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Hackathon report: HackTX 2014


Most college students are aware that registering for classes can be a real pain. At Baylor, we don't have a waitlist on many of our classes. If you fail to get into a class, you are doomed to logging in several times a day and hoping a seat is open. This process is a waste of time; we wanted to automate it. CourseWatch makes registering for classes suck less.

We thought about creating a mobile app that would run in the background on users' phones. Such an app would require no infrastructure on our end, which would be great. However, it would require users to download the app and enter their login credentials. We decided to go with an SMS-based solution. Users would text us a course number, and we would text them once their class opened up. Because signing up was as simple as sending a text, this option would have low friction, which is good for user acquisition.

Here's the project page on HackerLeague, which has some basic information about the project.


I set up a private GitHub repository on my account and added Wes and Evan as contributors.

After we found a work space and set up our laptops/devices Wes started working on creating the screen scraper, Evan started researching other colleges' registration systems, and I started setting up our server. We decided to use Microsoft Azure because the Azure team was offering free hosting. I set up an Ubuntu server with Apache, MySQL, and PHP.

Wes helped me set up dploy.io to deploy our code automatically from the master branch of our repository. I'd not used a continuous deployment service before and was pleased by the ease with which it let us deploy our code. A pitfall with using this service was that because our changes to master were automatically deployed, it was easy to get sloppy and push untested code to master in order to test it on our server. This problem is our own fault and only requires more discipline to fix. Within a hackathon, though, it was not a major issue.

Once the server was set up, I got to work handling inbound SMS messages. I had experience with using Twilio for SMS from HackTX 2013 and chose to use it again because it's easy to use and inexpensive.

After a few minutes of work, Evan finished with his research and wanted to continue helping. We didn't have a clear design at that point, so I didn't know what he could work on. As Wes continued to work on the screen scraper, I spread out a napkin and started drawing the system out. Through this process, I identified three main areas: notification subscription (which I was working on), screen scraping (which Wes was working on), and notifying users. Being that nobody was working on notifying users, Evan started working on that.

Evan had never used PHP before, so he needed some direction. He sat at the keyboard, and I sat next to him. Within an hour or two, he had figured out enough PHP to be dangerous, so I moved to work on subscription through SMS.

Wes sort of reverse engineered BearWeb, which was an interesting and tedious process. He opened up Charles and clicked around Baylor's internal course registration website. He would then perform the same requests in PHP using curl. After several moments where everything seemed hopeless, he eventually got everything figured out.

A little after midnight, we had version one done. You could text in a course number and would get notified a few minutes later that it was open (registration wasn't open yet, so all seats were open). Wes then set to creating a website for the product while I worked on adding SendGrid integration so that users could sign up for notification through email. The SendGrid API was also a pleasure to work with.

By around 3:00, the website was looking good enough and we had gotten SendGrid integration working. At this point, we decided to get some rest. We napped in the hallway for a few hours then got up to figure out our presentation.


HackTX 2014 did "science-fair style" presentations, which I liked. Each team had a spot on a table, and a number of judges came around to check out each project. During this time, participants were encouraged to walk around and check out each others' projects. I was able to check out a few of the projects near us, but did not spend much time looking around; I wanted to get feedback on what we had made.

We received a lot of positive feedback from judges and other participants. People liked the high level of polish in our product and presentation. They also believed we were solving a real problem in a good way. Unfortunately, we weren't chosen to present during the closing ceremonies. On the plus side, we won three sponsor awards:


HackTX 2014 was great. We had fun, built a great product, and won some awesome prizes.