I Fell Into a Burning Ring of Fire at Music Hackday

Garrett Wilkin
Nov. 09 2011, 08:29AM EST

This weekend I attended my first ever hacking event: Music Hackday Boston 2011.  It was an incredibly exciting, intense experience with plenty of creative inspirational energy.  We had ambitious goals which were largely attained, but when it came to the demo, we failed hard.  At least, it felt like we did.  As I reflected on the demo while we drove home in the black winter night, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” came to mind.  This is the story my personal ring of fire at Music Hackday and how I fell into it.

It was all Abe’s idea.  He mentioned Music Hackday to me back in September.  I had been planning to attend some hacking event, but I was thinking of spring.  That would give me more time to develop proficiency in my scripting language of choice: NodeJs.  I had planned on going alone, but Abe’s proposal was a dream come true because it meant I’d have an experienced guide for the journey.  I immediately accepted his offer and we started thinking about the project.

The use case became an web-aware vinyl ripper to put it simply.  To put it eloquently, it would be an application to complement and enrich the vinyl listening experience.  The idea came out of Abe’s own experience as a vinyl enthusiast.  There just isn’t an app out there that takes vinyl into the digital age without getting in your way.  He wanted to go authentic all the way by using a physical turntable for the demo and I thought that was just what Hackday needed.

We hacked away furiously from 10 am Saturday morning until we hit the hay for lights out around 2am.  Hacking resumed at about 7:30 am Sunday morning, fueled on pure adrenaline.  Hacking officially ended at 2pm, but are you ever really done unless you have to walk up to the podium?  No, there’s always time for one more tweak and we were going right up to the last minute.

In retrospect, the design of our presentation was laughably fragile.  The format of the demos was 2 minutes to set up and 2 minutes to demo.  That left us with approximately zero recovery time, and we simply hadn’t planned on failing.  At no point during the weekend did we say to each other “So what should we do if the app doesn’t work in the demo?”  Maybe that was because we had the basics of the app working by Saturday night.  We were confident that it would work.  That confidence got us into trouble.

Echo NestThere we were, carrying a turntable, laptop, and several cables connecting the two up to the podium.  What could possibly go wrong?  Everything in our demo hinged on one thing:  The Echonest Fingerprinting API.  That fingerprinter would uniquely identify any song based on a 20 second audio clip.  As the record was playing, we would show the waveform, identify the track, and then pull in lovely data to present the user with a juicy display to enjoy in their living room.  A fine plan, but the fingerprint didn’t work in the demo.  Was it the wifi?  Was it the API?  Was it just a fluke?  We’ll never know.

We could have done a lot to still make a strong presentation in the event of demo fail.  We could have avoided failing by faking the API call.  Sure, we were purists and would never think of “cheating,” but what would really have been the harm?  It would have shown what the app truly was capable of doing and we did implement a functioning echonest API library for our testing.  We also could have prepared a few slide presentations of screenshots.  Lastly, we could have just explained the application design and the approach we took.  Unfortunately we didn’t do a single one of these things.  And so standing up there, watching the object of our intensity fail in front of our peers became my ring of fire.  I fell down, down, down, and the flames went higher.  And It burned, burned, burned.

I learned a lot from this painful experience, and I don’t think I could have truly learned it in any other way.  As Abe and I were hacking away, feeling the pressure of the time crunch, would we have listened if someone had warned us to make these preparations?  Probably not.  We were too focused on evaluating APIs from Twilio, Discogs, Musixmatch, LastFm, and of course The EchoNest.  Without the pain of this experience, I’m not sure that we would have listened to reason because we would have seen it as a loss of time to implement another feature.  Well, we learned this lesson and we learned it hard, but this is for sure: we’ll be prepared for the next one.

Photo credits: Thomas Bonte

Garrett Wilkin

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[...] be an excellent step toward that goal.  Back in November, I took that step with my cousin as we drove down to Music Hack Day Boston.  It was an adrenaline filled weekend of high energy, nerdy collaboration.  I got a taste of the [...]