It was 9 pm on a Friday, a time when most offices would be dead — no overhead lights, no persistent hum from the AC, no ringing phones. The perfect picture of calm and quiet, save occasional car horns trickling in from the nearby road.
On June 2nd, this was not the picture at the SocialCops office. At 9 pm, music blared from overhead speakers and a roar of conversation erupted from the cafeteria, underpinned by a steady buzz of chatter from our main room. Forty people were collaborating — planning their code structure or painting strategies, chatting about their weekends over daal makhani, heads buried in computers or whiteboard scribbles.
It was the first day of the SocialCops Hackathon. It wasn’t technically our first hackathon (that was back in 2014), but it felt like the first for much of our new team. Everyone was pumped, building elaborate plans for what they would build.
Did you catch what I said there? That last sentence didn’t say that people were planning what they would hack. They were planning what they would build.
I know that sounds like a technicality, some pedantic word juggling from SocialCops’ in-house editor. But it’s far more important than that. To many people, “hack” implies coding. “Build” doesn’t.
When I proposed organizing a SocialCops Hackathon in 2017, I wanted to think about it a bit differently. The SocialCops team is diverse, filled with engineers and economists, designers and data analysts alike. Hackathons are great at including many different types of technical people, but often they’re not very good at including people who don’t know how to code.
I wanted to change that with our hackathon. My goal was to create an event where every single person on our team could team up to build amazing things that would make SocialCops better.
Day 0: Figuring Out the Projects
A week before the hackathon, we created a public project document to help people share ideas and find teams to work with. The goal was simple — build something to improve SocialCops.
We expected the project document to remain fairly calm until the night before the hackathon. But as soon as we posted the document, people went crazy, posting one idea after another and even adding thoughts onto other people’s projects.
The sheer diversity of the projects was incredible. By the end, our team had contributed nearly 40 project ideas — building a image recognition neural network, improving our challenges for candidates, automating our content editing, fixing our defunct music-playing bot, and more!
Day 1: Collaborate, Build, Test, and Repeat
When the hackathon started on Friday at 3 pm, everyone dove into their projects. The office was energized — music playing, videos playing on our projector, food and coffee on every table — but people were focused, huddled with their teams over whiteboards and computers to plan out the next 24 hours.
Since everyone had taken on ambitious projects, our hackathon turned out to be a 24-hour period of intense learning.
Krishna and his team of engineers learned how to SSH into a Windows machine (aka accessing a Windows machine from any other machine using commands) and set up a Slackbot. Ankita from our Research & Analysis Team learned how to use Ghost Inspector to automatically quality check our dashboards.
Jessi and Ritu cycled through a series of online bot builders before learning which was the best, while learning how to answer the biggest FAQs about Collect. I spent the beginning of the hackathon reading an online book on natural language processing in Python so I could make my team’s Slackbot more conversational. And everyone who worked on our art wall learned a little about how to paint.
Day 2: Hackathon Demo and Prizes
We love our demos at SocialCops, so we decided to wrap up our hackathon on Saturday with a demo to show off all the cool stuff we had built. Each team showed off its project in four minutes, talking through the problem it wanted to solve and walking the team through what they built. Meanwhile, our co-founders Prukalpa and Varun judged the demos to award prizes.
It was incredible what each team had been able to build in just 24 hours!
Our first prize went to Team Night Riders, a group of engineers who built a system to let anyone display anything on any of our 10 office TVs, all from their computers. They showed off their project by taking over the two TVs on either side of our projector, displaying everything from the names of each demo to funny photos taken throughout the hackathon.
Second place went to Shoal (my team!), which was a Slackbot to help us stay more connected as our team keeps growing. My teammates and I had never built a Slackbot or handled natural language processing, and I had never even created a database or accessed an API. Yet together we ended up building a bot that collects personal data from new team members, helps them build their SocialCops profile, lets the entire team ask questions like “Is Akul busy right now?” or “What’s Akul’s favorite food?”, and automatically builds a real-time Humans of SocialCops page.
Third place went to Inside SocialCops, who turned years of disconnected documents into a set of interactive timelines to walk new hires through the history of SocialCops. They built up unique timelines for our company, our platform and each product on it, some of our biggest and most important deployments, and even timelines and FAQs for the tools and products our engineers are working on now.
We also had a category of prizes based on popular vote, where everyone voted about their favorite project and artwork on Collect. The People’s Choice prize went to Instant Collect, a Google Instant app that lets our team share and demo Collect forms online. Our Sales team was particularly pumped about this project, since it’ll let them show Collect to people online just as if they were both standing over a phone.
Nikhil and Sahaj also picked up popular choice awards for the best artwork on our art wall. Sahaj was a shoo in for the prize since he is SocialCops’ resident designer (check out his art in the bottom right corner of the photo above). But Nikhil was a bit of a surprise, since he had never even painted before the hackathon. He read tips online, kept testing new techniques throughout the night, and ended up making some beautiful art by the time morning came.
Kudos to all the people who participated in the SocialCops Hackathon (including two future interns who hadn’t even joined SocialCops yet, but still wanted to participate) and spent a crazy 24 hours learning new skills and building awesome stuff. We’re so pumped about the results of this hackathon, and we can’t wait to hold another soon!