Programmers Write Code for Future

Hackathon turns "fairly outlandish" ideas into reality, businesses.


Coders, designers, programmers and dreamers of all ages stayed indoors over the rainy weekend to participate in a 30-hour development marathon aimed at kick-starting creative technology and product ideas that can bring Sacramento, Calif., a little closer to Silicon Valley.

Cereal Hack 4 at Sacramento’s Hacker Lab concluded Sunday evening with teams presenting their projects for $5,000 in prizes. The hackathon, also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest, was born in the Bay Area. It was the fourth hackathon held at Hacker Lab since the nonprofit was formed in 2012.

The winning team – known as Ready, Set, Cereal – consisted of five people who produced an automated cereal-dispensing machine.

“It’s amazing to create something from an idea in 30 hours,” said Emma Fletcher, a member of the team who focused on the hardware.

Judges said while the motors weren’t powerful enough to drive the device, they were nevertheless impressed with the mobile interface and other practical applications. They awarded the group first prize.

While the in-kind prizes have value, the real prize was the chance to take a dream from idea to reality, according to Gina Lujan, the founder of Hacker Lab.

Unsure how to help fulfill his son’s dream of an app that would help kids identify healthy meals, Stephane Come said in 2012 he brought his son Nicolas, then 8, to a fest and had him pitch the idea. Nicolas landed a team, and Nicolas’ Garden was born.

The team ultimately placed second. But Nicolas wanted to move the idea forward. So with his dad’s help, he brought on board Chief Momentum Officer Drisha Leggitt. The app and the little boy with a dream became a media sensation, and Nicolas met President Barack Obama in July.

“The Hackathon really changed his life. It took a lot of guts,” Leggitt said. “It gives people a chance to share their dreams and get other people on board.”

Some teams focus on producing viable business ideas. Others treat it as a training exercise. Andy Axton, a Sacramento developer, said beneath his team’s wacky ideas are viable business applications.

“It kind of started as a joke idea. It’s called the Cereal Hack and last year they didn’t have any cereal,” Axton said. So this year they made the automated cereal-dispensing machine designed to be controlled via a mobile device.

“We try to be fairly outlandish,” said Merit Thomas, who works with Axton at Code 4 Sacramento.

Other teams worked on a friend-finding travel app, a keyboard music app, a video game, a meet-up app and a school spirit app, among others.

“There are so many good ideas that come out of Sacramento,” said Hacker Lab’s Lujan. She said people with ideas shouldn’t hide them under their mattress for safekeeping.

“Ideas are great. But ideas aren’t worth anything unless you execute it,” she said. “I really wouldn’t worry about somebody stealing your idea.”

Meg Arnold, executive director of the Sacramento Area Regional Technology Alliance, said hacker events are great for the community.

“Hackathons are a fabulous way to stimulate creatively and to create community,” Arnold said. She said cooperative work spaces such as the Hacker Lab are helping to create a much more visible tech community in Sacramento.

Diane Wilkins said she’d like to help diversify future hackathons.

“People think it’s really hard. There are just so many tools out there, and the Hacker Lab is one of them,” said Wilkins, a former Boeing programmer. “A lot of people don’t think it’s a possibility for them.”

In addition to offering an upcoming class at the Hacker Lab, she’s an adviser for a Sheldon High School “Girls That Code” club.

Lujan said she was happy that she was introduced to programming as a young girl in 1982.

“Computers were like aliens back then. Having access was epic,” she said. “It was a life-changer.”

©2014 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)