Hack/Hackers Unite: We Will Judge Your Play

So I recently attended, at KQED, a “Hacks/Hackers Unite” project: get iPad developers and journalists together to tell a story. I struggled, pretty much entirely through the weekend, to be enthusiastic. I had to seriously rally the second day to attend. I’m not sure why it wasn’t as inspirational and energetic, focused, fun, etc. as the iPadDevCamp, She’s Geeky, shdh, RailsBridge, MySQL meetups, Ruby-SF, or the other myriad of tech conferences I attend. I’m a big fan of getting tech folks more involved with other aspects of our culture- from journalism, museums, education, politics, etc. – so I really wanted it to work. Here are some unstructured thoughts, and sorry if I offend you in advance. I’m trying to figure out what it was that didn’t work… so that I can promote it to some other great institutions that would benefit from some techie brainstorming in mobile apps. Also, since I was given a lot of unsolicited feedback (snap), I’m wondering if it’s just an OK thing to do in media circles?

First the Positive:
I liked the people that were there- I enjoyed the techies as well as the non-techies. The demos were (as usual) totally inspiring and fun. The creativity of inventors is always something amazing to behold. So not quite sure what wasn’t in the mix. I have a feeling it’s about the format and the organization.

– Really rich content for every demo. Usually at these things you see tools and utilities or “the next Twitter/FourSquare/Yelp.” Here, we got some amazing photographs and writing. Top caliber.
– Very diverse – very interesting people – really no stereotypes, and everyone had a very deep content hobby or interest
– I almost think, because everyone was such a great communicator, they expected everyone to be good at it, which we know with Geeks, that’s not true. So simple instructions and clear announcements were lacking.
– In SF!

Areas to Improve
The funny thing about un-conferences: the “un” in “conference” isn’t about lack of organization or structure- it’s about *who* is making the structure. The community, the group, or the individual, determines the importance and focus of the content. Basically let the participants focus entirely on their projects- and organize the hell out of everything so it’s not an issue with them. This weekend was more of a unstructured hackfest, with a scary judging panel at the end. It was almost the worst of both worlds- sometimes this works: Play! We will judge your play! And sometimes, notsomuch if there are too many odd hurdles in the way… floating deadlines, petri dishes, odd judging panels.. lack of conference focus… disorganization… and “they” will judge your play. Who are “they”? Why were “they” chosen?

In assessing areas to work on, it’s more helpful for me to focus on what works. Kaliya of She’s Geeky runs an AWESOME un-conference. The Raven and Dom of iPadDevCamp/iPhoneDevCamp have a stellar way of demo’ing apps – 3 stations and volunteers queuing up folks. Kaliya and Raven has a staff of about 3-5 people helping her organize it. I think that’s the irony – that it does take a lot of work. Yes, they are shoestring and run on a budget with tons of volunteers. They’ve been going on for years (this was KQED’s first) and the volunteers were organizers by nature and didn’t work on their own projects nor blog about the event while it was going on.

Maybe it’s something about how technology folks appreciate perhaps a non-chaotic setting whereas media folks work well in the self-named “bull pen”. Perhaps techies are a coddled lot who expect silence, ability to focus, their sugar/starch of choice on hand, and an appreciative clap on the back at the end of the day. I’m not sure. I just know I love it. My short list of feedback:

  • We had a single build environment which caused a lot of last-minute anxiety. Not only was the build engineer also competing, but it was poorly communicated and an odd/unusual/not-recommended way to deploy demos
  • Stay on top of the coffee situation
  • Clear the chairs out from under the project paper- so folks can dawdle and read and form groups
  • Clear chairs- clear areas to work- clear trash, etc. or announce to people to do that if it gets messy
  • Keep conversations at a minimum and away from working developers- including interviews, cameras, etc
  • There was some craziness regarding t-shirt giveaways, which usually aren’t that complicated.
  • Judge feedback- This is a tough one. Take care with your judging panel. More on this later.
  • Petri Dish- all content is not for free- privacy is a *big deal* to developers, and constant snapping of photos/liveblogging/twittering during a dev camp, esp. by a high profile broadcaster may not be appreciated- in the least ask permission and do it rarely (to developers) And in many, (she’sgeeky) not at all , or for some (iPhoneDevCamp) do at select times.
  • I learned, approximately 1/2 hour into it, that the “iPad” in the “hack/hackers unite” title of the conference, was for hype. Big fail. If you think that, fine, but telling a developer who is into the iPad, and devoted her weekend to it, that the whole thing could have been without the iPad?

I talked to some techies about why they came. We found out about it through the same software development list, had gone to some similar events and conferences together so I think I can generally state that they’re of my mindset. They were clear about avoiding journalists that simply wanted free developers. Also, they came because they wanted to break out of the tech-specific conferences that are so tool- and-next-big-thing oriented. The content is fun, and it’s so rich. There was an aura of desperation and bitterness, and while I understood it, it’s a bit naive to think that the technology sector hasn’t also been hit some blows recently- the recession, outsourcing, and also having to find “the next big thing”, or the countless start-ups that go bust, etc. It’s a scary topic for many non-technologists, and techies were there to meet them in the middle. And most non-tech folks I talked to were happy to learn and pick up, as well as contribute their skills.

I can’t tell you how many official-looking KQED folks walked up to me *while I was working* and not only asked for a demo but wanted to give me (unsolicited) feedback. Also, media folks who interrupted me talking to someone. Standing in front of me, or otherwise doing this rude conversational behavior. I can’t tell you how many times this happened, with different people. I met some very gracious and nice folks- Tim Olson head of Interactive, took me on a *very cool* tour of the soundstudios and server rooms of KQED. My project partner Stacy knew everyone- as well as famous NPR personality we ran into in the elevator, the technologist reporter Laura Sydell. (I logged it mentally as my brother-in-law has a game: how may NPR personalities have you met… and I will now outrank him.) The rudeness of the media folks made me think that we were simply filling a void, and weren’t unique in ourselves. That, along with the iPad slur, dampened my enthusiasm quite a bit.

Judging: I’ve setup judging panels before, and it’s very difficult, not just because you are dealing with Big Personalities, but also because you need to pick people whose opinions, the random geek attendant will respect. That’s why, in this kind of setup, I’d recommend peer-judging vs. “big personality” especially if there’s only 2 (of the tech field). They ended up having interesting feedback, but still, if I’d have known who they were I wouldn’t have come, because of the judging format, and the televised nature.

I’m writing this because I really want this to work in the future. So I’m sorry if I’ve offended folks, but I’d love for other organizations to tap into the richness of geekery in the SF Bay, and it can be done, well. KQED has forged ahead for us in this. They’ve broken the ice. I’m also fascinated with access to communities such as the rich iPad software development groups. Access, in terms of women and minorities and other marginalized populations. In talking to the organizers, they were shocked at the lack of diversity in tech events- oddly my project partner and I had met at She’s Geeky. There were no other female techs at this event, as far as I could survey. I am very interested in making communities like this- tech and journalist- more open to different kinds of people who will feel comfortable and accepted, so making it a hyped (but in a cool way),clear and easy, instructional format is key to this effort. Still, I won’t sugarcoat it, there were areas for improvement.