Stephanie, a Hackathon Newbie

[an occasional series of community members giving their views on our world]

Dr Stephanie Pride

“Anyone want to join my team for GovHack?”  Such an innocuous question in a friend’s Facebook post.  Who would have guessed that five months later it would lead to me hauling 52 team medals back to Wellington on a flight from Christchurch, restraining myself from being a smart Alec by asking Liam Malone, who was sitting in my row, “so how many did you get?” 

Let’s be clear.  I didn’t go to GovHack for the prizes.  I didn’t go to win.  I went for two reasons, to get an understanding of what this “hackathon” thing was all about from the inside, and for the joy of just getting together with a bunch of folks and making something – oh and because a friend had said they were looking for team mates.  

Let’s be clear about something else.  I can’t code! Front end, back end, you might as well be talking about a bus for all I know.  I do like tech.  I love using it.  I’m interested in what’s happening across all fields of tech, the new capacities we are developing and how it already has shaped society and how it might shape society in the future, but I can’t create it.  The last three summers I’ve said to myself “this summer I’ll learn to code.  I’ll do an hour of Code Academy every day and get started.” Each summer I’ve read a dozen novels instead. 

So as a non-coding, ‘no idea what’s under the bonnet’ type of person, it was with some trepidation that I walked through the doors of the MBIE building on the evening of 29th July, half-expecting wall-to-wall bespectacled, plaid-shirted, twenty-something coding wizards. 

And yes, there were plenty of them there, but there were lots and lots of other people – all sorts of people, from all walks of life.  The first thing that struck me was the buzz!  There was a real sense of excitement that everyone was here to DO something, even if everyone didn’t yet know quite what, or with whom.

The job of that first evening was to find a team and a project to work on.  Luckily for me, I’d come as part of Mike’s nascent team, and he’d got us together in the pub beforehand to knock around ideas about what we’d like to work on.  As people pitched that evening, there were several ideas that sounded really interesting, but I was very happy to stay with the folks I’d already met.  

After pitching, our team nearly doubled in size and we peeled off to find a workspace, really get to know each other and get down to deciding what we were going to build, why and how.   So then you’re in a room in an unfamiliar building with a whole load of people you’ve only just met, but somehow it’s fine, because pretty much everyone else is in the same boat.  

My biggest worries were about my inexperience as a ‘Hack-newbie’, my lack of any technical knowledge to contribute to the team and quite frankly, just being too old for this new-ish game (as the oldest person on the team and 40 years older than the youngest team member!).

As it turned out all those fears were groundless.  Mike facilitated us through the experience with a light and kind, but also wise hand on the team tiller. The team was well supplied with front-end developers, back-end developers and designers, and even if I’d had any tech knowledge, it probably wouldn’t have been needed.  I found my niche – first contributing to shaping and clarifying our overall concept, drawing on knowledge from neuroscience and change theory and later helping with scripting and recording the team video.  

Yes – there were moments when I though ‘what I have I got myself into’.  For instance, I had to get my head quickly round using two applications I’d never used before – but that’s what the team was using, so I had to too.  There had to be a bit of self-talk “Yes, you can do this. You came to learn so just get a grip and give it a go’ (and now I’m using those apps in my own work all the time).  

There was also a lot a fun, lots of games and LOTS of laughter – and at the end, new friendships and a product.  (For the record our team built an Empathy Engine – a game designed to help people see beyond the ‘filter bubbles’ that we all inhabit - and it won three prizes!) 

Mine was a small contribution, but it was a contribution, and that was the essence of the Govhack experience for me – being comfortable with contributing what you know you can, trusting the expertise of other team members to contribute in areas you don’t know about and not getting in their way, and working as part of a team to make sure all the gaps are filled.

You don’t need to know everything – no one does, and no-one can do it all by themselves - but together in just a weekend, a team can create a new product in the world – be it an app, a website a game - to help make the world a better place, and that’s the magic of a hackathon. 

For most of us, the future of work is going to be a lot more like serial hackathons and a lot less like the way we work now; not so much turning up in the same place every weekday, doing similar things with the same bunch of people – but much more about flocking together around a common purpose, everyone contributing what they can, working together to fix or create something and then moving off to the next thing that needs doing.  This requires skills that some of us were never taught and that some workplaces still don’t develop - managing yourself, relating to others, and participating and contributing.  Luckily our young people are now being supported to develop these key competencies at school, but there are generations already in the workplace needing an opportunity to build these skills to the next level.  

Not only does Govhack provide a great opportunity to increase access to, and usefulness of government data, it also helps us all get ready for the future of work today.  

So, as a 50-something, non-techy woman, if I can go to Govhack, have a great time, help make stuff, learn stuff and make new friends, I’m sure you can too!  See you at Govhack 2017!

Stay in touch with Stephanie