Sunday Afternoon at a NJ Hackathon

There were all the signs of a long weekend of coding at the Converge Coworking space on the Kean University campus (Union, NJ). Stacks of empty pizza boxes, coffee cups, wireframe sketches scattered on desks, and developers staring at screen emulators on their MacBooks.

New Jersey Mobile Meetup was concluding its first hackathon, and I had arrived just as the iPhone and Android warriors were chowing down on one last hot meal before the final presentations.

The winners of this contest would gain serious boasting rights, and some Twilio and Odesk credits to be used on future projects.

I schmoozed with Michael de Senna, who along with his partner David Kay organized this past weekend’s event.  De Senna said NJ MM does roughly two gatherings a month for smartphone enthusiasts in the central region of the Garden State. This group holds both tech center talks and pure social events in New Brunswick, Princeton, Edison, and other towns in the Jersey heartland.

I wasn’t expecting the next Twitter or Instagram to emerge from two all-nighters worth of coding. These development marathons in the suburbs of any-state, USA  are really more about the democratization of a tech culture in places where you can attract and channel software ambitions and dreams without big city prizes and resources.

I learned there would be four awards given in addition to an overall winner by a panel made up of angel investors Ken Kay (Jumpstart NJ) and Sina Adibi, Mike Wiley from NJ’s Economic Development Authority, and cultural critic and SXSW Startup Bus observer, Joan K. Smith.

I gulped a cup of coffee, ate some chips, and was now ready to hear the pitches. Game on!

I was intrigued by Jianying Ji’s SideWinder, a kind of screen bookmarking service built on HTML5 and CSS3 that allows you to quickly steer to parts of a Web page on small iPhone Android displays but also can in theory work on iPhone as well.

I think I got that right. Unfortunately, the projector didn’t seem to be working so I couldn’t actually see Ji’s work.

The judges, though, seemed to be asking lots of questions to Jerry Gabra and John Lin of the Bar None team, who developed a kind of social mixology app. The pitch: you’re at a bar or a friend’s house enjoying a cocktail and use this iPhone app to quickly jot down the ingredients in your new favorite beverage.

Later after a hard day of struggling, say, with Objective C, you’ll naturally want to pour yourself that same drink or perhaps find out what your friends are drinking. That’s Bar None.

I also liked iHat, the virtual iPhone hat application, which I thought had obvious commercial potential in the children’s party market.  After picking a favorite hat, say a sombrero,  you then hold your iHat proudly over your head.  It becomes more of a multi-media affair when you turn on the sound, and I think there are plans to animate the graphics.

An iHat

The app is free. Their business model as Felipe Ferrira and Andy Contrera explained it is to develop an online marketplace for the hats.

My mind was racing with iHat possibilities. Perhaps they could do a joint venture with Bar None, call it Bar Hat, in which you pick your favorite virtual lampshade after mixing a Bar None drink. Were the judges groking the real potential of iHat?

Mike de Senna was also in the running with his iPhone foreign language flash cards. The judges seemed to be studying his one-page slide of the huge education market.

With the pitches over, the judges convened to a conference room to begin their app deliberations.

Tensions were mounting.

And overall winner was … Bar None. Of course, this one has legs and obvious ad revenue potential. Congrats to Gabra and Lin. They told me later they are still working out the complete problem space rather just blindly adding features—spoken like true entrepreneurs.

Lucky devils: they walked away with a year’s worth of Linux hosting time from linode, the cloud computing service.

But wait Team iHat received the prestigious “Most Likely to Gain Traction for Unknown Reasons” prize. Well deserved.

Technical achievement award went to Ji’s SideWinder for grappling with HTML5. De Senna picked up Best Pitch.

And a Braveheart prize went to a developer who mightily struggled with code that just didn’t come together in time.

The judges had spoken, and I was nodding in agreement on their judgely wisdom

Afterwards I chatted with Roger Salazar who runs the Converge Coworking space. He essentially described a very friendly, trusting, and open environment in which you can rent desk space month to month to hatch a tech business. The number of tenants has grown since Converge opened their doors about a year ago.

I thought about this creative space on the way home as I drove past a machine tool factory on Morris Avenue near Kean.

There’s probably more technology packed into an iPhone then all those metal punchers and lathes. The next killer mobile app just requires a desk, some development software, and a good idea.

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  1. Big High 5 to the winners, who are also members of Meetup Group NSCoderNJ. From start to finish Jerry and John ripped it up! Imaging coding all night in Objective-C! Let the Geek be with you!

    NSCoderNJ is a meetup group for beginning, intermediate, and expert developers focused on mobile applications. Come join us the second Wednesday of the Month at ConvergeNJ.

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