The Value of Massive Online Hackathons

by Ryan James O'Shea

I self describe as a late entry level developer. One is never too late but 44 was a quite advanced age to get bitten by the bug of debugging. I needed to retool to be fit for the late capitalist economy. Getting into meaningful work has been as hard as I expected and has triggered some serious bouts of anxiety and self-doubt. But I do like a challenge. Especially, if I choose it.

I felt the call to action to attend the HackCorona Hackathon after thinking about a British First World War recruitment poster and asking myself, “what would I say to my son?"

"Well, I stayed at home, meditating, and continuing to rebuild my career."

No, not good enough. I had dealt with my self-doubt and anxiety systematically over the last 6 months. Time to get out of my head and into some work with other people. This is not war but action is needed.

My only experience in a hackathon had been during my web dev training course when I was on the edge of burning out after force feeding myself javascript for month. The creation of a new module in my brain for programming had given me with 10 day long headache. The organisers had incorrectly assumed that I wanted to lead a team and surprised me into pitching my idea to 60 people. It didn't go down well. Nor did I enjoy the hackathon.

Hackathons divide opinion in terms of how effective they as innovation tools. I am bit of a skeptic but with my background in adult education and design, I see a point, benefits, and opportunities. Hackathons are procrastination busters that connect people in sometimes unexpected ways and give the participants new ways to see their work and actions.

The HackCorona DataNatives post on Linkedin got my attention and I realised that it was time to get out of my hermit state. It seemed simple enough: clear my weekend schedule, sign up, pick a challenge, find a team, and contribute. I had no wish, no interest, no desire to pitch, lead, or take on the responsibility for forming a team. I assumed that there would be plenty of experienced leader types ready to whip up teams like they whip web servers.

I am also a late entry level father to a 2 year old boy. The problems around childcare was my choice of challenge but didn't appeal much to the other 1,700 participants. I pitched the problem to the 1,700 and drew attention to issues around productivity and metal health. No one replied. By the time we were deep into day one there was still little traction on the challenge and no team had formed.

There was a way out with an options to join another team, but a wee voice that sounded like my son told me to run that program called stubbornness. Getting out of my comfort zone and doing exactly what I didn't want to do, was exactly what I needed to do. Which is what I am doing again with this blog post.

Bang. 6 conversations later I was working with a startup in Lisbon that had a coaching app, and we had concept and direction.

Coaching as a discipline takes place in the present and anticipates future performance. I know this from both sides. Coaching works by asking questions that make the participant reflect on their goals, their actions to those goals, what to change, and how to change. The answers and the need to change has to come from inside the participant and (imo) works best when it uses the participants existing skills to build any needed new skills.

I couldn't see how to help people practically with childcare but I could see a way to get a coaching experience to parents, partners, and homeworkers living in the domestic pressure cookers. Make it into a bot. It's "just" Q  and A. It's a minimal viable coaching experience. Pitch it. I pitched it. I got supportive feedback. I was knackered. I needed a post hackathon beer.

The other team I was interested in joining won the big prize but I got something else. I had the procrastination busting hackathon effect and a perspective on other valuable outcomes for hackathons in 2020. A hackathon can sometimes produce something that might become a solution to save lives, but it is also a solution in itself to these highly disrupted times. To me this second side effect is worth exploring.

Over the last few days, I have noticed a backlash against developers and others from tech and startup communities wanting to get involved with healthcare technology. I have to agree with those telling developers to think carefully and contribute from their bank accounts before pushing code and apps in front of decision makers, doctors, and patients. However, the emergent consequences of covid-19 on every part of the economy and social life will require masses of solutions. I’m thinking about how I can help people with the skills that I understand and can use, and be available to help rebuild the economy and face what still might come.

In the end, I am calling for hackathons that have diversity and inclusion of skills. Open to anyone who has access to the needed tools to get online, and who wants to find their place and way to contribute. It is always the role and responsibility of hackathon organisers to make sure all participants get the most from the experience. But even more so now when the crisis points are many, and emergent locally and can scale globally. We have never had the chance or need to get large amounts of people together to think, act, design and develop their present and future in such urgent circumstances. Let’s tool up.

I will not keep your data or track you.
© Ryan James O'Shea 2020