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Hack Cambridge: the insider experience by one of its mentors

This weekend, I was lucky enough to attend Hack Cambridge 101 as a mentor for CCleaner. Hack Cambridge is an annual event that invites students to take part in a 24-hour challenge, and we (the CCleaner team) were there with Avast. On my return to the office (and after a lot of sleep), I was asked about my experience. Here goes:

How did you prepare for the event and design your challenge?

Our Hack Cambridge adventure began back in the autumn, when we started planning and preparation. We wanted to design a challenge that would be interesting and accessible to as many people as possible and that would be fun for them to take on, regardless of their previous experience or skill level. We thought that inviting participants to develop a game for the Avast Secure Browser would allow them to use a range of technologies and maximize the chance of their weekend's work being seen by millions of real-world users.

We really wanted to help people get stuck in so we set about creating not one, but two separate example games that participants could refer to or build on to help them get started quickly. It's a 24-hour hackathon, but that time can go by very quickly when you get in the zone! We made one game using plain old JavaScript and HTML5 and another using the melonJS framework. Then we planned out a workshop for Saturday, where we could talk people through the examples and also run a session on debugging JavaScript to help people get their games started and also get them finished!

This was in parallel to working with our wonderful HR team, designing materials for the booth, putting together copy for our fliers, building a website and developing our talking points. There's a lot of preparation in the run-up to an event like this, but the more you plan ahead, the smoother it goes - it's a lot like software engineering, really.

When the event started, what was the initial reception like?

By the big weekend, we were really excited to come and meet the students and see how many we could attract to our challenge and honestly, we were blown away by the response! When the doors opened, we were already on hand to greet everyone and people seemed immediately attracted to the Wheel of Fortune on our booth. We talked to so many students who were interested in what life's like in our office and wondering about doing internships with us. This was perfect because one of our main objectives was to discover bright young talent to come and do paid internships with us in London.

As the hackathon got started I was excited and nervous. I was really looking forward to mixing with the teams and helping them with game code and design, but I was also feeling a little trepidation about presenting in the workshop. Public speaking is not my strong point, but in the end, it went without a hitch and gave me a real confidence boost - showing that events like this can really help with personal development whether you're there as a participant or as a sponsor.

Hack Cambridge students

Was there a good take-up for the CCleaner and Avast challenge?

Yes, when things ramped up we realized there were lots of people tackling our challenge. We surprised ourselves with how successful it was and suddenly realized that meant there'd be no rest for us! People soon discovered a technical glitch in one of our examples projects, so we had to scramble to find a fix in the 'waiting room' we'd set up behind our booth. Our HR team kept everyone entertained, handing out some super swag, while we beavered away in the background to get it working. Just one more adrenaline-fuelled moment for our mentoring team!

And then things started to settle into the traditional hackathon rhythm. Participants had their plans worked out and got their heads down. We came and helped whenever needed but in the quiet spells, we popped out for dinner, sank a few coffees and started doing some hacking of our own. We plugged our laptops into the TV on our booth and did some live coding in the Corn Exchange lobby. If you've ever had someone look over your shoulder while you work, just imagine doing it while loads of highly educated students keep coming over for a peep.

Hack Cambridge crowd

How did the team cope with the 24-hour element? Was it difficult to stay awake?!

As the day turned to night we activated our long shift strategy. ie. half the team went to get some sleep, while the rest of us drank more coffee, ate gummy bears and put some tunes on. People came and visited for tech support, to talk to us about our company culture (which is amazing) and just to joke around and shoot the breeze. By 4am we had all of the security staff engaged in a game of hatball - throwing mini basketballs into a hat to see which team could get the most points. I'll admit they beat us, but only because one guy was actually amazing at it. We gave him a CCleaner water bottle in recognition of his excellence.

And then, at 5:30am we did a shift change with the first half of our mentor team returning. I got the chance to go and catch four hours of sleep at our hotel before eating the world's largest buffet breakfast and getting back to the venue for the last hour of hacking. At this point, the event organizers had hundreds of burgers and chips delivered and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to continue a little tradition of ours - eating wrong. Last year, it was strawberry sauce on pizzas at midnight, this year it was strawberry sauce on burgers at midday, with a side of chocolate chips. Yes, chips with chocolate sauce. It's not only the students who are innovating.

How did you decide who won?

On Sunday afternoon, it was time for the expo, where every sponsoring company's mentors rove around the main hall and every participating team presents their projects to them. As we had sixteen teams doing our challenge this gave us about four minutes with each, so we had an incredibly intense time, seeing all of these amazing games, talking to the wonderful people who made them and making notes on the standout points from each one. There were so many impressive projects this year that we had a really tough challenge of our own - deciding on a winner. Our team retired to the booth and talked through all the games we'd seen and, with a lot of discussion, we managed to make our minds up...

We awarded our prizes to the team who created Cyber Typer! They'd gone right back to basics and developed their game in neat JavaScript, working with the HTML5 canvas to create a really clean aesthetic. They hit the event theme of back to basics and our themes of security and privacy while delivering a game that was immediately understandable and fun to play. It was a really strong project for 24 hours of work and we could see it being shipped in our browser. So the Cyber Typer team each won a Nintendo Switch for their efforts and we'll be talking through future plans for the game over the coming days and weeks. Best watch this space!

Hack Cambridge winners

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