Coding, Hackathon, New York City

Coming Through In the Clutch at Sports Illustrated’s Hackathon

“Hackathons are, like, my new favorite thing,” said not a lot of people. But I’m saying it, because I like building proof of concepts in a short period of time.

Hackathons are great reminders that great things can be built in no time at all.

Earlier this month, I participated in Sports Illustrated’s first hackathon, and this is a brief recounting of that sugar-filled, sleep-deprived, product-building experience. (No sports were actually played, unfortunately.)

We showed up around 9:30 a.m. because we were told that more people RSVP’d than the event space could handle. When I arrived, there were already about 10 over-achievers who had gotten there before me. I wanted to say, “damn them,” but then I realized, we were all probably sewn from similar fabric — the kind that welcomes waiting in lines to do work on a Saturday morning for the prospect of a unknown prizes (prizes had not been announced yet).

Around 10 a.m., the event started and we were allowed into the space (Time Inc. Photo Studio), which had a nice view.

The proof is in the pudding.

The proof is in the poster pudding.

A good view for building things that matter.

A good view for building things.

I can't say I read those two issues.

I can’t say I read those two issues.

There was coffee, donuts, bananas and plenty of other snacks to get fired up. My teammate, Brett, and I picked out a table and got settled in. Within about 15 minutes, there were speakers giving presentations to the group of hackers. This was a bit odd, and unfortunately, fell on the note of contrived. But alas, no donut is free. And the final speaker, Alex Bresler, said something that inspired what we would actually be building.

“It’s really difficult to determine who is more clutch than someone else.”

When I heard this, I thought, “Why? We can do that. We’ll do that.” I messaged Brett (sitting next to me), and asked what the thought about building something that rates the “clutchness” of players in sports, and allows users to compare different players. He responded that he liked that idea.

Left: Brett paying attention to speakers. Right: Me not paying attention.

Left: Brett paying attention to the presentations. Right: Me not paying attention.

Shortly thereafter, the speech wrapped up, and one of the guys sitting at our table asked us what we were working on. I stated that we had an idea, but we weren’t totally sure. We asked him what he did, and he said he worked on “statistical modeling,” or something like that. I was skeptical, as I’m sure Brett was as well — I could see it on his face. I decided to give a little more info about what we were working on, and this statistician dude asked if he could join our team. I thought, “I don’t know anything about this guy, but, why the hell not. He could be great.” I said, “yeah sure, but let me ask Brett.” Brett was not yet convinced, but finally, he decided to say yes too. And so we accepted this stranger onto our team.

I asked him what his e-mail was so I could invite him to our git repo, and he said, [actual-email-address]@alum.mit.edu.

I laughed a good laugh inside. I knew regardless of what would happen, I was probably going to learn something. Our new teammate’s name was Dan (and still is, actually).

After officially becoming team-complete, I gave Dan the idea straight up, he seemed to like it. We discussed how we would build it, and then we were off and running. The unfortunate time was roughly 1 p.m.; this was not a true 24-hour hackathon.

We coded through the “early” night and Dan worked up some awesome model for calculating clutchness. By around 1 a.m., we had something pretty serviceable. Subsequently, this was about the same time my bed started to call me. The problem was, my bed was miles away, and it started to rain, and I did not want to walk anywhere in the rain. We also had some nasty bugs in our code that needed to be squashed, and squash them we did. It was around this time, maybe a little bit earlier, that we started to pair program, because this is when 1 brain is worth about 1/2 a brain. Dan took off for his bed sometime around 2 a.m., I think? Not sure.

Around 4 a.m., delirium struck, and I told Brett I was going to need some nappy time. Brett, as though he were cast of iron, turned to me and said that he was probably going to keep working. I admired that, but I also admired my potential time with the couch. I briefly napped and I returned to our table 30 minutes later, hardly refreshed, but it was better than nothing.

Brett was working on some insane bash command that was downloading videos, compressing them, converting them to another format, and probably sending them to the International Space Station. I kinda thought it was magical, but that’s because everything was magical at that hour, including water. A toothbrush would have been magical, too.

The sun came up; that was good. Dan came back early that morning, and pushed all of his work to our repository. Suddenly, we not only had data, we had a real mathematical model computing the clutchness, or, Clutch Rating of a particular player. We were ecstatic.

As we got closer to stopping-time, I built out a brief outline of our pitch, and we made some last-minute tweaks. The judges arrived (including the CMO of Sports Illustrated, Damian Slattery; the Executive Editor of Sports Illustrated, Ryan Hunt; and the CTO of Time Inc, Colin Bodell) and said some short words, and with that, the pitches started.

Check out that high-tech digital display.

Check out that high-tech digital display of the pitching order.

We got up on stage, and it felt like we nailed it. Our product was quite complete, by hackathon standards. Users could:

  • Search through players, see a snapshot of each player and their overall Clutch Rating.
  • Click on a player and see more stats about the player, including a profile photo.
  • View all of a particular player’s plays that went into computing their overall clutch rating.
  • Click on a play to watch game footage of that play (the product of Brett’s insane shell command).

We were the last team to pitch, and after finishing, the judges went on with their judging.

About 5 minutes later, the winners were announced, and we took first place.

This is what winning looks like.

This is what first place looks like. From left to right: Alex (me), Dan, Colin Bodell, Brett

Plenty of post-hackathon networking ensued, and we went to get a few whiskeys — not that we needed them. We were already mostly drunk with delirium. After the second or third drink, I turned into what some would call, a zombie. I promptly made my way to the train station without eating anyone, and found my bed.

The next day, we were all off to work like nothing ever happened.

Check out our project at clutchratings.com.  

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