Building Braze

Tales from Hack Day: Braze Senior Software Engineer Dave Hensley on Project Strategy and Building “Braze: The Game” for the Atari 2600

Dave Hensley By Dave Hensley Sep 2, 2021

Three times a year, technologists from around Braze take two days away from their normal duties to participate in Braze hack days. These events—a long-running Braze practice that reflects how the company creates space for dreaming up and implementing new ideas—provide a chance to encourage innovative thinking, highlight pet interests, and even optimize the Braze platform in ways big and small. To recognize the work that goes into each hack day, Building Braze will be profiling participants with particularly memorable projects or experiences. This week, we’re talking to Dave Hensley, Senior Software Engineer at Braze.

My name’s Dave Hensley and I’m a Senior Software Engineer here at Braze. I’ve been here for just about a year and, in that time, I’ve taken part in three Braze hack days.

How to Approach Hack Day (If You Want to Stand Out)

On my first hack day here, I decided to work on something related to the Braze platform, but it turns out that probably 80-90% of the people who participate in hack day do product things.

And because so many people focus on the product category, it's probably easier to stand out if you do a so-called “rockstar” project that’s just for fun and driven entirely by your personal interest. The most important thing, though, is to have fun and build something that you find interesting and exciting.

The other thing to keep in mind is that there’s power in numbers. I’ve focused on individual projects myself, but I’ve noticed that, when you look at the projects that end up doing well at hack day, having a team of five or six people working on something tends to give you a pretty huge advantage. So if you’re not going to go the rockstar route, I’d definitely consider teaming up with some people to work on a platform project.

Dave’s Hack Day Project: A Braze-Themed Atari 2600 Video Game

I think the project of mine that’s gotten the most attention is probably the one I did this spring. In keeping with my love of rockstar projects, I decided to make a video game as part of hack day. But not just any game—I ended up writing one for the Atari 2600 that starred Torchie, the Braze mascot.

“Braze: The Game” is set up in the style of an old-school Atari one-player game like Asteroids; basically, you’re Torchie and you’re trying to catch all of the incoming API requests that are flying your way. Obviously, this isn’t the kind of hack day project that’s going to be merged into the Braze platform code, but it was a lot of fun to scope out and build.

I think Atari was on my mind because I’d just bought this book from the 1970s, “6502 Assembly Language Programming” by Lance A. Leventhal. It's not a step-by-step guide or anything like that, it’s more of a reference book, but it comes in really handy when you need to look stuff up. I’d never done any Atari 2600 programming—or 6502 programming—before; I’d done some assembly language programming in the past, but not for the 6502 architecture. So taking on a project like this was a way to do something a little different while also harkening back to my own childhood. I mean, my first video game system was the Atari 2600. I grew up with it, so it was fun to actually finally make a game for it instead of just playing the games that came out for it.

Here’s the thing about creating an Atari 2600 game: It’s not like writing a game for the PlayStation 5 or the Xbox where you have all these libraries you have to worry about and all these graphics you have to handle. Honestly, it’s really rudimentary and you don’t have a lot of space to write stuff. The Atari 2600 ROM is only four kilobytes; the size is so small that it’s pretty easy for one person to write a game. Plus, you’re pretty close to the hardware as far as what it can do. The system on an Atari is like 1.1 megahertz, 128 bytes of RAM—it’s not powerful. So it’s not that big an undertaking to really get in there and start working with it. Not that there aren’t challenges that come with working on such a rudimentary system, but overall the simplicity is on your side.

Final Thoughts

Overall, that hack day was a great experience for me. I won the rockstar prize for my game, and I had a lot of fun learning how to write an Atari game from scratch. It was definitely challenging at times, but it gave me a newfound appreciation for the folks who wrote all those games I enjoyed playing when I was a kid.

Interested in getting involved in our hack days? Braze is hiring for a variety of roles across our Engineering, Product Management, and Product Design teams. Check out our careers page to learn more about our open roles and our culture.

Dave Hensley

Dave Hensley

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