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Nadworny: Vemont Hackathon

10/03/11 5:55PM By Rich Nadworny
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(HOST)  Recently, commentator Rich Nadworny found himself amongst a host of hackers in Vermont. And it was a very good thing.

(NADWORNY)  A few weeks ago, I was one of the judges of the first Vermont Hackathon over at the old Champlain Mill in Winooski. While that may sound bad, a Hackathon has nothing to do with computer hackers stealing personal and business information. It's really a computer programming competition. 

At this year's event, local company MyWebGrocer invited Web developers from around the northeast to compete for more than $10,000 worth of prizes. All they had to do was to come up with the most innovative use of MyWebGrocer's code. MyWebGrocer builds e-commerce Web sites for grocery stores around the country.

When I showed up at the Mill on Saturday afternoon, most of the people competing had been at it for 24 hours straight! They showed up on Friday afternoon without any real idea of what they had to work with. They had to quickly come up with an interesting idea and then build it.

At the end, the developers told an oft-repeated story: we started building it this way, but 6 hours later we realized it wouldn't work, so we had to go back to the drawing room and start over. Talk about pressure.

My favorite example of that was local programmer Tristian Davis. He explained how he had worked for 20 hours and had nothing to show for it. So he went home, slept for a couple of hours, dreamt of an idea, and spent the last two hours building it. His simple but elegant mobile phone tool to keep track of how much your groceries cost won him a third place prize of $2,000!

While none of the entries, even the winners, seemed truly earth shattering; it didn't seem to matter much. What did matter was the idea of bringing Web developers to the Burlington area as a way of introducing them to the state and the companies doing business here.

For growing businesses like MyWebGrocer and Dealer.com, finding technology talent is critical, and often hard to do. We compete with high-tech areas like Boston, Austin and San Francisco, where the companies are usually bigger and the city scene is usually more exciting.

Yet for Vermont to succeed in the 21st century, we need more high tech business and the people to work there. Take Dealer.com, for example. At lunchtime, I always see some of their employees exercising on the Burlington bike path. It's a perfect type of industry for Burlington and Vermont, where quality of life and quality of work BOTH matter.

 It's too bad some of our colleges haven't placed a greater emphasis on engineering to help fill our tech businesses and to act as an economic motor for our region. Because the odds are that we're going to have to grow our own business, rather than poaching them from other states, as Texas has done.

 In the meantime, I can't wait until next year's Hackathon to see what new tech ideas people can come up with in just one short day.

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