The Hackathon: An MIT Tradition

It’s 3AM at the MIT Media Lab and my team and I begin to show signs of mental and physical fatigue. We are in the middle of a 24-hour hackathon, developing an idea in response to a prompt from high-fidelity speaker company, SONOS, concerning the ultimate in-home audio experience. In 13 hours we will present a 3-minute pitch to a panel of judges.

Prior to today’s event, I had a rather elusive understanding of what a hackathon entailed. As I walked from the comfort of my apartment to the Media Lab earlier in the day, I began to second-guess my decision. I had this deep-rooted feeling that I had made a terrible mistake. Had I missed a set of qualifications on the application and unknowingly misrepresented my skills? I sat down on a bench and weighed the possibility of embarrassment, resolving to continue on.

After a short hiatus to sleep, the team regroups at 8AM. Caffeine slowly aligns our creative differences into productive activity and we fall into an audible rhythm. We’re a diverse team of seven, heralding from MIT, Berkeley and Emerson, with a range of unique backgrounds.

As we turn to the development of our presentation, we build our pitch deck prior to our pitch, which turns out to be a great lesson in how not to build a pitch deck. The discontinuity puts stress on both deliverables and the friction begins to surface.

“Please don’t touch my screen!” I snap in momentary frustration.

We practice our pitch with a handful of event mentors, to a mixed response. One mentor is visibly confused by our value proposition. After a lengthy clarifying discussion, he remarks while departing, “Sorry if that wasn’t at all helpful and you guys are more lost than when I came over here.” The teammate tasked with delivering the pitch on stage shows signs of mental duress and tells me he’s changed his mind. Our team begins to unravel in the final hour.

Unraveling turns out to be a great opportunity for renewed perspective. After concluding that the ultimate downside is personal embarrassment, a host of possibilities present themselves. Where better to fail than here, before an audience of our peers and the support of our mentors? An inflection point quietly occurs as I silence my nagging internal voice, constantly reminding me that rejection lurks behind every opportunity. Ultimately, we navigate these remaining obstacles as a team, with little time to spare, and take the stage to deliver our pitch.

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The SONOS prize is both a surprising and outstanding culmination of Hacking Arts 2015. As we exit the Media Lab for the evening, I wonder what the protocol is for cashing an oversized cardboard check.

The weekend’s most significant takeaway, however, is that we must somehow allow ourselves to be both vulnerable and authentic, knowing that no iron-clad assurance exists that we are not criticized fiercely for the work we share – rather in spite of it.

It’s time I get used to that idea.

Nick Del Vecchio

Licensed mechanical engineer and entrepreneur-in-training, Nick is pursuing an MBA at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Having recently relocated from Denver back home to Boston, he looks forward to vaulting himself firmly into the unfamiliar, both at Sloan and within the larger MIT community.

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3 Comments

  1. 🙂 Yay Nick for writing about our experience…a night w various pts of storming but it was worth it

  2. Thanks for sharing Nick, and congratulations!

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