Events July 24, 2012

Greylock Hackfest: Talent & Inspiration

Highlights from this year's annual Hackfest


This past weekend, I had the pleasure to attend and perform as master of ceremonies for the final judging at the Greylock Hackfest.  Dan Portillo and Julie Deroche, from the Greylock Talent Team, organized an amazing event, and the quality of the students, the technology and the hacks were truly mind blowing.  (You can read more about the specifics of this university student only hack in this WSJ VC Dispatch article.)

As someone who has organized and led dozens of Hackday events, I thought it would be worthwhile to share my thoughts on the event and highlight a few of the key features of the Greylock event.

Inspiration on Tap

The number one way to inspire brilliant minds is to surround them with colleagues who seem to make the impossible happen.  The talent at the Hackfest was amazing.  250 students applied, but there was only room for 160.  Almost every team had members who’ve won hacks at their universities.  In order to win, teams needed to take risks and build towards bigger visions.  One envisioned the fully connected house. Another wanted to create “real” social play.  A third solved a problem in their own classroom. Raising the bar produced some breathtaking functionality in 24 hours.

Hacking with a Clean Slate

You can learn a lot from watching university students tackle problems with a clean slate.  Opensource technologies were assumed and platform services like node.js were everywhere. Online to offline interactions were top-of-mind – this group wanted software to work with everything.  Almost every hack seemed to have ties to NFC, accelerometers, GPS location, or other devices.  Most importantly, teams didn’t try to solve every problem themselves – short on time, they turned to abundant resources on the web and social networks to solve blocking questions quickly.

Learn by Doing

One of the fundamental aspects of software is that you can’t really learn it by reading papers, watching presentations or by just discussing it.  You have to do it.  Every team at the Hackfest experimented with APIs, platforms and technologies that they hadn’t implemented before.  One incorporated hardware for the first time. Another deployed 3 new technologies in their final product. It’s a good reminder to all of us to keep experimenting, keep learning, and most importantly to keep doing.

Advisors Work – Office Hours, Networks

One of the new features Greylock put in place at this Hackfest were office hours with exceptional product talent like DJ PatilJosh Elman, and product, engineering, and data science stars from Pandora, SumoLogic, Walmart Labs, Dropbox, and TrialPay.  This provided both support for the student teams in terms of how to approach their projects, but also a chance for them to get real facetime with some of the brightest people in the industry.  Other groups sought feedback from their competitors – if they could explain it to a competitor suffering from lack of sleep, they should be able to explain it to a judge.  Not surprisingly, a number of the finalists had taken advantage of that assistance.

And Now, The Winners…

First we had to sort out who the 10 finalists were.  We held a pre-judging to give all groups time to present in front of CTOs, founders, and CEOs from Cardspring, Nomic, Mozilla, Redfin, Silicon Valley Bank, SumoLogic, TellApart,TrialPay, and Walmart Labs.

Then, Mike Schroepfer (Facebook), Kevin Systrom (Instagram), Mike Olson (Cloudera), and Reid Hoffman (Greylock) were the judges of the final round.  All ten teams who made the finals received prizes, but the big pot went to the top three.

  • Dance, a team of 3 students from UIUC, presented an interactive, cloud-based, multi-player dance game that used optical recognition to spot faces and hands to score players.
  • Assassins, a team of 4 rising Sophomores from Harvard, Stanford, and Cal Berkeley, presented a cloud-based, multi-player mobile game based on real world coordinates and interactions. Players could attack each directly or indirectly with a number of game mechanics tied to their mobile phones.
  • Toaster.js, a team of 4 students from Cal Berkeley, Stanford, and UCSD, presented a hack that literally hacked into hardware.  They won the event by hacking into power strip sensors, conditioners, and controllers to implement a platform where any event could be linked to a physical device (like a toaster) plugged into the power strip.  Devices could be monitored for energy usage, as well as controlled via manual control or through software.

Prizes for the event included gift certificates for Amazon Web Services of up to $3000, Drobo storage devices, Lytro cameras, and of course, the grand prize, a personal dinner with Reid Hoffman and John Lilly.  And of course, a big thank you to our sponsors – Silicon Valley Bank, Mozilla, Walmart Labs, AWS, and Dropbox!

Overall, it was an incredible event.  Can’t wait until 2013 for the next Greylock Hackfest.


“The number one way to inspire brilliant minds is to surround them with colleagues who seem to make the impossible happen.”