How a Technophobe Learned to Love Hackathons

Posted on Aug 16, 2013 in Uncategorized

Today’s post is a contribution from the most excellent writer and educator Kristan Karinen, who assisted with ops and interviewing at #EveryoneHacksCHI. Follow her musings on her blog.

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It’s like the opening scene of some bizarre, ethereal Sci-Fi flick from the 70s.

The warm midday sun streams through the oversized windows that line the 4th floor of 600 W. Chicago Ave., Groupon’s famous headquarters, lighting up a massive green spaceship flown by a cat’s head, apparently heading for the immense open balcony. Hanging from the ceiling are clear, plastic pod seats surrounded by polygonal cushions in primary colors. Draped on and around these oddities, munching silently on chips and sandwiches while tapping away at their laptops (far too busy developing their potentially world-saving applications to stop and take a real lunch break), are the attendees of EveryoneHacks Chicago, a tremendous group of software developers, programmers, graphic designers, engineers, students, advertisers, writers, public school teachers… wait, what? Advertisers? Writers? At a Hackathon?

Like most technophobic writers with a degree in a liberal art, I maintained a fairly specific image of programmers – the pasty, college-aged nerd guy who is probably wearing a t-shirt with a joke on it that I don’t understand, who looks down on me with disdain and suspicion when I ask him how to spell jQuery and, also, what’s a jQuery? So when my good friend Lindsay Oliver asked if I could volunteer some of my time to GWOB’s Chicago hackathon, the second sentence out of my mouth (after, “of course!”) was “Oh no, a conference full of programmers?!”

To be fair, I’m not 100% brand new to the hacking community. I’ve been a peripheral “member” of Chicago’s local hackerspace Pumping Station: One since my boyfriend (Jim Burke, of Power Racing Series fame) took me there on our first date in 2011. But, I can’t help feeling kind of useless around all of these ultra-smart tech geeks. How could I, a person whose greatest technological achievement to date was figuring out short keys on Microsoft Excel, possibly contribute to a hackathon? Needless to say, I was a little anxious.

The weekend started out pretty standard to my expectations. Friday evening featured a series of informative lightning talks given by field experts on topics ranging from the importance of UX and UI design (User Experience and User Interface, respectively) to how to get hired as a software engineer.

While there were some incredibly in-depth and enlightening speakers, the most inspiring of the talks was given by Jim McGowan, the Manager of Operations Analysis and Disaster Dispatch for the Greater Chicago Area Red Cross. He explained the impact the Red Cross has on the community, the current process of disaster response from first call to the last sheet of paperwork, and some of the problems they face. Then, his main purpose: anything that anyone could do to help ease the absurd amount of paper they used and simplify the process of filing and tracking all the data that the Red Cross accumulates.

Saturday is when things really got interesting, and when I got a little taste of the diversity of skills people brought to this hackathon. In the morning there were a few workshops, and most of the attendees chose to participate in one of those, but there were some folks who were so anxious to get started on their projects that they spent the morning chatting in small groups about their budding ideas. I sat in for a while with the Red Cross Volunteer Engage Team, a cluster of people bunched around one of the many bar tables dotting the lounge. They talked excitedly, quickly identifying the numerous weaknesses in the Red Cross’s current system of reaching out to its volunteers and how they might be able to help.

The ideas shot across the table like little fires, sparking new ideas and growing with others. I was astonished by the alacrity of this group of near strangers: within an hour, they had sketched out the box that would hold the Raspberry Pi which would serve as a local area network, and a set of specs required to make an app to replace the Red Cross paperwork process. Eric, the team lead and backend designer, said he appreciated “being able to set aside the traditional ‘do it right, and think it all through’ way of going about starting working on an app – and working with a team consisting of 7 people, 5 of them people I’d never met before.”

As it turns out, I wasn’t the only non-programmer scarfing down the fabulous catered meals that weekend. In fact, a lot of the attendees were either completely new to programming or in the beginning stages of learning to code. And many of the people I spoke with during the weekend told me they had never been to a hackathon before. “[F]or a first-timer, I was actually looking towards a lot of guidance. In the end, really, you just have to lead yourself into learning,” said Thu, a freelancer and contributor to the Red Cross Data Management team (the EveryoneHacks Chicago grand prize winning team).

Some were a little surprised by the open style of this hackathon. Deborah, a graphic designer and one of the Red Cross Response Form team members, mentions, “I kinda thought there would be a one overarching task given to us, and we would be assigned to teams to address specific parts of the one problem based on the skills we self-identified when signing up for the event.” But, she adds, even though she is fledgling developer and says she still has a lot to learn, “there was definitely a need for a visual storytelling role, which I’m happy to play.”

It’s Sunday afternoon, T-minus two hours to presentations, and the vibe is intense: everyone wants to have something functional and attractive to show off to the judges and other teams. One by one, the groups present their apps. Listening to them talk about their projects, understanding how each person meaningfully contributed their skills – whether they were coders or copy editors – was undeniably inspiring. Noah, a computer engineering student at Washington University, said that EveryoneHacks Chicago “helped me gain connections with people and work with those I otherwise would not have the opportunity of working with.”

Programming has always seemed like such an exclusive field to me, reserved for a small, dedicated class, one that I definitely did not belong to. But as I listened to a woman explain her role as a copy writer for her team while she was learning how to program an app, I thought to myself, “I can do that! I know how to do that!”

In the face of such bravery, for so many coding newbies to show up to a programming event and not only contribute their skills but develop new ones, and the generosity of so many veterans to guide them as they learned, I felt a bit small for judging a profession that I now realized I knew nothing about. EveryoneHacks Chicago gave nearly 60 people the chance to work together for a greater good while they taught each other new skills. And it gave me a chance to reexamine my own stance on programming and the people who make up that field.

I didn’t learn how to code this weekend, but I did learn that sometimes when you think you are being excluded from a group, you are actually excluding yourself by not enthusiastically joining them.