When music and hackathons collide

Bitcamp 2016

April in the DC area isn’t just about cherry blossoms. For FINRA, it also means it’s time for the Bitcamp hackathon. As a seasoned sponsor, we had a routine, our challenges usually around our own market data or open source project. We knew we needed something different this time around.

Origin of the idea

Michael Scheidt, a senior director at FINRA, had an idea: create cohesive theme that included the activities, challenge, and giveaway at the hackathon. Something that could be both fun but also let people show their creative side.

“Development of software is a creative endeavor,” Michael said. “There’s logic, but creativity plays a big part. We wanted to see how creative people were and leave the challenge open but fitting inside the theme.”

The idea became Bandcamp at Bitcamp. Whether you play or just enjoy listening, everyone can relate to music. We quickly came up with a challenge: produce a hack that is somehow related to music. What we needed next was something to giveaway and an activity.

Creation of swag

For a music related giveaway, we didn’t have to look too far. One FINRA employee, Business Analyst Chris Verhoeven, has been building guitars for over ten years.

So we asked Chris to create something that was unique and would also fit with Bitcamp. He came up with a T-style electric guitar. He stripped the back and used a patina bronze finish. On the front, he affixed a Bitcamp logo.

The guitar was definitely a success and drawing people over to our booth. Throughout the event people came up to play the guitar. Some people played a few rock and pop riffs. One Bitcamp participant even started to play the blues, improvising for almost 15 minutes. “He had the slow soulful hands of a blues man 3 times his age” Chris Verhoven remembered.

Michael Thomas, who focuses on QA at FINRA, had his own impromptu guitar lesson. Another participant taught him, “which string plays which note, the fundamentals of guitar. I know almost nothing about guitar but he showed how to strum correctly, even a few basic chords in most popular music.”

Rocking out with Xbox

The music at Bitcamp didn’t end there. We also brought an Xbox with Rock Band 4. Whether people loved the Beatles or Fallout Boy, there were songs for them to play. Sure enough, people came up through the event. They had the option to play a variety of instruments, including drums, guitar, bass, and even sing.

This activity brought people together: FINRA employees played alongside participants. A lot of people thought it was a great break, especially over Friday and Saturday night.

That wasn’t the only reason people stopped by. Raffling both the Xbox as well as the guitar generated quite a bit of interest in our booth. Over 200 people signed up for the giveaway of these two prizes. This incentive brought more people by to sign up and learn more about FINRA.

All hands on deck

With FINRA’s Rockville campus only 30 minutes from University of Maryland, we were not only able to have multiple people at the booth, but also available the entire time, even between midnight and 7 AM both nights of the hackathon.

Michael Thomas even stayed for the vast majority of the hackathon. His only nap was 45 minutes. He let the others know that they could wake him but be careful: he could be pretty rude if someone woke him up.

Luckily that hour, no one needed him.

Multiple participants brought up the continual FINRA presence. It helped participants to know that employees were available to answer technical questions as well as take the time to discuss what it’s like working here. They didn’t have to rush at the beginning of the event or interrupt their hacking in order to find out about internship opportunities.

Finding the winning hack

This year, we saw a jump in the number of participating entries: participation tripled compared to previous hackathons. To get through so many entries, our judges filtered through the submissions on Devpost. Then, they talked in depth on the entries that fit the challenge and looked promising.

The challenge, create a hack related to music was wide and brought in a variety of projects. Projects included playing analog sounds through glass panes and even a dollar bill accordion. Chris Gallagher, a FINRA developer, admitted that it was a challenge to judge such different projects. “Everyone had their own internal thought process,” he said. “I gave more weight to people who had done it here and now rather than having something before partially made.”

In the end, the judges did agree on the winning hack: Message Securer. This team created a program that encoded and secured messages inside music files, such as MP3, WAV, and more. It not only was a creative way to use music but also a thorough implementation given the short amount of time.

Moving forward

Bitcamp is only the first of many hackathons we’ll be attending this year. With so much success, FINRA employees are already thinking of various themes, activities, and potential giveaways we can do at hackathons in the fall. We may not be singing ‘Living on a Prayer’ with participants, but we’re excited to meet students from all over the country and see how far their creativity and technical skills can go.

Cover line art by Uyen-Truc Nguyen