Guest Blog: A day in the life of a hackathon

Cloud Cover IT proudly sponsored Glasgow University Society for Women in Tech Halloween Hackathon on Saturday 24th October. Eddie Pryce, SharePoint Developer, was one of three judges who graded the teams on innovation, creativity, and meeting the brief.

In the first of two blogs, co-winners Team 8, share their experience of what it was like to participate in a virtual hackathon.

By: Ana Forero, Mark Harris, Hector Jones, Fin McCallum, Leon Tadina

Just an average hackathon day. It’s Saturday, so we enjoyed our morning of introductions before meeting together for the first time.

At this point we were still confused on the rules. We’re used to having prep reading so being given the rules then diving right in on the same day was a new experience!  After a quick read we figured we needed to choose a word from the options to make our theme and create software that followed said theme.

We chose the word pumpkin. I didn’t mention above but we’d misinterpreted the rules. We had to choose TWO words to make up our theme, but more on that later. We started coming up with some good ideas for what we were going to code quickly, with only three of us physically present and another teammate in quarantine on a video call.

The concept of a pumpkin programming language was thrown into the mix, but not discussed further due to time constraints. Then we had an idea. We’d create an algorithm that would put messages into a picture of a pumpkin, perfectly themed and not as hard to implement as a pumpkin programming language. It was time to get coding.

We broke up the function quickly, encoding, decoding, dictionary generator, picture parser. Dividing these roles and working on them – the most artistic hands on the pumpkin drawing and colouring, the rest on coding.

An hour before deadline, we were ready… kind of. We had a working dictionary generator, which would convert a range of printable characters into shades of orange; an encoder, which would take an array of pixels representing a pumpkin and colour in whatever needed to be coloured in orange, starting with the message and then filling out the rest with padding values.

Needless to say, we had a bug. A big one. The message was getting through the decoder, but instead of a simple “hello”, we were getting “hhheeeellloooo”. 15 minutes to the deadline, this was less than ideal. So, we started using the best debugging tools at our disposal: print statements.

A stroke of genius told us that the problem was with how we saved the image, and sure enough, we were saving the image as a different size than our base image. This meant pixels were stretched, stretching our message in turn. Some quick googling landed us on using a PNG format. We did it. We had a working demo.

One minute into Team 1’s presentation, we realize that we actually had to choose two words for our theme. At this point we were proud of what we made, and as good coders, we didn’t want change anything in our bug ridden, uncommented code. Our saving grace came in the word “plant” in the second set of words. A team member suggested: ‘we plant the message…in the pumpkin’.

We get a chuckle from the judges when we present our choice of words and explained our program. Next came the results. We were experiencing some Zoom sound issues so when the judges announced we’d won, we missed it. Thankfully our quarantined teammate hadn’t and passed on the good news!

We closed the day with some pizza, played some Among Us and an early night, riddled with dreams about how we could improve our code at some point.