Making Eyes at the Valley and Changing Corporate Culture: A Berlin Hackathon

By David Knight |

“You will laugh… it’s my first one!” You and me both, Sebastian Küpers, you and me both. Sebastian had revealed his lack of hackathon experience sporting a big grin behind his beard – and rightly so. The hack he had put together with Ivo Hanke, Context Booster, had just been named the winner at the Deutsche Telekom Evernote hackathon, and the big prize was an all-expenses paid trip to San Francisco for the pair to present their project at the Evernote conference in September.

It was a fitting end to what proved to be one of Berlin’s biggest ever hackathons; both in terms of its scale and in terms of the impact it can hopefully have on the German capital’s tech scene as a whole. Silicon Allee was one of the organisers and it was fascinating to watch from the beginning as the whole event took shape – the dedication, concentration and skill of the hackers as well as the hard work done behind the scenes to keep them happy.

The event was held on the ground floor of a large and fairly nondescript DT building on Winterfeldtstrasse near Nollendorfplatz. The architecture oozes Cold War-era West Berlin, functional rather than striking, but the long main room was bright and airy and provided the perfect atmosphere for some serious hacking. The hackathon was actually held to mark the official opening of the space; a new venture from DT to offer its partners a space to work whenever they need it. It’s part of the German telco giant’s partnering strategy – moving the focus away form internal innovation – which also saw the recent launch of a deal to offer Evernote Premium to Telekom customers free for a year.

That was the thinking behind inviting Evernote’s developer relations team to join us in hosting the event. They were the ones with the experience and it almost felt like the cavalry arriving when they flew in from San Francisco, Switzerland and the UK. Leveraging their expertise of putting on hackathons – including their failures – helped enormously.

And so we didn’t run out of food, or Club Mate, or – worst of all – beer. But the organising work is all dedicated to one thing; creating a situation as conducive to creativity and hard work as possible.

First conclusion: When you offer free tickets to an event like this, you are going to attract a lot of gawkers. More than 150 people signed up, but many of them just wanted to stop in and see what was going on.

Not that that is necessarily a problem – the crowd which gathered on Friday night for the introduction evening was much reduced on Saturday morning, but those who remained were the hardcore. And they were the ones who came up with some great stuff over the course of the following 30 hours or so.

Hackers hard at work

Firstly, the winners. Context Boost used the Otherland Context Engine to automatically add relevant information to notes in any Evernote application. By adding the tag ‘contextboost’, related data is added in the background. So if the note reads “Attend Deutsche Telekom Evernote hackathon” then the app scours sources such as Wikipedia, IMDB, Freebase, Facebook, Twitter and Yelp for background information on some of the words.

This, its creators say, will lead to smarter notes and a much more efficient way to use Evernote. The finished hack contained only a basic connection to the context engine to demo getting data from Wikipedia, but the potential is what excited Chris Traganos. Chris was heading up the Evernote developer team presence in Berlin and he told me that Context Booster will make a big splash in Silicon Valley.

Sebastian said: “I am really looking forward to bringing our product to a point which is much better than today and very excited to show many more people what we are thinking of.”

Flush with victory, he also demonstrated the sort of dedication winning a competitive hackathon like this needs: “I went home to go to sleep at 2 o’clock in the morning (on Sunday) and I couldn’t sleep; I was so excited to continue with the programming that I returned at 3 o’clock in the morning and came back to continue working on it.”

Sebastian and Ivo weren’t the only ones to make an impact, however. There was an impressive array of prizes on offer, stumped up by DT, Developer Garden and Evernote, and many of the 15 projects which pitched were recognised.

Hackathons are hard work…

Among the highlights was Sh*t-O-Call – subsequently renamed S-O-Call – which used the Tropo API to create a platform which calls you if a ‘sh*tstorm’ blows up on your brand’s social media. There was also Easychef, which matches up what’s already in your fridge with suitable recipes, and, which puts all your passwords together in one note, protected by a password and phone-based security.

You can check out details of all the entrants on the Hacker League page. But with the Evernote contingent duly impressed, the impact of the hackathon will hopefully see a greater awareness of what’s happening in Berlin – perhaps not yet in terms of solid results, but certainly the potential – along the Silicon Valley halls of influence. What helped was the fact that the event had attracted professional, practised developers and designers, not the university students who tend to participate at Evernote hackathons elsewhere in the world.

And then there is the sit-up-and-take-notice effect which it will hopefully have on Deutsche Telekom. Ilya Levtov, a genuine startup guy who now works for DT, is in charge of the partnership space, and he told me on Sunday that was already thinking about which of the hacks could be “driven further through the DT machine.” The problem with a corporation, he argued, is not a shortage of ideas but how to push innovation all the way through. “There is no better way of doing that,” he added, “then actually taking one of these apps that got hacked together in 24 hours, maybe polish it up in a couple of weeks, and then get it in front of DT customers. It’s a way to say, look what’s possible.”

It’s not only the hacks, either. It’s the antithesis of corporate life – turn up at nine, put on your corporate personality, behave yourself and only become who you really are when you go home at five.

“We all know that the startup community completely rejects that,” Ilya said. He noted the group of DT employees sitting around on beanbags at 11pm on a Saturday night talking about ideas. “Nobody really does that at DT. Doing weekend stuff together that’s not like a trade show is really cool and is a great thing for corporations to try. … Work stuff that you can enjoy.”

The startup scene – changing German business culture one hackathon at a time? Well, maybe. Perhaps more importantly, it was a fun – and productive – way to spend a weekend.

The overall winners receive their prize