A Hustler at a Hackathon

Bill Aulet, the Director of MIT’s Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship, says that successful businesses need a Hacker, a Hipster and a Hustler (aka MBAs), but is there room for a Hustler at a Hackathon? I tried to find out last weekend at MIT Hacking Arts, where 150 hackers gathered at the Media Lab from all disciplines, all across MIT, Berklee College of Music, SMFA, Tufts and beyond.


Training our software at Hacking Arts

What’s a hackathon, you ask? (Please ask, it makes me feel better for also having had no idea). I’ll call it an event in which small teams create something cool together overnight with little or no sleep and then present it for a highly caffeinated, adoring audience. At Hacking Arts the “something cool” was also something artsy.  Teams were formed to work on dancing robot chairs, stereo systems that play different music based on your biometric data and to create a virtual reality world in which famous art pieces come to life. Imagine American Gothic as an actual (virtual) farmhouse with the old man, his pitchfork and his wife hanging out in front. It was amazing!

Before these ideas were presented to the adoring audience there was the creating and the little sleep part. It started on Saturday night when everyone who had an idea came to the stage to pitch for 30 seconds and tell the rest of us what they were looking for. Android developer, Virtual Reality developer, Skilled with C++… you get the picture. Sadly no one said “I want someone with business savvy and great power point skills.” I don’t know how to code or build things, so I feared the prospects of picking me were going to be up there with my middle school basketball draft (not good).  A hustler’s gotta hustle….

I eagerly ran up to volunteer my services to David Allen, a creative coder coming down from New York who wanted to continue his partnership with local Boston dancer Pampi of In Divine Company to develop an emotional facial recognition product for dancers. As a former dancer I knew that I could relate to the work and help David move it forward. It’s hard to express the euphoria I felt from that moment on as I was unequivocally embraced as a team member. This was not middle school basketball. While David trained the computer to recognize anger, sadness, laughter and other emotions, I set to work figuring out how to market the product, develop the presentation and prepare the pitch.

My Sloan connections came in handy as I called up my team members to test ideas and figure out what sounded interesting. Can we use our emotion reader to get better audience feedback? To trigger changes in the lighting/scenery? What would be most interesting application? Frequent conversations with David kept me from going off track. Sure, scanning faces on MIT’s campus could provide the Mental Health team with “sadness hotspots” to work with, but it wasn’t a performing arts tool. Pampi was offsite, so in the morning we got her feedback on our first draft of the presentation and found that some of what we had proposed wasn’t very useful to dancers. We started over and scheduled a lot of time with volunteer mentors on site to get more inspiration.  The time passed by in a blur as we continued to test our ideas with fellow hackers and finalize the pitch. Before we knew it we were up on stage with three minutes to do a live demo of the tool, which could now see David smiling and would return photos of fellow Hackers smiling back.


… and we’re pitching!

I left that evening feeling exhilarated, over-caffeinated and inspired to keep building out the tools in my toolkit to offer even more to David, the MIT Community and beyond to bring great ideas to life.  I was so inspired to be a part of this great MIT tradition and to see what’s possible when passionate people and creative ideas are brought together to creatively imagine what does not yet exist. Most importantly, I learned that there is room for Hustlers at a Hackathon and I can’t wait to be back.





Helen Smith

Helen is too tulle for school at MIT Sloan 2017. After eight years of endless summer as a non-profiteer and management consultant in South East Asia, West Africa and the Middle East, Helen is enjoying bike lanes and fall leaves.

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