Some thoughts on the CodeFEST8 in Dresden

What is it?

The CodeFEST is a hackathon held by Volkswagen. Basically, you’re joining a team and with the help of some mentors, you tickle your brain for 26 hours of pure work until a great, innovative idea comes out. After reaching the deadline, you give a short five-minute presentation about the problem, your solution, some technical details, and marketing aspects. Bonus points for a live demo. This year’s motto was “Mobilität der Zukunft” – mobility of the future.

But what for?

A jury of kinda-high-positioned employees evaluate your idea (and your personality) by bombarding you with discerning questions. Based on that information, they make out a regional winner. They are invited to an all-expenses trip to the CeBIT in Hannover to present their idea in a 60-second elevator pitch on stage. If you can also convince there and your team is placed among the first three, you’ll get some price money – and more importantly – the chance to professionally realize your project in cooperation with an automotive company.

The spirit of innovation

When we got together and entered the competition, we just wanted to have fun. Neither did we have a specific idea, nor did we care about the prize money – or even getting beyond the first stage. My intention when entering was to re-embrace the innovative and getting-things-done vibe that I already had experienced in projects with friends in the past. And it worked! Again! We found a good-enough idea in the first brainstorming when the other teams were still getting to know each other. After we welcomed two new people (among them a remarkably talented first-semester student), the idea evolved from good-enough to promising.

In the next day’s first hours – after a quick sponsored breakfast – we developed a small roadmap and the system’s architecture. Suddenly, the kinda crazy idea became feasible. The doodles on our board and great communication gave us a good overview of what things have to be done how. Solid programming skills in Python, PHP, MySQL, and front-end design did the rest. In the end, there was even enough time to spontaneously conceive and develop a Windows Phone app in C# and make enough progress to embed it into our presentation.

The hidden value

The bare amount of code we delivered in only 26 hours was amazing. At the deadline our team of six people was able to develop:

  • A generator for simulating a car’s sensor system and real-time data output
  • A working backend analyzing the sensor data and handling different statistics
  • A working frontend with stat visualization and user account management
  • A basic Windowsphone app as PoC for live data sync
  • Loads of content to fill the framework for demo purposes

However, I’m even more proud to see how every team member freely contributed their ideas. Due to the time pressure, everyone quickly realized that not all of their ideas could be put into the project and it was amazing to see how consequent we were able to separate the necessary and the optional.

So personally, my most valuable experience was the joy of solving a serious problem together with a productive team. Also, staying awake for about 34 hours and the following satisfaction of winning is something I am not going to forget for the rest of my career and life. Not to mention the awesome feeling of taking a hot shower after an exhausting competition.

How does it go on?

On March 17 our team will leave for Hannover. The day after, we will get our stage time to do the pitch and be judged by the jury. They will announce the first three winning teams. After that, there will be a small aftershow party and plenty of interesting conversations with other amazing people. I hope to make some promising contacts and make our idea tempting for the business people.

No matter how this turns out – I will be in for CodeFEST9 in 2016. Until then, there are plenty more hackathons to visit and report from.