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Coders will convene for second Valley Hackathon

Dozens of tech-minded people will gather at a 24-hour coding competition, the 2016 Valley Hackathon, on Friday and Saturday in downtown Modesto.

The second annual event is presented by the Stanislaus Business Alliance, its Small Business Development Center and other sponsors.

Though it’s a contest with more than $4,000 in prize money at stake, “we want it to be lighthearted,” said Kurtis Clark, director of the Alliance SBDC.

Several hours into the event, which will start at 6 p.m. Friday at the Greens Event Center, 959 10th St., teams will take a Lego break. Even that, though, will include competition, as teams are given an assortment of blocks and judged on what they build. “The Legos are kind of like cleansing your palate while wine tasting,” Clark said of the break from coding. “It’s a fun way to use jumbo Legos to be creative and competitive.”

The first Valley Hackathon was last January, and organizers since have held two “mini hacks.” Clark has been to one and said, “It was casual and fun. ... We intend it to be very fun, especially if you’re having 24 hours of competition.”

There are lulls, he said, and then “it can get intense because at different times teams are testing their products,” which are judged on completeness, technical difficulty, originality and “pure awesomeness.”

Nathan Bunney, web developer, owner of Inventaweb and SBDC consultant who’s overseeing the Hackathon, shared some more information on the event:

Q: What is the Hackathon? What’s its goal?

A: A Hackathon is an event where teams of computer programmers and designers compete to create something fresh and new in a limited amount of time. Different events have different rules or goals. The event Friday and Saturday is very open-ended. People can do what they want but must impress the judges to win. We have everything from a project involving a drone to a team building a social site for graffiti this year.

Our main site, https://valleyhackathon.com, is still a work in progress. There is more information about the event at http://valley-hackathon-2016.devpost.com.

Q: Is there a community-improvement goal here? The code of conduct includes the statement: “Be the change you want to see in your local community.”

A: There is. We have been building up to this event, which is our first truly large event. Our next event, planned for the spring, will invite a designer who will work with a local charity to figure out what they need. Then they will arrive at the event and be assigned a team of programmers to fulfill those goals. That would be a 10-hour event, but a designer and two programmers can build some fairly amazing stuff in that time frame.

Q: What kinds of things have come from last January’s Hackathon and the spring and fall “mini hacks”?

A: We had six projects presented at the end of last year’s event; all of those projects are currently dormant. The other two events were shorter and have also produced great projects, but none of them have become a business – yet. Often, hack projects are proof of concepts for something larger that a participant hopes to do later. There are seeds in several of the projects for businesses and/or community sites.

Some notable projects that have been done:

▪ A video training system that has attached quizzes. If a quiz question is missed, then that section of the video can be automatically replayed.

▪ A system for creating music by moving in front of a Microsoft Kinect.

▪ A website where you can discuss political issues, and summaries of the discussions participated in by their constituents are automatically sent to the politicians.

▪ A system for mapping out agricultural fields for the purpose of tracking when and how they were watered.

▪ A system for measuring the soil moisture in an area and automatically turning on valves when it is too dry.

Q: How did this get started?

A: Josh Chamberlain, a programmer at Geostrategies in Turlock, suggested that we do an event last year. I guess you can say we just bootstrapped the thing – got sponsors and people to come. Since then, we have been working with the Alliance SBDC, and that has been wonderful to have their support.

Q: “Hacking” seems to have changed or expanded from the meaning of gaining unauthorized access to a computer system. What’s it mean to be a hack?

A: Actually it is funny you would say that. The term hacker, back in the ’60s and ’70s, meant a good programmer who could hack his code down to be fast and efficient. The term has been hijacked to mean malicious programmers, but we are trying to take the term back. So the title, Hackathon, has that purpose.

Q: It looks like the Valley Hackathon has seen dramatic growth. The website says the 2015 event had 22 participants, seven teams, 12 sponsors and no prize money, while this one will have 68 participants, 13 teams, 20 sponsors and $4,200 in prize money. What’s behind the great growth?

A: Actually, we did have $3,000 in prize money last year, just not on the website (in progress, as I said).

Also, the 68 is likely high. Some people will sign up but not show up. We are expecting 55 to 60 programmers, 10 volunteers, five judges and lots of community people to show up and check things out for the judging at 7 p.m. Saturday.

The growth has come out of an upswell over the last year in the technology community here in Stanislaus County. At the center of that are the local Meetup.com groups – Modesto Scripting Language Meetup, Google Developer Group Modesto and GDG Oakdale being the primary ones. Also, the SBDC’s support has been critical, especially helping us form ModSpace, a local hackerspace for geeks like me to work from.

Also, companies like Oportun have been changing the landscape by coming in and hiring a lot of local talent to staff their new office with programmers here in Modesto. That is a great story all by itself. Local kid goes out and makes it big working for Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart, then moves over to work as VP of engineering at a financial startup in the Bay. Can’t find enough programmers for his team in the Bay Area, so gets in touch with the programming community in his hometown and decides to open an office in downtown Modesto. David Needham at Oportun is amazing.

Q: Has Valley Hackathon registration closed? Did teams or individual participants pay to enter?

A: It’s still open, but there’s no guarantee you will get a T-shirt with a late registration. There’s no cost to enter. We want to build community, and local companies like Oportun, Data Path, Inventaweb, Geostrategies, Front Porch and Novo Technologies are looking for talent. They are willing to pay to see that talent on display. That sounds funny to say it that way, but access to programming talent is extremely tight everywhere, and with Oportun moving into Modesto, it is going to get even tighter.

Q: Did participants have to be on a team to join, or were participants put into teams?

A: Teams have formed organically so far. Some will choose to go it alone. Some teams will form last-minute at the event.

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327

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