her experience building an augmented reality startup, how she spends her free time, and what she’s looking forward to in the future.
After her talk, we got back to work. By the end of the night, this was what we had made!
My bed is right next to a window that faces the sunrise, which made it much easier to wake up here than in my dorm room. I woke up at 9am (without my alarm!) so I could shower help cook breakfast. We made lots of bacon and scrambled eggs, and in the process we set off the fire alarm, which conveniently woke everyone up in time for standup.
During standup, everybody discussed what they finished yesterday, and their goals for today. It was a good way for us to keep track of our progress. We worked a bit more until burritos arrived for lunch, and we started talking to people on the other teams. I got a chance to get to know some of the other teams’ members, which in my mind was one of the best parts of HLB. After that, we worked some more until dinner, for which we cooked pasta.
After dinner, we had a team meeting where we figured out where everyone was in terms of their progress, and what needed to be done in order to prepare for tomorrow’s demo. We worked on our website’s login feature for a bit until someone brought out a Nintendo 64 emulator, and everyone started playing N64 Smash.
Like yesterday, this morning I woke up around 9am to cook breakfast. Today we made pancakes, and they came out pretty well!
We went through standup again, and quickly got to work. Today was our first demo day, which meant that at 10pm, each team would present what they had in front of everyone else. I spent most of my morning figuring out a bug that was caused by one missing line in my code. After lunch arrived, I realized that another one of my favorite things about HLB was that breaks were actually encouraged. Most hackathons are super tiring; you’re encouraged to eat junk food and pull an all-nighter to finish your project in time for demos on Sunday morning. By contrast, during HLB everyone ate well, slept well, and occasionally exercised. This was great for staying motivated for a whole week.
Eventually poké bowls arrived for dinner, and we talked some more to the other HLB participants. We had a quick team meeting to prepare for our demo, and kept working until we had something to present. I’m not sure what I was expecting to get out of our first demo night, but I definitely was not disappointed. From a working cardboard piano to a hilarious BAC tracker, everyone seemed to have a great time sharing progress on our projects. Afterwards, we had another Smash tournament, and I eventually called it a night.
I overslept. Our team used today as a bit of a break, since a couple of us had meetings and other commitments back on MIT’s campus. During lunch, we all had a very long discussion about high school! All of us had very different experiences growing up, from international schools, to boarding schools, to public schools (like me). After lunch, Abhi, one of the HLB organizers, gave a quick talk about the state of machine learning research. Our team worked for a bit after Abhi’s talk, but eventually I had to head back to campus for awhile. Over my winter break, I took a weekly four-hour rock climbing class to fulfill one of my PE credits.
Unfortunately, this meant I had to miss tonight’s talk on startups from Ben Jun, the CEO of HVF Labs. I got dinner on campus with a couple of friends, headed back to the hack lodge, worked for about an hour, and went to sleep.
I woke up and made it to standup on time, and proceeded to work through most of the day. After lunch, Michael (one of my teammates) gave a talk on Lisp and the Y combinator (unrelated to the VC firm). We then coded some more, continuing to work through dinner because tonight was our second demo day.
After dinner, Stan Reiss from Matrix Partners gave a talk about the startup world from the perspective of a VC firm. It was pretty insightful for us, as students who mostly had experience building things, not selling them. After Stan’s talk, we worked for another hour before demos. Everyone made a ton of progress; it’s shocking how quickly you can get things done when you’re working with friends. We wrapped up our night with another team meeting, during which we figured out what was left to be done before final demos on Saturday.
I woke up in time for standup again, and we immediately got to work. Today was our last day working as a full team, since three of our team members had weekend commitments that meant they had to leave the hack lodge tonight. We ordered Bertucci’s for lunch, and then listened to a talk by Catherine Zeng, another HLB participant, about her experience building a startup and taking it through Y Combinator.
We cooked quesadillas for dinner tonight, and then listened to a talk to a talk by Eugene Chen, a former MIT graduate, about understanding a startup’s finances. We then had our last team meeting, and discussed what the remaining few of us were going to do on Saturday. After a week of work, the screenshot from Sunday night turned into this:
I woke up in time for standup, and got to work for our last day at Hack Lodge. Today was another slow day, and we mostly spent it fixing bugs and polishing for final demos. For dinner, we catered Halal Guys, which is for sure one of my favorite places to eat back in NYC! Today was the day I learned they also bad a Boston location.
Again, I wasn’t sure what to expect for final demos, but everyone had a great night. Lots of MIT and Harvard students were invited to come watch, and each team took five minutes to show off their project. Here’s what everyone made:
- Catherine worked on her computational linguistics research paper
- Seiji created a data visualization tool to track the funding sources of each part of MIT
- Vaid created an online viewer for MIT confessions
- Walla, Christina, and Zach worked on a universal controller for game consoles
- Robert created a functional cardboard piano
- Martin added features to his note-taking app, Remnote
- Philip implemented matrix multiplication on an FPGA
- Anna worked on a gene mapping algorithm for biology research
- Jay created a distributed scoring app for swimming and diving
- My team created dormsp.am
- Ethan created a logic puzzle game
- Abhi created Alcohelix, a blood-alcohol content tracker
I’m super proud of what we made, and grateful for the connections and memories I made over the course of the week. Thank you to everyone who made it so memorable, and thank you especially to Abhi and Anna, who organized HLB!