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Events July 23, 2012

How a Very Smart Toaster Won Greylock Hackfest ‘12

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What’s a toaster have to do with Greylock Hackfest? A lot, actually.

Meet Sharad, Gerald, Abi and Li: last year’s winners of Greylock Hackfest ‘12. Their project, Toaster.js, allows users to connect normal household appliances such as lights, ovens and toasters to the Internet so they can be controlled via websites, phones, voice and more.

Their platform for the “Internet of Things” helped them beat out 156 other hackfest participants to take home first prize — a private dinner with LinkedIn co-founder and Greylock Partner, Reid Hoffman and of course, bragging rights.

In this post, the team divulges some of their best practices including how they came up with the winning idea and tips for successfully working together in the span of 24 hours.

For more on Toaster.js, read on below — and don’t forget, you can apply to be considered for Greylock Hackfest ‘13 here!

What’s Toaster.js?

Toaster.js is a platform for “the internet of things.” It’s a cloud-based RESTful API that allows you to connect normal household appliances such as lights, ovens, and toasters to the internet so they can be controlled by websites, phones, voice, and more.

How did you come up with the idea and how did the project evolve throughout the Hackfest?

We really wanted to do something with hardware. In past hackathons, Sharad and Gerald had done some hardware related devices and really liked building complex systems. We eventually came up with this idea once we figured out an easy way to hijack power cords and have them communicate via radio.

Initially, we started off with a power-usage profiling tool — one of our demo applications measured power usage and compared it to the national average and also calculated the cost of the energy usage. From there, we built an API to control the devices during the hackathon, which we realized was much cooler than our power monitoring tool, and soon enough, the API became the main product.

We eventually ended up building cool applications on top of this API, such as:

– A web interface for controlling devices in your house

– A “magic wand” for your phone where you could wave it and play/pause music

– And a mobile app that allows you to turn on/off the lights with your voice.

Had you worked together in the past?

Sharad and Gerald had worked together for over 6 hackathons in the past. Abi and Li knew each other — and a mutual friend referred us together.

How did you divide the work among the team?

Heavy parallelization. We first sketched out the API that tied our project together so people could work simultaneously. Li worked on the hardware, while Sharad wrote the server code. Gerald and Abi worked on demo applications simultaneously. Building out the API and sketching out a skeleton was tremendously helpful, and also why our team got so much work done.

What are you guys up to now?

Sharad and Gerald are undergraduates at UC Berkeley; this summer they are interning at Facebook and Stripe respectively. Abi just graduated from Stanford and is starting a company. Li is working full time at Facebook now.

First prize included a private dinner with Greylock’s Reid Hoffman and DJ Patil. What was that like?

The dinner exceeded all expectations. DJ and Reid are both incredibly passionate and intelligent people. They shared with us some incredible insights, and were very thoughtful listeners. We were in awe of these people. At the same time, they are two great guys to chat with and were very down to earth. Also, the food was amazing!

What did winning Greylock Hackfest mean to you?

Personally, winning was a great reward for the hard work we had been putting into the hackfest. At a higher level, it also encouraged us to keep exploring our curiosities to try to make things that seemed awesome.

Are you applying to the Hackfest again this year?

Yes, definitely! Those of us who qualify will be going there again.

What would you tell someone interested in applying to Greylock Hackfest?

Find some people who you think would be fun to work with and go for it! Also, try working with people you’ve never worked with before; the skills they bring to the table could the x-factor in your hack.

“Personally, winning was a great reward for the hard work we had been putting into the hackfest. At a higher level, it also encouraged us to keep exploring our curiosities to try to make things that seemed awesome.”