A handful of coders sit at tables in an open, well-lit room in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Here at Cibola, a shared workplace with graffiti walls and concrete floors, the young coders are busy working on apps for the meeting industry, a segment that is ripe for development and growth.
This is HackMPI, the first of its kind for the industry. It’s part of and precedes the MPI Chicago Area Chapter’s TechCon event. Kyle Hillman, CMP, pitched the idea to the chapter’s board leading up to the event as a way to help push the industry forward with technology.
“I know some friends that are developers, and I’ve gone to a couple of hackathons as an observer, and saw that there’s this great energy to solve problems, to create, to test their skills,” said Hillman, CEO of the Kyle Hillman Strategy Group. “It seems like a logical step for the meeting industry. If we're going to do a tech conference, we should add an element of real tech. We have six products here that have never existed in our industry, and in time could be products we'll be using in a couple of years.”
The coders arrived on Friday night, and spent 48 hours huddled over laptops. Between bouts of coding, they watched presentations from companies, talked with mentors about their projects, and chatted among themselves. Some of them went home at the end of the night. Some slept on air mattresses. They all had to follow set rules:
- The app had to be relevant to the meeting and event industry.
- The app must be functional for either mobile, Web, or software.
- The app cannot be a direct competitor of one of the event’s sponsors.
- The coders must be present at least four hours on Saturday and four hours on Sunday.
As the weekend wore on, some coders dropped out, which is expected during hackathons. Asking people to agree to dedicate 48 hours on a project, even for a prize, is difficult. However, it helps to have someone on the inside.
“Try to find an individual in the development community to be an ambassador,” Hillman said. “Getting those developers will be your biggest challenge. Also, make sure the project is focused on a generic problem you want solved.”
Cedric Hurst, one of the HackMPI coders, agrees.
“One of the tricky parts about hackathons is getting teams organized ahead of time,” said Hurst, principal and lead software engineer at Spantree Technology Group LLC in Chicago. “Everyone comes in with their own idea. If there is a way to target people to solve a specific problem, that would help. Also, providing tech or industry experts that can participate in teams as non-tech contributors would be useful.”
Even without a specific problem to work on, HackMPI’s open nature was welcomed.
“I thought that it was interesting that it was somewhat open-ended,” Hurst said. “It gave us the space to build. Some hackathons can be advertising driven, where you have to sit all day in a seminar and maybe get a chance to code. This was much more hands-off, much more focused on helping people, which was great.”
Also, a hackathon doesn’t have to last 48 hours to be successful.
“Consider opening it up in a month in advance, then have a one-day hackathon,” said Sean Lynch, executive vice president at NHS and the Chicago Area Chapter president.
The Winners Are
The hackathon stopped at 6 p.m. on Sunday. Afterwhich, the coders presented their apps to a panel of judges.
“We judged based on three categories: relevancy, design and functionality,” said Steven Maguire, strategy and innovation architect at TrainSignal Inc. “Functionality was critical, because it was actually what was being demoed--what was happening today and not what would be perceived.”
The judges then convened in another room, weighing the apps against the three categories. After much deliberation, awards for first, second, and third prize were handed out.
- Hurst and his partner, Gary Turovsky, won first place for OKMercury, an app that is a take-off of the OK Cupid algorithim, matching suppliers and planners based on questions and answers. You can demo the app at OKMercury.co.
- Prash Sabharwal was awarded second place for Swagger, a trivia-based app that can be customized for suppliers and destinations. Check it out at http://swagger.launchrock.com.
- Ray Perry was awarded third place for his mobile matchmaking app.
“This was the coolest first ever event,” said Char Shada, CMP, strategic account manager for Experient Inc. and immediate past president of the Chicago Area Chapter. “It's just neat to be cutting edge, leading the charge, leading the industry with something different. You could definitely tell the coders were really into it.”
Shada says the chapter is happy to help if you’re thinking of hosting your own hackathon.
“Reach out to us,” she said. “We're more than happy to share information and contacts.”
And this won’t be the last HackMPI for the Chicago Area chapter, according to Lynch.
“We definitely expect to do this next year,” he said. “It hit all our metrics, and it’s already on our business plan.”
For an industry such as ours, embracing technology is crucial if we are to find new and efficient ways to have better meetings and events. The MPI Chicago Area Chapter recognizes this. Don’t leave it only to them, though. Organize your own hackathon.
“Our industry is so young,” Hillman said. “From a technology standpoint, there are so many opportunities for these throughout the country.”
Who knows--you may just discover the Mark Zuckerberg of our industry at your own hackathon.