Company-funded hackathons - what a good idea - Embedded.com

Company-funded hackathons — what a good idea

There's a really interesting company called Synapse Wireless based in Huntsville, Alabama, which is where I currently “hang my hat,” as it were (I moved here from England for the nightlife, LOL).

As I've written in previous columns, the folks at Synapse have some rather interesting ultra-low-power wireless mesh network technology called SNAP, which is a bit like ZigBee except that it works (LOL).

To be fair to ZigBee, this little ragamuffin offers all the advantages you'd expect of something that's been designed by a committee (or a consortium of companies) where all of the members have their own agendas. The end result is a somewhat bloated stack (~120KB the last I heard). Also, you typically create your user apps in C/C++, compile them with the stack, and physically copy the stack-app combo into the wireless node(s). Furthermore, you have to recompile your stack-app combo for each target processor used in the nodes forming the mesh network.

By comparison, user applications intended for use with SNAP are created in Python and loaded “over the air” into the wireless nodes. Each node contains a SNAP stack, which was ~40KB the last I heard, and this includes a virtual Python machine, so your apps will run on any SNAP-enabled wireless node without recompilation, irrespective of the underlying processor.

As an aside, it was my chum David Ewing, the Chief Technology Officer at Synapse, who designed CapNet a couple of years ago. To this day, CapNet (as depicted in this video) remains the largest wireless mesh network in the world to be deployed in propeller beanies, and that's not something you expect to hear yourself say very often.

I could waffle on about this stuff for ages, but that's not what I wanted to talk to you about…

Recently, I ambled round to Synapse's offices to see what they are getting up to these days. In fact, as I shall be discussing in future columns, they have a lot of amazing things on the go, but the really exciting topic for me at the moment was their upcoming hackathon, which will take place this week starting at 8:00 a.m. on Thursday 24 September and finishing 24 hours later at 8:00 a.m. on Friday 25 September.

Synapse is a really cool place to work. Check out the Company Values section on their About Us page and you'll see what I mean. Having fun things like hackathons are the sort of thing they do there, where these events are open to every member of the company — engineers and non-engineers alike.

The participants can use off-the-shelf Synapse wireless modules and suchlike as part of their projects, and the company also gives each of the participants $200 to use for additional components and supplies as required. Furthermore, the participants can band together to form teams if they wish (teams typically range from one to six people), in which case they can also pool their resources.

And the prize is… bragging rights, which is the way it should be. At 8:00 a.m. on Friday morning, after working on their projects for 24 hours, the teams get to present their masterpieces to each other. Later, they will also give a company-wide presentation at the next quarterly engineering meeting.

In addition to being a lot of fun for the employees, Synapse can use these hackathon projects to promote to its customers the wide variety of things that are feasible using SNAP technology, thereby inspiring the customers to think outside the box.

The great thing for me is that I've been invited to visit Synapse this coming Thursday, at which time I'll wander around chatting to the various teams to see what they are planning on doing. I'll then return on Friday morning to attend the project presentations. I will, of course, be taking oodles of photographs and reporting further following the great event. How about you? Does your company have activities like this? If not, maybe you could suggest that they consider it, because I personally can’t think of a better way to get everyone's creative juices flowing.

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