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Hulu Hacks TechCrunch’s Disrupt Beijing

December 13th, 2011 by Jiasi Zeng

When we heard that TechCrunch would be holding its first international Disrupt Hackathon in Beijing, it was a no-brainer for us: We had to go. Hacking is what Hulugans do, so hackathons are where Hulugans go. And winning the Grand Prize? That would’ve just been a bonus. We went to the venue with our gear, picked a table, and sat down. Since lots of hackers came alone, people started mingling and teaming up with others. Turns out, the hacker world a smaller world that we could have even imagined. We met a guy who sat at our table, and it turned out that he was one of our former dev interns, Yichuan Wang, who had previously worked with the Hulu platform team for three months at the Los Angeles office. At the TC Hackathon, we ended up building a web application named WeDiary which organizes a user’s tweets into a personal diary and streams it along a horizontal timeline in the browser. The app’s technology is not very advanced – after all, we weren’t creating an operating system or building a super-fast new compiler. But the execution of our ideas was very “Hulu” — relentless focus on quality all the way down to the pixel. Since we had fewer than 20 hours to build, we decided at the very beginning that our app should do one thing and do it well.  We used Sina Weibo’s API because it is the Twitter equivalent in China with more than 200 million users. Getting tweets through the API is very straightforward:
  1. Ask the user’s permission to access his/her tweets.
  2. Request an access token from Weibo’s authorization server, with the user’s permission.
  3. Get the user’s tweets with the access token.
Writing the code to get the actual tweets through APIs only took about 30 minutes.  Because we didn’t have a designer on the team,  coming up with a consistent UI style or writing the CSS and JavaScript wasn’t really possible in the time allowed.  But since we’re developers, we knew that there are always some great devs in the community who may have already done some of the heavy lifting for us. We remembered reading about Twitter’s Bootstrap CSS framework on Hacker News a while ago, and we decided to give it a try. It brought us Hulu’s signature lights-out feature, nice pop-ups, hover boxes, etc. We also hacked the framework a bit and made it suitable to our app by hiding scroll bars, tuning the hover boxes’ positions, etc. We worked on a lot of details that could have been completely missed, but without them,  the app just didn’t feel right. For example, we spent a lot of time choosing the perfect background pattern for our app. We wanted to make sure that it looked great not only on our laptops but also on the demo projector screen, since it had noticeably lower definition and contrast. We went over more than 100 patterns (really!) using Subtle Patterns and finally found the right one that we all liked.
At 6 a.m. the next morning we submitted our app, grabbed some food, and got 30 minutes of sleep on the chairs.  After the power nap, each team was given 60 seconds to demo their work to the judges and the rest of the hackers. To our delight, we were thrilled to have been awarded the Grand Prize of the TC Hackathon. Although we really saw that the process of hacking as the real prize, the award was great validation of our work. Since this was the first time we had participated in an overnight hackathon, we were all pleasantly surprised by what can be done in 18 hours.  Even though the app we created was still buggy and might not be ready for end-users, we went through the typical stages of development: brainstorming, prototyping, testing, iterating and delivering the product. We’d like to think the experience has made us even better at working in an intense, fast-paced environment. We would like to thank our awesome teammates: Cheng Chen, Yi Ding, and Yichuan Wang whom we met at the TC Hackathon and who have since become our good friends.
Jiasi Zeng works on the front-end of Hulu search, bringing new features and improving the service’s usability. Jia Cao, a software engineer, is working on the site and other systems for Hulu Japan.
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