What to expect from a Tech4Africa Hackathon?

In a recent post regards Hackathons we talked a little about what we think Hackathons should be about. So in this post, we’re going to go into a little more detail, to make things a bit clearer. Applies primarily to: #JoziHack | #CptHack.

Enter the dragon

WillCodeHTMLForFoodFirst, we make the assumption that most people who code for a living these days are in the typical corporate 60 / 30 / 10 trap.ย  That is, 60% of their work is uninteresting / lacks stimulation, 30% is kinda interesting, and then perhaps 10% is the icing on the cake, the really co0l w00t, w00t, super interesting, I wanna do more kinda stuff. It’s not abnormal, so we’re not trying to change that – but we can offer a nice distraction ๐Ÿ˜‰

511292936_e0b87fcd70Secondly, we make the assumption that most devs work in teams that are less than 10 people (and if they’re lucky the team is 50% real developers / engineers), and so their proximity to other people like them is pretty low. As a result, feedback loops are limited to what is read online and in forums (which is cool, we all do that), but that also means limited potential for peer reviews, some closed mindedness and narrow perspectives, fewer super technical discussions which make things interesting, and of course simply people who understand that Dependency Injection and Factory Pattern can be complimentary to each other.

blarg-1Third, we make the assumption that most non-technical people who sign off on projects don’t know enough about technology to make good decisions (they’re driven and motivated by different things), and so the potential for trying new things is also pretty low.

In fact, most teams are probably still deploying code from 3 years ago, or they’re caught maintaining code that was written 3 years ago because there is no budget to update. Very, very seldom is there an opportunity to try new things, change old things to work better, or just improve skills. And so the typical developer ends up continually doing change requests, small features, maintaining old code to keep the site from breaking when new things are tried, and of course good old releasing 4 week projects by next week Friday.

So, when you put all of that together you get frustrated devs who would like to be challenged more, who would like to meet more people like them, and who want to try new things.

Enter the Hackathon

hackathon-poster1
So our solution to this is to give developers, engineers, hackers, coders, savants, curious folks, learners, students, designers and even sysadmins ๐Ÿ˜‰ a place to get together and do the following:
  1. Have fun hacking on cool new stuff [1]
  2. Drink beer, eat pizza, drink red bull, play poker, eat pizza, go for breakfast, write mad SQL, deploy
  3. Meet new people, hang out with people they already know and do stuff they enjoy doing
  4. Take a look at an interesting problem, figure out ways to solve it
  5. Learn about cool stuff that isn’t on the radar at work

[1] Hack is not a four letter word

And that’s it. We figure (from experience) that the most important element to this is beer, and for everyone to have fun. After that, all the magic happens!

So what’s the deal?

necktielanding_ninjaThere are 3 parts to our Hackathons, and they are
a) having fun
b) learning new stuff
c) meeting new people
d) kicking ass.

That’s 4. Glad you can count. Keep up ๐Ÿ˜‰

Free as in beer

ninja_deskFor a) We make sure there are people, music, beer, pizza, Red Bull, loads of coffee, snacks, all on tap.

We also think the following principles are important:
Hackathons are free.
Everyone is welcome.
Anyone is welcome.
You don’t need credentials to join us. You don’t have to belong to a particular tribe (I’m talking to you, Mr Erlang).
You can be at school, you should be at university, and you’re never too old.
We encourage curiosity, humour, sharing, communication, open data, open thinking, open source, solving problems, being proactive, being humble, no bullshit, no suits, no ties, no malarkey.
Lastly, execution is everything. Ideas are cheap, indeed everyone has ideas, but execution is what makes ideas happen, and that’s what Hackathons are about.

Learning is good

For b) We make sure there are talks throughout the Hackathon. Some will be longish, some will be shortish, and others will be impromptu. For each Hackathon we’ll find folks who can contribute by helping / teaching / imparting knowledge.

Sharing is caring

For c) We’ll make sure that everyone gets to meet each other, talk about what they’re doing, what they’re interested in, and what they’re working on at the Hackathon.

Everyone wants to kick ass

ku-xlargeFor d) We get out of the way, and leave that up to the folks doing the Hacking.

We’ll do our best to promote the work that comes out of any Hackathon, we’ll demo good work at the Tech4Africa conference to show people what is possible with a small group of committed people, and we’ll go to bat for you with the larger companies who wish they could innovate but can’t becuase they move too slow, so that you get more time to hack ๐Ÿ˜‰

The truth is that most of the major innovations and success stories in the last decade came from developers Hacking at an itch, and then productising their work. So that’s what we’re trying to encourage. Join us, do something fun, do something cool, solve a problem you care about, and most importantly, just come along for some fun!

Hack is not a four letter word

When Tech4Africa started, our hypotheses was that the tech ecosystem in (South) Africa was missing a few vital parts.ย  We set out to bring a broader perspective to folks living and working in what looked from the outside like a self congratulating bubble.

The overwhelming learning in the 4 years we’ve been working on this is that the landscape for techies / developers in Africa provides pretty poor opportunity for the talented person looking to really push themselves.ย  In cities like London / Tel Aviv / New York / Boston / Berlin / Talinn / Austin and of course The Valley, the hiring market is so desperately in demand of technical skill and thus skewed to the developer, that the good ones are able to command great salaries AND work on the most interesting stuff in technology.

In Africa however the landscape looks different – although good developers are able to find jobs because the market is equally in demand for skills, the scope and range of work (call it interestingness) is for the most part very different.ย  I won’t go into this in more detail because this is not the topic of this post, but what is important is that 80% of the developer conversations we have are around one central theme -> “I don’t get to do fun stuff at work” or “I don’t know what fun stuff to do“.

So we started the idea of a developer day at Tech4Africa (which I’m happy to say we only partly executed on last year, and will do better at this year) for developers to learn about more fun stuff, and then our Hackathons which happen during the year, for developers to do more fun stuff.

We subscribe to the notion that a Hackathon is “an appropriate application of ingenuity“, rather than anything subversive or nefarious.ย  This is 2013 people, most of the most famous and recent success stories you could think of started out or resulted from a couple of engineers hacking a problem (think Mark Zuckerberg hacking together Facemash in Harvard, Daniel Ek working on the first iterations of Spotify), and “hack” is no longer a four letter word people need to be worried about.

And so, without going into too much philosophical detail, this is what we believe our Hackathons should and shouldn’t be about:

Hackathons should:

  1. encourage fun, mirth and expression
  2. push open source thinking, active collaboration, problem solving
  3. be about new technologies, new approaches to solving difficult problems, and applying ingenuity
  4. welcome and involve anyone in the community / ecosystem
  5. be free to attend

Moving forward, we’re only going to work with partners and people on Hackathons that fulfull the four objectives above, and most importantly which build the ecosystem.

By building the ecosystem we teach younger developers to become better and more capable, we give non-technical people exposure to the way technical people think, we expose developers to new, exciting, different technologies which allow them to solve problems in different ways, and most importantly we build an ecosystem which is positive, fun and challenging.

For us the benefits of this are obvious and sorely needed in the African tech ecosystem, and we hope you’ll share that view with us.
If not, c’est la vie!

Your thoughts and comments welcome.