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With Extra Caffeine, Fall Hackathon Fuels Innovation and Collaboration
Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Elsa Gonsiorowski is only a few minutes into Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s (LLNL’s) Fall Hackathon, and she and her team are starting from square one. Most days, she is a systems software developer for Livermore Computing. Today, she’s planning to learn Rust, a relatively new open-source programming language, and hoping to explore some of its parallelism features before time runs out.

“We know zero about Rust,” she says.

Luckily, starting from scratch is actually welcome. The Fall Hackathon, sponsored by Computation’s Applications, Simulations and Quality Division and the Global Security Computing Applications Division, was the Laboratory’s third in 2017 and 16th overall. Hackathons are events wherein organizers proclaim “collaboration is encouraged and failure is an option.” Teams sign up for 24 hours of working on almost anything they want. For some, they’re taking advantage of an unbroken span of time to fix a persistent problem in their everyday work. For others, it’s a chance to learn something totally new and embrace the opportunity to “fail fast.”

Computation’s Principal Deputy Associate Director Eric McKinzie kicks off the event by speaking about the benefits of taking time to innovate and explore. As participants had seen in an introductory video, McKinzie had been a judge at the Laboratory’s first-ever Hackathon, back when it was a competition called “ShipIt Day.” To him, the entrepreneurial spirit fostered by Hackathon is still critical to every part of the Laboratory.

“You need that healthy competition between two entities to thrive,” he says. For McKinzie, there was a lesson in LLNL’s founding in 1952 as a friendly competitor to Los Alamos National Laboratory. Sixty-five years later, it remains a renowned “new ideas” laboratory.

But while new ideas have advanced LLNL’s national security mission for decades, not every new idea is a great one. Elsewhere, McKinzie notes other events in the style of Hackathon, which produced such frivolous ideas as Pomodoro Zap, which lightly electrocutes the user when they become distracted, and a service that sends a tweet every time a user takes a sip of coffee. The mission of Livermore’s Hackathons is more noble, but there is still ample room for fun—so long as you learn something. McKinzie’s last presentation slide is “Keep Calm and Hack,” but Hackathon organizer Justin Barno has something even simpler to say:

“Go do work.”

Barno works in LLNL’s Global Security Computing Applications Division, where he provides computing support for energy security and nuclear threat reduction. At the moment, he is attending to the snacks, which were selected based upon the summer Hackathon’s post-event survey. One room features a vintage popcorn maker. He’s ensured the participants have plenty of caffeine, as well. There’s a commercial-grade coffee machine and the cooler is unusually full of a well-known neon-green soda.

Last year’s fall Hackathon had around 60 participants, according to Barno; today, they’re working with 85. The event is growing in popularity, and getting more sophisticated in its technology, he says. Virtual reality is more prevalent than ever before, as Hackathon participants grow increasingly creative year after year. As this season’s Hackathon goes on, a drawing of Jack Skellington (of The Nightmare Before Christmas fame) appears on a whiteboard, not far from a round of Super Ghouls & Ghosts on a Super Nintendo Classic.

But those are only short breaks from hacking. When there are only 20 minutes left, the room has gone almost entirely quiet. There are occasional spurts of laughter, but nearly everyone is hunched over a laptop computer, leaning into the final stretch. Most of the soda is gone.

“It’s crunch time for PowerPoint,” says Bryce Hart, who is putting the finishing touches on a summary presentation he’s calling “Project Make Thing Faster.” By the end of the 24-hour period, most teams will give a three-slide presentation outlining the progress they made. Hart is freehand-drawing his slides about how to load a database faster. He managed to cut the time from 22 to 11 seconds, but explains that he learned even more about what doesn’t work.

With 12 minutes left, Huy Le has taken off his Microsoft HoloLens augmented-reality headset and is punching the air in front of his laptop screen. He’s not frustrated, though—he’s testing his Hackathon project alongside teammate Chunhua “Leo” Liao.

“Leo emailed me,” Le says later. “We don’t work on anything together during our day jobs, but he suggested that we create something where we use a pair of augmented reality goggles to punch a keyboard. It was sort of impractical—we couldn’t get the gestures down.”

Le and Liao then figured out a different solution. They trained an infrared sensor to recognize and track the motions of the user’s hands, which turned out to be more accurate than the HoloLens. PunchMonkey was revealed to the world not long after, continuing Le’s Hackathon tradition of working with augmented reality systems.

“I always opt to do a live demo,” he says, citing his experience traveling to other hackathons while attending Boston University. While PunchMonkey might not have immediate applications at the Laboratory, finding a use for its infrared sensing technology may inspire some future Hackathon team. And, as Liao points out during the presentation, PunchMonkey might just help engineers get some extra exercise.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a project called Check Point is aimed at helping employees at LLNL complete evacuation drills more efficiently and at less cost. The team estimates that every site-wide, one-hour drill may cost the Laboratory upwards of $1 million in lost productivity, leading them to build a mobile app that connects employees to the responsible emergency coordinator. By connecting Android and Java to the Oracle database, Check Point lets coordinators know which people have checked in, as well as registering any special needs or resources much faster than pen and paper can. Like a lot of Hackathon projects, it’s just a starting point: future plans might update the app to display who is on vacation, who is likely to appear at each specific assembly point and a web interface for the Emergency Response Center.

“I think it turned out really well,” says Sylwia Hamilton, an administrative specialist at the National Ignition Facility on a team with Linda Becker, Nancy Spafford, Jorge Castro-Morales and Yousseff Abed. “I really want to get together with the people at the [Laboratory’s] Emergency Response Center and go through this whole idea with them because I know they’re intrigued.”

As for Elsa Gonsiorowski and her team, there isn’t quite enough time to explore all of Rust’s parallelism features.

“But they got something working in a language they don’t know!” marvels Walt Nissen, a previous Hackathon organizer and advocate.

“I learned the basics and how it works,” Gonsiorowski says. “If I had to do simple programs in Rust, I would feel confident that I could get it done.”

October’s event is her first Hackathon working with a team of colleagues from the Laboratory; in this case, Computation employees Daniel Fedor-Thurman and Shiv Sundram. She finds the Hackathon environment particularly conducive not just to learning a new skill, but also to promoting collaboration.

“It was really useful to blurt out the problem I was running into and see if anyone had the solution,” she says. “Someone could say ‘I just ran into that two seconds ago, and here’s what you can do.’ It’s just a different way of debugging problems and working with people.”

And for the latest Hackathon participants at LLNL, it’s a tradition that helps keep the Laboratory vital and innovative in its numerous important missions.

—Ben Kennedy, TID

Photographs by Randy Wong