A few people on the bus had some variation of, “It’s like ____ for _____,” as in: “My idea is to build an app that’s like Airbnb for boats,” which was a pitch by a second red-haired woman named Jen. This seemed profoundly unrealistic to build in three days on a bus, but I’ve wanted to learn to sail, so I imagined it might be fun to hang out with buspreneurs who were into boats. I made a note to work on her app if I couldn’t form a team around my own idea.
It was my turn. I stepped up to the mic. “I have an idea for an app that calculates exactly the amount of pizza you need for a party,” I said. People’s heads perked up. “I used to throw a monthly pizza party with a group of friends, and every time we got hung up on how much pizza to order. We called it doing pizza math, and we always messed it up. I want to create an app that calculates the amount of pizza needed for an event based on who is coming, their age, their gender, and their preferred toppings.” People clapped. I was more relieved than I expected. It was possible that this insane plan could work.
Our team’s pizza technology came together thanks to Eddie Zaneski, the other hacker in our group. Hackathons tend to be sausage fests, so it was unusual for our team to be predominantly women. Eddie is 25 years old, 6’ 7” tall, and dresses exclusively in free t-shirts from tech events. “I haven’t bought clothes in years,” he told me as we sat across from each other at the rickety table. “I have a bigger wardrobe than my girlfriend.” Eddie is a developer evangelist at a tech company called SendGrid, which means his job is to go around the country attending hackathons, throwing pizza parties, and handing out t-shirts to developers to convince them to use SendGrid. SendGrid is the technology that many tech companies, including Uber and Airbnb, use to send out auto-generated emails like receipts and marketing messages. Eddie was worried that he had brought too many t-shirts. Our bus had only 28 people. Three giant boxes, which stacked reach four feet high, were in the belly of the bus.
Eddie decided he had more important things to worry about, like getting our pizza-calculator app to work before the hackathon qualifiers in Nashville, so he put on his blue headphones and turned back to his laptop. The apple on its lid glowed through a layer of stickers from other tech events and tech companies: 18F, Iron.io, Penn Apps, Github, and HackRU, Eddie’s favorite hackathon at his alma mater, Rutgers University. I had picked Eddie for my hackathon team because of his stickers. Hackers parse each other’s laptop stickers like fashion mavens parse clothing labels. Eddie’s sticker from 18F, the government open-data team, suggested that like me he was into civic hacking and using technology for social good.
Our app was built using Node.js, a microframework called Express.js, a MongoDB object-relational mapper called Mongoose, and authentication middleware called Passport. We deployed it on Heroku and used Bootstrap for the front end. These are all free software tools that developers use to make other software. Building an Internet app right now is a lot like building a custom Lego house. The building blocks, or bits of code, are all out there on the Internet. The biggest repository is GitHub, a code-sharing site. We decided what we wanted our app to do, grabbed the pre-built pieces of code that would serve as the structural foundation for the “house,” and then started building walls and decorating. Most contemporary software development is a craft, like building houses or furniture. Hackathons are a good way to practice new techniques with other, (slightly) more experienced people in the room. This is another secret in the hacker community. Written instructions and online videos are only useful up to a certain point; to get really good, or to make something really fast, you have to be in the same room with people and you have to talk to them face to face.