How to organize a newbie-friendly hackathon

A few weeks back, I attended my first hackathon as an effective coder.  I was helped in this, in part, by the hackathon organizational style used by Women Who their first hackathon in 2016.  I liked it so much that I’m making notes as to what worked so that we can use it in Birmingham.

General hackathon organization notes:

What really helped this noob?

They organized a pre-hackathon orientation session Friday afternoon, in which they ran through what to expect, team roles and how our final products and pitches would be scored. Knowing what to expect helped me settle in and focus on how I could help my team and not worry about hitting ill-defined performance targets.

They had mentors (subject matter and programming language experts) available throughout the hackathon, to help teams get past knowledge sticking points.

Food – we were NOT going to starve. There was lots of non-carb food, coffee, and caffeine, all necessary for sustained work.

Finally, everyone presented. Didn’t matter how big or small the final application was – you talked about it.

For half the women attending, this was their first hackathon. It was emphasized to us during the orientation session that we could do this, that our solutions didn’t need to be complex, and that the organizers fully expected that the results of the hackathon would serve as a project starts.

My experience at the Women Who Code hackathon



I attended my first hackathon a few weeks ago.* It was organized by the Atlanta, Tampa and Greenville networks of Women Who Code, a nonprofit focused on helping women advance their careers in the software and tech industries.

It was awesome. For the first time, I wasn’t terrified of not knowing something, of being found inadequate, or of not being able to contribute to a team. As a mid-life career changer, I’m still a relative noob when it comes to programming. The Women Who Code hackathon organizers did several things to help myself (and many others!) get past our fears and do good work at our first hackathon.

  • They organized a pre-hackathon orientation session Friday afternoon, in which they ran through what to expect, team roles and how our final products and pitches would be scored. Knowing what to expect helped me settle in and focus on how I could help my team and not worry about hitting ill-defined performance targets.
  • They had mentors (subject matter and programming language experts) available throughout the hackathon, to help teams get past knowledge sticking points.
  • Food – we were NOT going to starve. There was lots of non-carb food, coffee, and caffeine, all necessary for sustained work.
  • Finally, everyone presented. Didn’t matter how big or small the final application was – you talked about it.

So – what was it like?

I had attended my first open data hackathon in Mississauga, ON, the previous May. I wasn’t terribly useful to my team at that session, as

  1. I didn’t know what to expect; and
  2. my coding skills weren’t sufficient for the team project that our lead programmers brought to the hack.

I ended that hackathon glad that I went, but firmly resolving not to go to another until I had done more hands-on programming. (this has been an issue due to other commitments.)

I left Birmingham, Alabama to drive into Atlanta at oh-dark-thirty, arriving just in time for opening announcements. I slipped into the back of a meeting room at the Tech Square Labs, where around forty women were listening to opening remarks from Joey Rosenberg, Alaina Percival, and Regina, Wallace Jones, Facebook’s Head of Security Operations. She told us that software engineers are storytellers, that is was important to have mentors as we developed our careers and the importance of networks. It was inspiring to have her there.

As I looked around the room, I saw young women, older women, women of color and transgender women. There were also a few men. (I learned later that most were there as recruiters and company representatives; one was presenting a pre-hackathon talk on wearables and the Internet of Things.) (talk slides are behind links).

After the opening talk, we had the choice of workshops; I attended Lance Gleason’s presentation on the Internet of Things.  Although I’ve been messing around with using Arduinos as controllers, I ultimately elected to join a team focusing on social issues. (I thought that any applications developed could potentially have more societal impact – and to me, that’s important.)

How hackathons work

Next was a walk through what to expect at a hackathon, by Erica Stanley.

Some of the things I learned:

  • At most hackathons, you have 54 hours over an extended weekend to organize, research, plan, code and deliver a prototype application.
  • A hackathon team should be 5 – 7 people and consist of:
    1 x product manager
    3 – 5 devs
    1 x designer
    1 x scrum master (optional, but nice to have)
  • We then started to sort ourselves into interest groups, discuss possible projects and form teams.

We then broke off for food, drinks, and visits with various sponsoring companies and recruiters, before heading down the street and around the corner to the Advanced Technology Development Center  where we would be working over the weekend. Additional (more experienced) attendees joined our teams. The conference and meeting rooms, which gave the teams room to spread out, talk, focus and work, without interfering with the other groups.

6 members of the TeenSquad team in meeting room working on application.

6 members of the TeenSquad team in meeting room working on our application. From left to right: Hannah Molette, Dami Lasisi (standing rear), one of the Women Who Code hackathon mentors, Katiana Stephens, Whitley Bacon, A’nita Evans. (I took the picture).

My team, lead by Hannah Molette, wanted to develop a mobile app to help teens develop and connect with their “squad”, the team they assemble for themselves to help them reach for and attain their goals. The app, TeenSquad, is designed to help connect teens with supportive friends (their squad), any needed social services, career counseling, job coaching and help applying for college and post-secondary programs. While the goals are serious, the feel is not, using gamification to add incentive to do the right things, and having a light touch while doing serious stuff.

Our team members were:

Hannah, an experienced project manager, had a clear vision of what she wanted in the app, and kept us on track regarding how we spent our time.

We quickly determined that some of the things we would need for the app already existed (Aunt Bertha – a social services connection website and application), but weren’t targeted specifically for teens. We used Pokemon Go as our sample target for gamification rewards. We also determined that the programming language that most of the team had in common was Java.

The tools we used were:

We didn’t complete our app in the time allocated over the weekend, but we got most of the planning done, initial databases and had a first pass at the coding required to run the app.

A’nita did some amazing work regarding the look and feel for the app – she’s worked on a few projects that are getting national attention.

Having mentors available was extremely useful – it allowed us to get past two specific sticking points regarding running Java on a Heroku server instance.

See our presentation here, and the Women Who Code press release over here. It was a lot of fun, I learned a lot about how teams work, and after much discussion during the work, have a better idea of what to expect within the software development workplace. I made some important connections, have an invitation to job shadow, and got a couple of callbacks from recruiters. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Wedgewood: The First Tycoon

Wedgwood: The First TycoonWedgwood: The First Tycoon by Brian Dolan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are parallels between Josiah Wedgwood in the 1760s and Steve Jobs in the 1980s. Both transformed an existing industry through a combination of artistry, technical innovation, and marketing prowess.

I became fascinated with the Wedgwood story after a knowledgeable tour guide’s talk at Chicago The Art Institute in 2005. The guide told his story of being the first in England to develop advanced manufacturing processes, his ongoing product development research in glazes, firing control (pyrometer), types of clay and working out processes to ensure manufacturing consistency.

Dolan’s Wedgwood biography fleshes that out, telling the story of a man rising from relative poverty through training, hard work, observation, research, an infusion of capital from his wife’s family (poor boy proves himself through industry and hard work!), good friends, and connections. Wedgewood didn’t just industrialize pottery manufacture – he was instrumental in improving transport in Staffordshire through his leadership in raising subscriptions to start underwriting the cost of the Trent and Mersey Canal, and then pushing through Great Britain’s political system to ensure that it got built. The roads were horrible in 18th century Staffordshire – deep-rutted tracks that turned into mud morasses when it rained. Wedgwood and his fellow Staffordshire potters were able to dominate the world market for pottery because that canal reduced how much of their wares were damaged in transit.

There is still much to learn from the story of Great Britain and Europe’s industrialization – it didn’t “just happen”. It’s important to understand what conditions were required for the great innovations to be worked out – and then what was required for them to spread. There is still much to be learned and managed by other parts of the world that are industrializing now – and for others needing to reinvent themselves for the next wave of change.

Those lessons are:

  1.  Infrastructure is important. Wedgwood initially had huge challenges getting his products to market because of bad roads and the resulting need to rely on third-party resellers for his early sales.
  2. Organization is important. Wedgewood was only able to get large volume consistent production through rigorous attention to worker training, paying good wages, quality control and workshop organization.
  3. Good design is the ultimate value add. Wedgewood stayed out in front of his competitors by always having the next new thing ready to roll out when the novelty of the current hot product faded.
  4. He pioneered the use of showrooms and shopping as recreation for the upper class, using premium pricing for new products, then dropping the price for the middle classes as he was able to scale production.

This is an underappreciated industrial and design history story. My key takeaway is the importance of combining art and cutting edge technologies.

View all my reviews

Internet Alley: High Technology in Tysons Corner

Internet Alley: High Technology in Tysons Corner, 1945-2005Internet Alley: High Technology in Tysons Corner, 1945-2005 by Paul E. Ceruzzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tells the story of how government intelligence and IT services business cluster at Tysons Corners Virginia (outside Washington) developed. A recommended read if you are not familiar with the shape of IT and computing services for the US federal government.

Atari Inc.: Business is Fun

Atari Inc.: Business Is FunAtari Inc.: Business Is Fun by Curt Vendel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summarizes the conditions under which Atari games were first developed – and launched an industry. Not as tightly edited as some books out there (was self-published), but has historical details not available elsewhere. If you want to understand the roots of today’s game industry, is an essential read.

View all my reviews

How to pick a first programming language infographic

Parking some links for a session I’m doing at the Women Who Code Birmingham network tonight.

One of the big questions I had when I first started programming was…. how to pick a first programming language. No student or prof would – or could – give me a straight answer as to what languages were the most useful for different applications.

Recently, I stumbled across Carl Cheo’s great flow chart on picking a first programming language based on what you need to do. I hope you find this useful and informative as I do – it’s something that I wish had been available when I first started dabbling in programming.

The other question newbies often ask is “what exactly do programmers do?” Carl Cheo has a second great infographic that answers that question.

The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley

The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon ValleyThe Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley by Leslie Berlin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tells the story both of Robert Noyce’s life, and the start of the semiconductor industry. I learned that Robert Noyce’s personal management philosophy of giving people the tools they needed and then getting out of the way – and its success at Intel is what set the pattern of Silicon Valley companies and large portions of the American tech and software sectors in general.

Good read – and important if you want to understand the roots of this industry.

Infographic tools & application – getting started

I volunteer as a Photoshop tutor at Woodlawn High School. One of the student projects is to develop an infographic. This blog entry is for those students, to explain the purpose of an infographic, how to design a good one and the tools that are available.

In the graphic arts, as in many other areas of life, engineering and design, automation makes the design and construction of things easier and faster. The artist or technician who can produce the tool they need is valuable to many potential employers – or customers. This requires, in addition to training in the visual arts and design, a good knowledge of coding, applicable programming languages and some understanding of current computing hardware.

An infographic is a visual image, such as a chart or diagram, used to represent information or data. The website, Customer Magnetism * has an infographic about infographics (and a case study to back up their claims).

What is an Infographic?
Created by Customer Magnetism.

Good infographics engage readers and make difficult concepts easy to understand. They require planning, research, and attention to colour composition, design flow, and determination of what is important on the page.

Before you start designing, you need to spend a little time organizing your information. Shift Learning has a great post detailing the steps required. They are:

  1. Gather your information. Find research sources, look for conclusions by different research teams doing different studies, make sure that you are giving your readers good, valid information that they can use. Your credibility rests on using credible sources that you have verified.
  2. Visualize the data. Who are you telling this story to? Who is your audience and what do they need to learn?
  3. Outline. Sketch out the story to be told in a rough draft.
  4. Wireframe. Sketch out, on paper or electronically, what needs to be illustrated.
  5. Design and refine. Now you start the hard work. Work out your layout, work out your color palette, choose appropriate fonts for your subject matter and audience, seek feedback and then refine again.

Another article that details the steps required to create a great infographic (read the piece – it explains the points listed below):

  1. Let the data tell its story.
  2. Determine purpose and audience.
  3. Construct an engaging narrative.
  4. Make the complex understandable.
  5. Focus on the structure first.
  6. Wireframe, explore and iterate. In the bad old days, this was called “sketching” – a quick minimal drawing to work out your ideas.
  7. Select the right tool for the job.
  8. Choose the right visual approach.
  9. Distribution and PR.
  10. Treat infographics as moral acts.

This list is a little longer than the first one – but it emphasizes similar points. The key concept that I think is important to remember, is that your job is to make complex subject matter understandable.

How Design’s tips  has additional tips regarding creating great infographics.

When infographics were first being produced, most were created in Photoshop or Illustrator – or their open source equivalents, Gimp and Inkscape.  The best ones still are. (Tips to create that work from DezineGuide )

However, there are times when you need something quickly, and perhaps your Photoshop skills are still kinda basic. In that case, check out these tools, as recommended by Levin Mejia at the Creative Bloq:

In addition, I turned up some tools that will convert .CSV (comma separated values) data, a format used for most open source and government data, into charts and graphs without needing to use Excel or other proprietary software. These are:

I consider these quick and dirty tools – they’ll give you good enough results for many circumstances, but should be used with care so that they support your message (and story), not detract from it.
Other tool options include open source (free to use, once installed) office suites such as LibreOffice, NeoOffice, and OpenOffice.

I hope that this quick reference list helps you to create your next great infographic.

*ScanWP reports that the website is built with WordPress. Another one of my obsessions. But I digress.

Where Wizards Stay Up Late

Where Wizards Stay Up LateWhere Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hafner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Decent history of how the initial Internet protocols and infrastructure were developed. If you want to understand how the underlying structure of what we use today was developed, read this book!

Grant Writing in the US

I attended my first US-based grant writing workshop a few weeks ago. Nicole Carter, of Carter Consulting, knows her stuff! Over two days, she walked us through the grant writing process, told us what information is important to include, the nature of the lead times, how to pace gathering together our information, and what to expect during first, second and third applications. She emphasized the importance of realistic budgets, developing alliances with other community agencies for service delivery and to ensure that we focused on our areas of expertise.

Excellent experience all round.  We left with initial grants identified, first proposals outlined and a checklist of what we needed to assemble in order to complete the process.

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