Aussie hackers eye $US100,000 reward

A team of Aussie developers is honing its skills ahead of PayPal's global hackathon in Silicon Valley – and there is a very nice bounty up for grabs.

Christopher Michaelides and his team will soon be on their way to Silicon Valley, and it’s a prospect that fills him with excitement and nervous tension in equal measure.

Michaelides, along with Michael Barlow, Andrej Griniuk and Tom Frauenfelder of Team GearBox, took out the top prize at BattleHack Sydney last month with their web application which uses the open source Arduino hardware platform to power a storage locker from which users can borrow fitness and sports equipment using a mobile app.

It may seem a relatively modest product, but Team GearBox only had 24 hours to deliver on their idea from scratch. In fact, before BattleHack Michaelides didn’t know anyone in his team -- it took shape as the doors to the hackathon were about to be opened.

"None of us knew each other, I bumped into Tom at the juice machine but soon found out that he had a background in design and architecture, so we teamed up," Michaelides told Business Spectator.

Putting the rest of Team GearBox together was a similar exercise in good fortune and finding the right person at the right time. Michaelides says ending up with a group with a broad base (front-end, back-end, design) proved to be the key to Team GearBox’s success.

But winning BattleHack, a global hackathon sponsored by PayPal and its Braintree subsidiary, against 15 other teams is just the start of the journey for Michaelides and his team. Sterner challenges lie ahead and Team GearBox is hard at work sharpening its wares to make a solid impression on a grander stage.

"We are going in November but are already upgrading our skills and our knowledge base," Michaelides told Business Spectator. "We don’t know what they are going to throw at us, but we want to be prepared."

That leap into the unknown is all part and parcel of the appeal of hackathons, which are slowly starting to make their way from the lexicon of tech start-ups to that of traditional, ‘old-world’ businesses.

From PayPal’s perspective, events like BattleHack provide a valuable avenue for the company to put its APIs (application programming interfaces) through its paces and John Lunn, the global director of the PayPal and Braintree developer network, told Business Spectator it was the quality of the code -- not just the business feasibility of the entries -- that was scrutinised.

"We don’t do this to steal people’s ideas for commercial gain, we are trying to see how our products work," Lunn said.

As applications and code become the bricks and mortar of our future, developers are well and truly on their way to running the world. GearBox is just one in a global army of aspiring talent hell-bent on using software to change the world.

There’s a creative impulse at play here which, when combined with technology and well-meaning intentions, has the potential to create ground-breaking solutions.

While cynics may view the feel-good sentimentality of coding for a good cause as naïve, there’s something admirable about pitting a host of smart people against each other and giving them a very short period time to give their virtual ideas a physical form.

If nothing else, there are a few valuable business lessons to be gleaned here.

"You can’t do a lot in 24 hours, so you have to be agile and think on your feet and it takes a mix of resilient, creative people," Michaelides says.

Team GearBox will need to do a lot more of that once they land in Silicon Valley in November, as they will have to pit a brand new idea against other BattleHack winners from across the globe. With $US100,000 up for grabs the incentive is clear but Michaelides says that going to the finals also opens doors to new networks and more learning.

All of which will come in handy for Team GearBox and the big plans it has for its storage locker. "We are creating a prototype and are in talks with investors and also some councils," Michaelides told Business Spectator.

The end goal is always giving the idea a tangible form but an individual programmer can only do so much -- the missing link is often the insight provided by those coming from a non-tech background. These people may not know a whole lot about code but they do understand problems and have plenty of offer when it comes to possible solutions. That imperative lies at the heart of how hackathons can have a meaningful role to play in traditional businesses.

PayPal’s Lunn says that the mechanics of hackathons can be replicated in the enterprise, where different parts of the business are teamed up with developers to identify and solve problems. The hard part is the follow-through: connecting different parts of the business with developers can’t be a just a one-off thing.

"People have the experience and the knowledge," Michaelides says. "What they need is support."

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