This is part two of Just Beginning to Build: Ah Ha!, which covers Caitlin’s initial experience in the interesting world of Hackathons.
The next stop on my tour of learning to code was to jump into a Hackathon. For someone with literally three weeks of programming experience, I think I get awarded points for bravery, but they probably get revoked for lack of common sense. That being said, the Hack N’ Jill’s Hacksgiving event, hosted by Etsy, was an ideal introduction to this kind of experience. Hack N’ Jill is an organization dedicated to creating Hackathons for the New York tech community that are fifty percent male and fifty percent female. The response to these events has by and large been extremely positive. I will certainly be signing up for the next one.
I entered as a designer, the options being that or developer, and I wasn’t ready for that. The event took place over the course of a Friday evening and all day the following Saturday. Most Hackathons are all-nighters with the programmers subsisting on their usual diet of Red Bull and Slim Jims while they attempt 48 hours of furious typing. Hack N’ Jill wasn’t able to use the Etsy space overnight, for which I sincerely thank Etsy. I was already brain-dead and over caffeinated enough at the end of Saturday night without the all-nighters’ help, but I think I’m in the minority on this sentiment.
The Hackathon began promptly on Friday at 7pm with intros, presentations from the APIs that would be available for hacker use and team formation. This section of the night ran a little long as there were 10+ API’s, but their sponsorship made the event possible so they deserved a little publicity. Finally the team formation part of the night rolled around and several brave hacker-souls got up in front of the group to pitch their ideas. Some were safe, some were brave, some were downright crazy, and it was brilliant.
The Hackathon theme was apps for social good. This was particularly relevant in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and many of the projects were tied to natural disaster response problems that the teams had witnessed occur only weeks earlier. Other types of pitches included: An app to help poets find rhyming words, an app to find the best Craigslist deals, an app for collecting and preserving the stories of senior citizens, an app to unify the outreach efforts of women-in-tech in the NYC area, and an app to spam people’s inboxes with emails that would form an image.
After sitting for too long, we awkwardly rose and began bumbling about the room trying to read each other’s nametags. This was the most intimidating part of the night because it required approaching complete strangers to ask them to let you join their group. I don’t think anyone said no, but face it: that worry has always been there, firmly embedded in our minds since our days on the playground. There also had to be a fairly even ratio between programmers and developers in any team, which made things a bit more complicated.
I weighed my options and decided to work on the project for uniting women in the NYC tech community. It seemed like an appropriate choice, given the goal of Hack N’ Jill and the fact that I’d just undergone some of the steps to entering this community, so I felt I had good insight. I chatted briefly with my team, which after all the initial confusion of finding a team, went very smoothly. We were all female, all identified mainly as designers, which the majority of women at the event did, although some of us could program. Our dedicated programmers would be two men working remotely, who, would join in on Saturday. We parted ways agreeing to meet up at the ungodly hour of 8am the next morning.
Saturday dawned too bright and early. I briefly considered, as I’m sure many of us did, foregoing the event to just never get out of bed, but my conscience and my desire to learn finally won out. And so I got up. I arrived a few minutes after 8am and there were a surprising number of hackers on time for the event, already munching away on bagels and diving face first into the coffee. This is probably as good a time as any to mention that this event had the best selection of food and swag of any event I’ve ever gone to or heard of.
My team all made it there relatively on time and we settled into the frantic process of conceiving of and building something new in just over ten hours. We started brainstorming design and grappling with a set of problems that had not yet been solved because they are hard and there is no financial gain to be had in solving them.
We started by asking ourselves questions like “How do you bring women into tech who are not already there?” The issue here, in its most basic form, is that women who would actively look for this service are probably already members of the tech community. So how do you engage a population that doesn’t even necessarily know yet that they want to learn to code? We couldn’t fully answer this question, but did conclude that making the platform as user-friendly as possible was a good start to bringing in people with less tech experience. Unfortunately programming is not super user-friendly…so we had our work cut out for us.
I mentioned to the team my early theory, that people come to programming because they want to build something and not just to learn the subject in and of itself. We played with that concept for a while and came up with the idea of a website that began with just one simple question “What do you want to build?” We had to introduce a limited number of answers to this question because each one would require us to build a separate track in the website. So we gave the answers: Website and Game. And let me tell you, two was too many!
We’d made the classic Hackathon misstep of trying to build an idea that was way too large. If you want to finish something in a Hackathon, the best advice I can give is either pick a small idea or build just one component of a large idea. That way you have time to polish your work. Of course, if winning is not your objective then a Hackathon can be the perfect time to break a larger idea down into its components. And that’s in essence what we did.
I should probably also mention that we lost our dedicated programmers early on. Some of our team really stepped up to the plate and threw every bit of programming experience they had into making the first few pages of the site. Still, we were a team of mostly designers up against some contenders who built apps professionally. It was more than a little comical. So while we didn’t build a fully functional app, we did get an amazing opportunity to work on an interesting idea.
We decided to build a platform that would coordinate all the tech resources available in the city into something user-friendly and cohesive. But we also wanted to do something more than just compile Google search results. We wanted to offer women the opportunity to find mentors in their desired fields and give them the ability to post projects they would like to work on and get help from the community to accomplish these goals.
We decided first to work on a calendar that would populate with events you might want to attend. The events displayed on your calendar would be determined by your answer to the initial question on the site. If you wanted to build a website, we’d show you only programming languages that allowed you to build sites. These resources were also aggregated by experience level, but once you were ready to advance from beginner to intermediate, there was a slider bar that you could manipulate to repopulate the calendar to this specification. We unfortunately didn’t have the tech capabilities within our time limit to build a calendar that would pull this information in on it’s own, so we just created a mockup to showcase the idea.
We had a few more items to add, like the mentorship page and space to post project ideas and form teams, but since our initial concept was too big for the Hackathon, we couldn’t really get into this.
We finally made it to the last hour of the day before presentations and that’s when it hit us: all we had were a few screens and a lot of beautiful ideas. This was a bit embarrassing as the rest of the lineup included fully functional apps. I think on some level if they’d offered us the chance to present but not be judged, we would have totally taken it. None of us felt we had a finished product. Regardless, we turned it in and then spent a companionable half hour eating Mexican food and trying to strategize the most impressive way to present our unfinished work.
Time was up and we all sat together watching the presentations and marveling at the creativity and craftsmanship that had come out of the day. The teams had all chosen difficult issues that they really cared about and come up with interesting and unique solutions that you could imagine real people using. The judging was intense, with the three-person panel poking holes wherever they could find them, but also genuinely admitting when they were impressed. I did have a number of moments where I wanted to remind them that this had all been done in a very limited time window, but some of us were actually there to compete.
Our turn came so we got up on stage and faced the crowd. Our team-lead talked about the goals of the project. Then it came my turn to speak and I pulled from years of acting experience to give an impassioned speech, complete with hand gestures, about why I thought the project was so important. Then I got flustered and tried to walk off stage before the judging began, but at least it got us a laugh. The judges gave us a few cursory questions, but it was clear that even they understood we were presenting an idea and not a product. We wrapped up and enthusiastically got off stage, glad to sit together drinking beer and watching the show.
We didn’t win anything. If we’d won something, I’m pretty sure the event would have been dead weighted in favor of women or hand gestures. What did win was a very cool app called Disaster Remote Response, which also just demoed at the January New York Tech Meetup. I walked away from the event thoroughly exhausted and having gained some insight into the incredibly amazing things people can build in a short time with skill, programming knowledge, creativity, and caffeine.
I’m still just beginning to build and have been woefully lax about forwarding my programming knowledge since the Hackathon. But in the back of my mind is always the thought that I need, and want these skills and will only acquire them through dedicated practice and study. Being a designer with no programming ability is a bit like sitting in the backseat of a car calling directions while you watch someone else drive. You’re going to have to hope that they’ll take you where you want to go, and while the foundation of any good team is trust, don’t you sometimes just want to do it yourself? Or to know, at the very least to know, that you could? I think the embarrassment, the mistakes and the hours of my life spent watching boring tutorial videos are all going to be worth it when I have the power to construct the worlds I imagine. Until then you’ll probably see me at a few more Hackathons, making excited hand gestures.