My deCODE Experience

What does a clock do when it's hungry?

“Hi, my name is Raja. Over the past two days, I got the amazing opportunity to work with some smart students, and two really cool engineers from Google.” Those were the exact words I used to introduce my team’s project, deSNAP.

This past Friday and Saturday, I attended the deCODE Waterloo hackathon where I was paired with Google, along with five other students. We were given less than two days to complete a fully functional project, but we were mentored by two Google engineers along the way.

The two engineers we were paired with suggested we make an Android application to share photos. We came up with the name of deSNAP (I wanted to call it D-pic). deSNAP is an Android app that allows users to send and receive pictures confidentially, and it includes the ability to scan your friends’ QR codes to add them. We created our app in Android Studio and used Google Firebase for our backend.

deCODE wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. I was under the impression it was like any other hackathon: A couple hundred students come together for up to 48 hours of continuous hacking, free food and hair-pulling-in-frustration-because-my-program-won’t-compile-and-I-just-slept-for-three-hours-on-the-floor, and you typically end off the weekend sweaty, smelly, tired and full of coffee and soylent – but with a cool side project you can add to your portfolio! While deCODE had amazing food and I did walk away with another side project under my belt, it was super different from traditional hackathons.

The primary difference of deCODE is the size. With less than thirty attendees, all of whom went through a rigorous screening process, the event has a very exclusive feel. Applications are first screened by the deCODE organizers, who attempt to minimize bias by ignoring applicant names when reviewing applications. Applications are then reviewed by recruiters and developers from the sponsor companies, who decide which students they want to work with. The result is a few small teams of handpicked, quality applicants who get the amazing chance to work with high profile, innovative companies – which is itself an amazing reward.

Personally, being able to work with real engineers from Google was a great opportunity, and one I didn’t think I would be lucky enough to ever experience. Besides being able to learn from the top engineers in the industry, it made me realise that Googlers aren’t super genius cyborgs who can recite sorting algorithms backwards – they’re regular people. They look at memes, they play video games and they use stack overflow, too.

deCODE also isn’t an overnight hackathon. The engineers probably aren’t down to spend their night sleeping on a table in an old lecture hall, so I got to spend my Friday night sleeping in a normal bed. For hackers who came from other universities, deCODE provided accommodations for them.

Overall, I was very impressed with how our project turned out, and I’m so glad I applied to this event. I got to work with people who were much smarter than I am and we churned out a functioning app in under 36 hours – and those hours were filled with learning, caffeine, great food, a bit of frustration and a lot of fun (and a couple of dad jokes, too).

Huge thank you to the deCODE team for organizing this event, and shout out to all the wonderful engineers from Google, Top Hat, Microsoft and Shopify who gave up the majority of their weekend to mentor us. ❤

A: It goes back four seconds.

P.S. If you want to learn more about deSNAP, check out the git repo here.

QHacks 2017

February 3rd - 5th, 2017

This week, I had three assignments due and I had three midterms to study for. Realizing I had so much to do and so little time, I did what any responsible student would do – I took a bus to Queen’s and spent the weekend programming, meeting new people, and eating free food (notice I left sleeping off that list). I finished the weekend with one finished project, a better knowledge of JavaScript and jQuery, six free meals, a couple of new friends, and about 3 hours of sleep.

I applied for this hackathon back in January. I was hesitant at first because I didn’t think I knew enough to attend one of these before. To me, hackathons were only for elite programmers. Luckily, my friend Alban was also going and convinced me to sign up.

The start of the hackathon was a little messy. I found a team of two first year engineering students from uWaterloo and one business student who had a love of data science. A few of the project themes this year revolved around mental health, so we decided to make a virtual therapist chatbot Android app, that also allowed the user to wear a virtual reality headset to see calming visuals and hear relaxing music.

We were psyched to make something so cool and then we realized something – none of us knew how to make mobile applications. Damn. Still, we were headstrong and convinced that this was a winning idea and spent the next 12 hours mulling over how we could either A) learn how to use Android Studio, learn Java and churn out a functioning app in 20 hours or B) use some other tool that would allow us to produce a prototype that we could present. Half of us were convinced we could do it, the other half not as much. We mulled over it and an hour later... we still had nothing. I decided that at this rate we were going to have nothing to present at the expo so I went off the rails a little and started researching how to make chrome extensions while my group continued to debate about what to do. I told them I would work on this little project as a back-up. I had come up with a cool idea and thought that it would be quick to make. One of the challenges that intrigued me was Major League Hacking's (MLH) challenge called #HackHarassment, where the goal was to come up with a project that could help end online harassment.

Fast forward to midday Saturday. I had eaten one too many bagels and had barely enough sleep to function properly, but I knew that we didn’t have enough time to make this app or come up with a new project. I already make progress with my little project and kept chugging on. By 10AM Sunday morning, my baby was ready to be handed in for judging. was done.

Judging was a bit of a rough ride. My app was a little wonky at times and one of the judges from Movember that was supposed to come see our project completely skipped us. Reactions for ranged from meh… to OMG this is amazing!

1PM. Awards ceremony. Sponsors came up and delivered their prizes to the teams that had come up with amazing projects to the sponsor challenges. Flipp, Movember, RLSolutions, RBC...all had cool challenges that these students conquered. I had already accepted that was unlikely to win anything, so you can imagine my surprise when the MLH judge came up the podium and uttered the words, “Block dot I T”. I was in a moment of genuine disbelief. “Huh?” I look to my left and see Alban smiling at me. I look to the right and see my team members get up. “No way this is happening”. I awkwardly walked through the maze of seats and feet and walk up to the stage with my team to accept our award. “No way this is happening…”

This weekend not only instilled in me a love of hackathons, but also gave me the self-confidence I needed to start my own side projects. I even stayed up the following night to overhaul my website, give it a fresh modern look AND get a proper .com domain (no for me). I even decided to start writing this blog!

Check out my chrome extension here & the devpost for this Hackathon submission here.
My teammate and new friend Aboud also wrote about his QHacks experience here.