October 5, 2021

Spotlight on: Hackathon!

Written by connor


We programmers have a strong sense of creativity and problem solving skills, two really important skill sets which we should ensure stay fresh and alive. But sometimes it's easy to forget that and lose focus. This is where a hackathon can help.

A hackathon is a coding competition where programmers are given a unique, specific problem, and then have the chance to address it in an open-ended and creative way. Hackathons are a great way to pull ourselves back into that creative frame of mind.

Participants can be an individual or a team of people with a wide range of skills. Where sometimes we get rigid and comfortable with our work, hackathons challenge us to think in a different context. This can be refreshing, forcing you to solve problems you haven't thought of, use a new set of tools, and work with others you might not have worked with.

Enter the Hackathon

TextNow's Product Growth team recently held our own internal hackathon. Our challenge was one simple question: "What's a cool technology we can build to grow our user base?"

As a developer on this team, my role is to give technical feedback on product decisions and build technical solutions. A hackathon like this challenges me to take on new roles, like identifying the product issue, designing a solution to that issue, and then jumping back into my normal developer role and building it out. It forces me to explore areas of software development that I don't directly work with in my regular role. It can pay off some very beneficial dividends. With product design, I get insight to how work is designed (which is later handed off to me), and I get a better understanding of how product goes from start to finish, freshly armed with my experience of someone else's role - but from a different perspective. This can in turn inspire others in that role to see my different perspective, and maybe see things from a technical standpoint which they may not have seen before.

Tag-team hackin'

When the hackathon was announced, my friend Adrian and I knew right away to partner up. Our minds were already racing so fast with new ideas for our team, so we both knew by getting together we would come up with some epic ideas. We're also both Android developers, work closely together daily, so we're already on the same wavelength and knew we could agree on something.

We met in advance, hashed through a laundry list of ideas, and eventually narrowed in on our favorite: building a trial version of the app to give people the chance to try out our new video calling feature. We thought this was a for-sure winning idea. From a product design perspective, we needed something interesting to draw the user in. Why not our flashy new video calling feature, which connects people regardless of their phone operating system? It's also an idea relevant to our team's recent marketing strategy, as video calling has been a highly advertised feature that has been well-received by users.

Thinking even further, it allows someone to try out our services before committing to an account. If you like it, great, hop on board! And if it's not for you, then hey, we'll save you the trouble of creating one more account.

Instant apps - just add code

From a technical point of view, we had two major challenges. Adrian focused on building a Google Instant App. This is an API that allowed us to condense our application in such a way that it doesn't need to be installed on a user's device. Triggered by a link, it can just be run one time.

Adrian set the instant app to be triggered by a video calling invite. Someone with TextNow could invite a friend without the app to video call them through our new trial experience. Meanwhile, I worked on making our video calling feature work for a user without an account. With just a few tweaks, I was able to get things running. With my spare time, I set up an onboarding flow which introduces the user to how we handle video calls. We also prompted the user to download the full version app when the video call concluded.

This was a fun thing to work on, and we felt proud presenting our idea to our larger team at the end of the week. Not only that, but it was genuinely heartwarming to see the work other teams put in. It felt awesome to realize this creative passion we all have is still alive and well inside of us.

Adrian and I secured the win, and our idea is inspiring other teams to fully build out our idea. The hackathon was a huge success, and we are glad to be the TextNow pioneers for it. Hopefully, it will inspire other teams we work with to ideate cool new features like we did!

If hacking alongside Connor (in or out of thons) sounds like fun to you, come check out our open positions over on the TextNow career page!