Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What Can You Build in a Day?

I spent this past Sunday morning as a mentor at the Pilot Philly hackathon. It's a 24-hour hackathon for high school students, and going in, I had some trepidation. I envisioned a post-Katrina-esque setting, filled with teenage boys who hadn't slept in 24 hours. I'm also a bit concerned that hackathons foster a culture of “build it fast and who cares what happens next” that isn't compatible with long-term software development.

And I had a commitment for Saturday. But I exchanged a few emails with the organizers, they said they'd take any time I could give, so I arrived at 9 AM on Sunday. While the workspace — with tables jammed together and sleeping bags strewn on the floor — did have a post-apocalypse gestalt, my fears of chaos turned out to be unwarranted: the teams were focused on getting their projects done.

My gender assumptions also turned out to be wrong: while I didn't count, my sense was that at least a quarter of the participants were young women. I know that there are several organizations that focus on breaking down the gender divide in technology. Either they're having an effect, or the “digital generation” views such divides as ancient history.

I was pointed at a team building an app to select random takeout from local restaurants (“when you don't want to make a decision about lunch”). They had reached the point where they were getting data from the third-party service, but were having some trouble extracting the data they needed and formatting it in HTML (“if this was a command-line app we'd be all over it”). They were working in Python, a language that I've used only recreationally, but debugging is something that I can do. We worked through logging, and discussed how to filter the service results. I helped them with HTML, and showed them some of the resources that I use. And in a short time, the app was working.

I say “a short time,” but it was really the entire morning. At one point, while the team was working on details, I sent my wife a message that I'd be home around 1:30 for lunch. Her response: “you mean 2:30, right?” I have to be honest: it's been years since my at-work mornings passed so quickly.

And that is my take-away from this experience. I hope that, via anecdotes and advice, I have made these four kids better programmers. But there's no question that they've reminded me why I got into this field in the first place.

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