How I hacked the Garage48 Hardware & Arts hackathon – twice

I’ve taken part in the Garage48 Hardware & Arts (H&A) hackathon twice; the first time was in 2016. I had already heard of the hackathon before, but it was my boss who suggested I take part, as I was also working in an electronics design house in Tartu, where a substantial number of the workers were frequent hackers at Garage48. I registered as an engineer, as that was what I felt most at home doing.

H&A 2017, Photo: Saara-Nette Tõugjas

My first H&A experience was an unexpectedly useful learning experience. Firstly, I learned that simply due to the time constraints of a 48-hour hackathon, it is not the best idea to join two teams, as I so enthusiastically had done. I learned the importance of keeping things in scope and making sure everyone understands the importance of the problem and the usefulness of the solution down to the minor details.

In addition, I realized that I have a knack for pitching and presenting. This was useful in my work as well, as it showed my boss that I could be useful on a business trip and was promptly sent on my first business trip as a result.

H&A 2016, Photo: Maido Parv

My second experience of the H&A hackathon was even better: our project was awarded the first place in the event competition, for being an elegant and cheap solution to a large and expensive problem.

H&A 2017, Photo: Saara-Nette Tõugjas

The project itself was an automatic car battery monitoring system to be used in large vehicle parks, where it is not plausible to test all the batteries manually; however, leaving the batteries untested could result in an inconvenient failure at a critical point. Possible clients for this project included military groups and dealerships, as well as smaller civil entities who have many machines that might simply lie around unused for large periods of time.

H&A 2017, Photo: Saara-Nette Tõugjas

The problem was understood by all and the solution was also understood perfectly. As a result, our particular team didn’t need to have very rigid titles or roles. We had two team leads who kept us on track, a scientific consultant who made sure the solution was viable and scalable, and a handful of engineers and software developers, who switched roles and brainstormed even while building and programming. Thanks to this, it always seemed like we had everything under control and we even had time to work on the future direction of the project.

The hardware and electronics were very simple, as was the software needed for the demo. This allowed us to focus on the prototype and pitch: polishing the system, making it look presentable, and putting together a demonstration that would immediately show everyone the significance of the problem and how we solved it. This, in my opinion, was key in getting the first place.

When I first signed up for the event, I thought of the event only as a place to practice some engineering and get some new practical skills. Instead, it teaches one how to quickly put together what can be called a minimum viable product, how to make it look amazing, and how to present the work you have done in the best way. It’s a matter of understanding what people see as awesome in your project and to concentrate on that, as 48 hours is a very tight timeline.

H&A 2017, Photo: Saara-Nette Tõugjas

In conclusion, attending Garage48 Hardware & Arts is always an interesting learning experience. It will always give you something unexpected. As a student, it is also important to attend, because the number of industry contacts one can get from the event is nothing to sneeze at and can be useful in the future.

The next Garage48 Hardware & Arts hackathon takes place on March 2–4 in Tartu at Physicum. See you there!

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