By 9 pm—8 hours into Bottle Rocket’s annual hackathon—John Chappell’s virtual starship bridge hadn’t budged from space dock. Amanda Chappell, his wife, and Mary Maguire sitting across the table from them, were having more luck. The strip of rainbow LED lights responded whenever Amanda strummed her ukulele. The rainbow-haired developers (bald headed Chris excepted) nodded in satisfaction. Around the corner, Josh Bell and three of the other Deck Masters team faced off over the red padded top of a filing cabinet for a friendly game of Magic: The Gathering. There wasn’t much they could do until the developer at the standing desk behind them sorted out a few details of their app-based card game. So, why not trot out the mages and merfolk for a match?
Maybe all hackathons follow this rhythm: a burst of activity that mellows into a slow, episodic grind. I wouldn’t know. Rocket Science, the annual Bottle Rocket one I’m attending, is the first I’ve seen. Bottle Rocket, a mobile app creation studio based in Dallas, was founded in 2008 by Calvin Carter. Hackathons have been part of the company’s culture from the early days. I never understood the hackathon appeal. It seemed, like Soylent, to be another manifestation of what was wrong with the tech culture. Stay up all night in the office for no reason other than everyone else is, too. How bromosapian can you get? No, thank you.
I was wrong. Rocket Science merges creative exploration with team building and stress release. Observing it is watching company culture get forged. This is, as Calvin stresses, an exercise with “no judgement.” It’s an opportunity to stretch skills, work on passion projects, or just sharpen their collaboration skills. One team, a little singed from a brutal final push on a project, spent Rocket Science making bracelets and talking. Daniel Leber, an engineer here, taught all comers, me included, how to make paracord bracelets while an escapee from another project explained data pipelines to anyone listening.
The group exploring Sprite Kit to make a game about office life is the quietest bunch around here. Their lead, Earl, seemed to speak for all of them when he said, “What do I do in my spare time? Code.” Matt Johnson, Bottle Rocket’s head of innovation, brought in a souped-up PC and built out a VR metaverse construction kit. He did it alone. In 22 hours. On the other hand, the admirably mellow crane-folding group, recruited an army of blissed-out origami folders to make 1000 cranes. They hit their goal by 10:30 pm, kept cool despite their furious activity by a portable air conditioner liberated from the server room. There’s poetry in that move.
Calvin makes rounds. As the night wears on and the ventilation system kicks off, his face gets redder, setting off the fringe of gray that is an unexpected sight on a tech entrepreneur. But then again, this whole event is unexpected. There is no direct client work being done. The auto-replies are on, and a bunch of high-wattage talent has set aside important projects for passion ones. Look a little deeper, however, and the benefits come into view.
Adam Polansky [and Shannon McCoy want to make the first-ever mobile American Sign Language (ASL) translator. Before you dismiss that as an extension of what Google translate solved years ago, consider that understanding ASL means decoding rapid gestures delivered in a unique syntax. This is uncharted territory. Fortunately, there is a portable scanner from Leap Motion, and by midnight, Anu Rao, the Android developer, cracked the how to get it to read fine gestures. Once Team Sign Wave is finished—and it won’t be during this night, this year, and maybe this decade—speakers of ASL will have the first machine-based connection between their language and that of the hearing world. Team Sign Wave believes the deaf should not have to contort themselves to accommodate to the hearing world. This technology is a step in that direction, but beyond that, it is a glimpse of the incredible opportunity represented by gestural computing.
Upstairs, the Coffee Rocket team spent midnight waiting for the stain to dry. Three designers and coders decided to teach themselves woodworking tonight in order to make a rocketship object d’art. Rocketeers, as Bottle Rocket employees call themselves, drink a lot of coffee. Like the connected kegerator from a couple of years ago, the Coffee Rocket—a beautiful cold brew tower—is a physical manifestation of the ethos of this place: methodical, caffeinated, magnificently engineered, and without bitterness.
Luke and his team are in the garage building a 3D printed robotic arm. It’s bright red, servo powered, and still in pieces with 9 hours left to go, but this is just the start of a whole 3D printed automaton. Luke, who leads the Android development team at Bottle Rocket, announced that he “decided to go from Android to androids,” and instantly regretted the remark.
Over one hundred people stuck around through midnight. At 2 am, Calvin went out to get 200 tacos. Then people started to fall asleep. They curled up on the floor, in beanbag chairs, and on cots. Some went home to spend a few hours in bed and a few minutes in the shower. A 6:30 am census found 68 people still working away. Others were sleeping, but no one had the heart to wake them for the count.
An hour later, Bottle Rocket was buzzing again. A caterer was making waffles while two sticky children zoomed around the office on scooters. John abandoned his starship bridge since the game engine and Chromecast were having irreconcilable differences. Failure, for this bunch, isn’t a feared endpoint. It isn’t the termination of an exploration or the passing of judgement. It’s something to be embraced as one more thin reed of knowledge ready to be bent into the complicated, many-authored weave that is any successful project. Instead, he donned his mad scientist lab coat, put his colorful undercut into a diminutive ponytail, and transformed into the Rocket Science emcee.
The final hours ticked away. Calvin didn’t sleep a wink and, remarkably, didn’t look any different than he had at midnight. Entrepreneurs really are different. The rest of the gang had shiny foreheads, too-bright eyes, and wandering concentration. They marshalled their energies, however, for one last task: the presentation. At 10 am, 200 or so tired Bottle Rocket employees gathered in a giant conference room. One by one, John called the teams up, and they presented what they had done. Seen as a whole, the output from one night of concerted brainpower and effort was astounding. So was the variety, but it all fell into some basic groupings, which really shouldn’t surprise me, given the crowd.
There were the folks like Earl’s Sprite Kit development group who explored some piece of technology or software to learn more about it and maybe even create something useful. Then came the people like Matt with his VR project or Team Sign Wave who were interested in imagining future-state development. Finally, there were the makers who used the night to build something entirely with their own digits as opposed to those found in the computer.
After the last presentation—a remote one from Bottle Rocket’s London office—people streamed back to their desks to vote for the best, most creative, most technical, most likely to succeed, or the most beautiful failure. Deck Masters took three awards, possibly reflecting the tastes of the crowd and the memorability of their name and presentation. That’s no small concern when dealing with the sleep deprived, everyone of whom suddenly seemed unequal to the task of gathering up their things and just making it home to bed.
— Shannon Nicole (@DallasAdGrad) April 28, 2016