Hackathons Saved My Life

Today we are stoked to have Jimmy Jacobson of Zappos fame writing as the latest guest blogger here at StartupFlavor. If you’ve ever met Jimmy, you know how awesome he is to hang with. He’s a talented developer and, as you’ll learn, taught himself to code when he was only in the 8th grade! After working a few too many enterprise gigs he fell in love with hackathons and began again to love his job as a coder. He’s been attending and organizing hackathons ever since, even coming out from Las Vegas to help be a part of Salt Lake City’s first Startup Weekend. In Vegas he was on the winning team that built clipppr.com and presented to Tony Hsieh and Kevin Rose. Jimmy has a ton of experience in the startup and development world and he is just a legit good dude. All good reasons to read about how hackathons saved Jimmy’s life…

What is a Hackathon?
If you have any code monkey friends chances are you’ve heard of a Hackathon. And chances are good you didn’t understand it when they told you what it was. It sounds dangerous, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s like a fight club for programmers.  Or maybe where developers get together and skateboard while compromising high security systems.  Are leather jackets with spikes and shades required attire?

You probably didn’t understand the description because your programmer friend was so excited about it that coherent speech was impossible.  And that’s because Hackathons are exciting.  Have you ever said to yourself, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” Now imagine a room full of coders making those cool ideas happen over the course of a day, fueled by pizza, beer, and the promise of iPads and prizes for the best demos.  That’s what a Hackathon is.

My coding background
I taught myself to code in 8th grade. However, I’m not rich and famous or a genius.  Through college I taught myself Web Development by taking small contracts off of sites like Rentacoder or ODesk. I learned 3D graphics and made a few small games. I even got the chance to write some Artificial Intelligence code for robots. I was having fun. Then I graduated and got a job writing code for a big e-commerce site.  We all sat together in a room, bullpen style and all architecture discussions happened in the open, whiteboard style. I learned a ton.

The Enterprise Doldrums
But then I started getting contacted from recruiters.  The first time around it’s always flattering. And I figured all development shops must be the same and as cool as the places I had already been. Boy was I wrong.  I went over to a gig doing Enterprise Java development for a branch of the US Government. But in Dr. Seuss style, that was not the case.  I went from whiteboards and bullpens to cubicle farms and time sheets.  I sat through Requirement Review meetings that lasted 5 hours and consisted of flipping through binders full of powerpoint printouts. I was in hell. I hated my job. I even stopped working on projects at home.

I got out of there as soon as I could but back into another Enterprise type gig. I was caught in an endless waterfall cycle of development.

Zappos and Hackathon
Then the opportunity came along to come to Zappos, and of course I jumped ship.  Despite being a Java shop, it was as far from the past environments I’d been in as possible.  My first ticket said “We need a key management and throttling layer on top of our public API”.  2 months ago I never would have thought myself capable of writing something like that without being micromanaged, but a few weeks later I was done.

But the best part of working at Zappos is the quarterly Hackathons. Developers get two days every quarter to work on whatever ideas they want, free from all meetings and deadlines. We are also free to use whatever technology we want: Nodejs, Ruby, NoSQL, etc. Even if it’s not part of the Zappos Tech Stack, you are free to use it.  I quickly grew to love NodeJS and Redis.  But the best part of Hackathon is getting to work with developers your daily tasks would never bring you into contact with.  Sitting in a room and working together on the same project is so much better than only interacting with each other via JIRA comments on tickets. You learn so much from each other.

I was hooked. I started going outside of Zappos to get my hackathon fix. Startup Weekends, Twilio Hackathons, even organizing a few.  I started working on side projects. But instead of taking contracts or working by myself on my own ideas, I sought out people I had hacked with.

The Future
Now, in my spare time, I’ve been working on a pretty amazing product with some great people thanks to my Hackathon connections.  Wedgies started as a fun weekend hack project with a friend and has turned into a very useful tool for doing quick polls over twitter, email and SMS.  And I love working on it. Something I haven’t felt about coding in a long time.

The Moral
All coding is not the same.  Some people are suited for chasing pay bumps and working in big shops. But I’ve learned the hard way, that’s not for me.  Hackathons saved my life.  They taught me just how good I can be under pressure.  Hackathons taught me how amazing working with a team can be.  And Hackathons taught me that life needs to be about more than just matching skills on my resume to job description bullet points. We all can, and owe it to ourselves, to do better than that.

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About Jimmy Jacobson

  • Wow, such a great article.  Thanks for sharing man — I feel the same way 🙂  I’ve only had one startup weekend but it was awesome.  I need my next fix.

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