At 4 a.m., the hoverboard zoomed past for the eight time. Or maybe it was the 87th time. At the moment, it was just background noise, bad high-tech Muzak accompanying the clacking of fingers on keyboards and the squeak of markers on white boards.  

As the city of St. Louis slept through another Saturday night, a small village of coders and IT tinkerers were busy with a WiFi-fueled mix of technical performance art and digital duct tape. At that moment, precise accounting wasn’t yet available for hoverboard laps, lines of code written, teams remaining or much of anything. 

All that could be accurately calculated at the Global Hackathon was the number of Red Bulls consumed, due to the teetering mountain of cans which had arisen in the middle of the conference space, an Everest of energy drinks built with the structural integrity of an Ikea night stand.  

In the midst of the Global Hackathon NJVC’s Rick Berry and Josh Phelan worked in a pair among 45 other teams busily coding a solution to allow better access to the County of St. Louis’ municipal court system, worrying more about the specifics of their code set than the scene around them.

Most of all, they were there to challenge themselves, to take their IT expertise in support of federal clients and expand it with coders from a wide array of backgrounds.

“We thought it would be a good opportunity to test our skills and pick up a few new things.” said Berry, who works for one of NJVC’s federal customers in St. Louis. “It definitely was a learning experience. The challenge made you think about things differently. You couldn’t help but learn from it.”

Hackathons have exploded in popularity in recent years as part high tech competitions but mostly java-fueled jam sessions for the coding set, the equivalent of all-day pick-up basketball games or high-tech music festivals. Think of it as Rucker for Ruby or a drum circle for DBAs.

That the prototypes created don’t often make it beyond the presentation stage isn’t important. What matters is not so much the result, but the experience.

“I heard a lot about hackathons recently and they sound like an interesting challenge.” Berry says. “There were coders from high school and college to professionals. Just being among everyone working was an experience. It’s a challenge to be innovative on a short turnaround.”

In a weekend-long hackathon, the smell of innovation closely mimics DMV waiting lines and fast food. Teams stake out their areas and rooms and stay put for hours on end. Power strips lie around the large conference rooms with backpacks, cables and clothes, a scene that mirrors what you might expect if a tornado hit Google.

The events typically last from 24 hours to a week – the St. Louis Global Hackathon ran approximately 45 hours – and challenge teams of coders to come up with working prototypes to solve problems. Competitors, ranging from individuals up to groups of 10, bring their own machines and are free to use any publicly available code, libraries or frameworks to help build their solution, but it must be created in the hours between the announcement of the coding and the judging.

For Berry and Phelan, the first challenge was merely making it through the contest. The event opened Friday night at 7 p.m. and closed Sunday at 4 p.m. Competitors were free to come and go as they wanted, but most stayed inside the Cortex Center in St. Louis, refugees from their regular lives, coders living the lifestyle of travelers stuck in an airport.

By the event’s conclusion Berry estimated two-thirds of the competition had dropped out.

“The first thing we wanted to accomplish was getting to the end,” he said. “Not everybody did that. To start with nothing and finish with a working prototype was an achievement.”

The second challenge was figuring out exactly what the judging panel was looking for. At 7 p.m. Friday, the challenge, increasing access to the County of St. Louis' court system for users with a low level of web access, was read aloud. But determining which solution would meet approval from the judges 44 hours later would prove to be an exercise both in coding and marketing.

“The biggest challenge in this experience was sort of an exercise in customer service,” Berry said. “You have a sheet of paper outlining the problem and you have to figure out what exactly the solution is they want with no further guidance. So, you know what the requirements are, but what is the solution they want?”

Berry and Phelan, whose work often supports geospatial intelligence, took a GEOINT route, using the connection of the location, in addition to a series of logical workflow questions, to navigate the county’s court system as easily as possible.

Berry and Phelan worked as they do in their daytime jobs, in pair coding, one writing code and the other thinking through the challenges.

“The compressed time made everything more challenging, but that was an advantage for us,” Berry said. “We do a lot of mission-critical IT work and time is always at a premium.”

As Friday night gave way to Sunday afternoon and energy drinks finally stopped flowing, the pair was happy with the project they’d coded.

But as they prepared the 10 minute pitch to the judges, they realized they’d made a rookie mistake.

“In the end, what we probably didn’t focus on enough was the user interface,” Berry confessed. “You go in thinking it’s a hackathon, so the emphasis will be entirely on the code, but it’s not. A lot of it is working on the front end, making it not just usable but appealing to use.”

The duo took three lessons from the Global Hackathon, which Berry said he immediately put to use at work the following Monday.

“Be innovative. Challenge yourself. If you resist challenging yourself, your career will stagnate and you’ll get too comfortable in what you know.”

The second:

“Never lose focus on the user experience even in coding competitions.”

The last, which, admittedly, had an air of impermanence about it, was a vow.

“I will never,” Berry said, “drink Red Bull again.”