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Code Hard, Play Hard: Hackathon Veteran Chih-Hung Talks About His Experiences


Name: Chih-Hung Chen
Title: Senior Software Engineer
Githubhong19
Hobbies: Fantasy novels and longboarding
Favorite ice cream flavor: Meiji’s milk cookie. I love ice cream with crispy chips inside.


Chih-Hung is one of our Senior Software Engineers on the Developer Experience (DX) team here at Kloudless. The Developer Experience (DX) team is mainly focused on the front-end but occasionally transitions over to help with backend work as well. Prior to Kloudless, Chih-Hung worked for another startup in Taipei as the only full-stack engineer at his company. Outside of work, however, Chih-Hung’s passion is hackathons where he has participated in over 10 events. We caught up to Chih-Hung to talk about his fondness for the coding events and ask for some of his takes on his personal experience.

Why did you start attending hackathons?

My first time attending a hackathon was in 2014. It wasn’t very popular at that time in Taiwan and we had more coding competitions and not many hackathons. I was in the military service and had found out about the concept of hackathons from foreign websites, which interested me a lot. I had never been to any event like a hackathon prior. I liked the idea of gathering everybody’s ideas in just a few hours and then creating something new, so I decided to give it a shot.

What was your first hackathon like?

The first hackathon I attended was organized by the Institute for Information Industry (III), a non-governmental organization that supports the development of the information industry in Taiwan. I went there alone and mingled with other people at the event. My intention was to gain some experience and see what a hackathon was like since the experience was new and fresh to me.

How did you do at that event?

Of course, the result of my first hackathon project wasn’t the best. The code we wrote was really simple because we stayed up late and tried to finish the project on time. We totally botched the final presentation because we had 3 buttons that should have been able to work individually. However, due to the simple and crude code we wrote, the buttons didn’t even function unless we pressed it by sequence. That was totally not what we were expecting, so we screwed up our first project in front of everyone. It was definitely embarrassing but that was my first hackathon and the main purpose for me was to gain some experience, not get a prize, so I was mentally prepared for the failure that ensued.

Do you think the level of coding experience matters in hackathons?

I think it doesn’t really matter if you are a new or experienced coder, but you have to understand the purpose for which you are attending the event. Is it to expand your connections? To take the grand prize home? Or are you just there for fun and to gain some personal experience?

The most important thing of all is to be open-minded! You won’t be punished if you end up with an incomplete project. It’s good if you’re attending with the purpose of having fun, making friends, and learning something new instead of expecting to win something back. Personally, I think going to hackathons is a great opportunity for me as a software engineer to explore more outside of the coding world. It’s also great to interact with other talented people.

What if you don’t know how to code at all? Can you still participate?

Hackathons are not only for software engineers. Sometimes event planners, project managers or basically anyone can attend these events. Software engineers are looking for coding challenges and project managers are searching for talent to help them achieve their goals. People have different reasons for participating in Hackathons, so it is not purely a coding competition. For me personally, it is more of a large social event.

I think hackathons are a great way for me to meet people from different industries, backgrounds, and knowledge that sparks a variety of inspiration. It provides me with the opportunity to try and learn something new. I tend to enjoy going to hackathons alone so I can meet new people and so I don’t feel confined in the software industry. Simultaneously, I like learning different things from other attendees.

How do you decide which hackathons to go to? Is there any preparation you can do ahead of time?

I decide whether to go to a hackathon for its theme and scale. If the scale is big enough, the event could last for at least two to three days, which would allow more time in brainstorming for the whole project. If it’s a one-day event, we can’t really do anything big and generally then it’s just for fun. It’s ideal if you are prepared with an idea or a project draft before attending a hackathon. It’s important for participants to have a great personal skill or coding language that you really excel at since then you’ll be set up for success.

As a coder in hackathons, we often need to build up the structure within a day. So if we are a master of one coding language, it would save us a lot of time in building the framework, and to put our focus on strengthening the structure and preparing for the final presentation. If you are attending a competition hackathon, then the final presentation would play a very key role in winning the prize or not. Therefore, spending some time on the presentation is vital in hackathons.

What was the most challenging hackathon you’ve participated in and why?

I think the most challenging one was the first hackathon in 2014 since I didn’t really understand what a hackathon was and had no experience in being part of one. At the time, I was more familiar with JavaScript. When preparing for that hackathon, I found some packages in Node.js that perfectly met our needs for the project, so I coded with those.

I remember the day was filled with nerve-wracking exhaustion as we were up working until 3 AM. I felt extremely tired because of all the unfamiliarity that happened there. My first hackathon was not a satisfying one, but I knew things would get better in the future, so I still appreciated that experience a lot.

What were some cool prizes or awards you’ve won?

Although I enjoy going to the hackathons, I only went for the rewards twice. The largest prize I won was the second grand prize, valued at NT 30,000 from the Department of Transportation of Taipei City Government. I was very excited because money has always been more attractive and practical than actual gifts to me. Since I completed the project alone, I didn’t have to share the award with others! This was the most unforgettable experience for me. Not only did I enjoy the NT 30,000 by myself, but my project was praised by others and that really made me feel proud of myself.

My award-winning project at HackNTU 2017 was the combined route planning of YouBike and Google Maps. The idea was derived from when I last returned home to Taichung. The poor public transportation there required me to check whether I should continue waiting for the buses or just ride a YouBike home instead. However, you are unable to find YouBike stations on Google Maps. Instead, we had to open the YouBike website, check where the nearest station was, then go back to Google Maps again to see the route planning suggestions. It was a really inconvenient and annoying process. Therefore, I had the idea of connecting the YouBike with Google Maps API to simplify checking YouBike stations on Google Maps and plotting the route at the same time. I was really happy that this project was recognized by the Department of Transportation and I was awarded the second grand prize that year.    

Published By

Hannah Su