"I also like getting a good night’s sleep."
December 19, 2014 2:59 AM   Subscribe

Me: I’d like to get a little more physically active.
Them: You should come run a marathon on the weekend!
Why I don’t like hackathons, by Alex Bayley aged 39 1/2.
posted by MartinWisse (73 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
As the current generation of programmers grows up and gets responsibilities, I think this aspect of the culture will change. There are just too many brogrammers at the moment.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:05 AM on December 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


That's only true if there stops being a new supply of twentysomethings every year, I suspect.
posted by ardgedee at 4:18 AM on December 19, 2014 [21 favorites]


Why Hackathons Suck from Thoughtworks, who I note sponsor an awful lot of hackathons. Huh?

How cute! It's almost like he doesn't understand how consulting works...
posted by Slothrup at 4:26 AM on December 19, 2014


ardgedee, my hypothesis is that the mobile boom has led to a large growth in the profession, which will level off eventually. Sort of like a baby boom.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:29 AM on December 19, 2014


I did one of these a few years ago, spent the first day dicking about on the internet, cobbled something together out of libraries on the morning of the second day, took the prize. They're not even good measures of coding skill, or creativity, or teamwork. They're measures of how well you pandered to the advertiser's (sorry, sponsor's) particular interests.
posted by Leon at 4:33 AM on December 19, 2014 [12 favorites]


> my hypothesis is that the mobile boom has led to a large growth in the profession

Fair enough. I was thinking of this as an inheritor of demo days and similar events, which date back to the eighties and also involved a bunch of guys in a room full of computers and crates of caffeinated drinks. After the enthusiasm and startup culture of mobile software levels off, that energy will be aimed at something else.
posted by ardgedee at 4:40 AM on December 19, 2014


Those poor French tuna!
posted by scruss at 5:13 AM on December 19, 2014


Some good points made there but I really hope that this kind of criticism ends up with hackathons being made more inclusive and with less focus on competition, as opposed to them being phased out and abolished. I've never attended a hackathon per se but I have been to a few demo parties in the long long ago and just meeting people face to face is awesome. Personally I find it hard to sustain an interest in any collaborative project if the only contact with other participants is Internet-based, especially if it's just the occasional comment on a check-in.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 5:18 AM on December 19, 2014


Are those even a thing? Seriously, does anybody think anything worth anything would ever come out of anything like that?
posted by Hizonner at 5:20 AM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yes, Hizonner. There is a subculture in programming that is weirdly, uh, non-professional. Hackathons, meetups where everyone gives a five minute talk (what?), that sort of thing. I tend to think of it as self-congratulatory: the participants can tell each other they're "continuously learning" and "getting involved in the community" without ever having to pick up a book (Benjamin Pierce? Who's that?) or think about a genuinely worthwhile project (most of them are written in C, of all things!)
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:23 AM on December 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


How cute! It's almost like he doesn't understand how consulting works...

The author of this piece is not a he.
posted by lunasol at 5:25 AM on December 19, 2014 [25 favorites]


Well, he said it himself. He doesn't like competition and he doesn't like having to make something new. To use his marathon example, it's like someone invited him to a race and he said he didn't like having a finish line or a starting line. Come on. The rest of the open-source and side-project world is work-at-your-own-pace and sometimes it's fun to get people together and see how you stack up.

And no, people are motivated by prizes. A prize at the end of a short burst of activity is something people can see themselves getting, unlike e.g. extra pay at work which is less tangible and not often in mind. For participants less fortunate than the author, they can be really important. I've seen a kid get his first Mac through a competition and he really wanted it because he couldn't afford one and wanted to make iphone apps. Consider the broader range of participants.

Points about childcare and the long hours accepted. I will have opportunities to affect a hackathon and a "startup weekend" (more general business-creating) and I'll be pushing for childcare now. That's a totally overlooked area and I apologize.

The long hours are probably harder to change because it gives people more time to make things, but there's nothing wrong with short and it does exist. For example, I won a prize in a one day 8-5 last year - just as doable as most Saturday activities and we had a broad range of ages participate.

The fact that people who know how to use libraries and impress judges win is just a failure to educate the contestants. Everyone should be fitting pieces together and making their proof-of-concept more impressive. That said, it's important for judges to make clear that they are looking for new thinking and be willing to reward better ideas even if they're not as functional by Sunday afternoon.
posted by michaelh at 5:28 AM on December 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


Hackathons aren't my thing, but it's weird that anyone would think them weird, or expect that something worthwhile should come out of them (other than the enjoyment of the participants). I'm not familiar with the sponsorship or competition angle, so it may be that I'm missing something, but it doesn't seem all that different than a game jam, or a crossword convention, or a quilting bee – or any other gathering of people with a common interest. Programming isn't just something people do to help XYZ Corp. make money – they do it for fun, too. Hacking is play.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 5:30 AM on December 19, 2014 [7 favorites]


I like Hackathons!
(Caveat, I have only been to one, but it was great)

They are of course a terrible way to produce any kind of product, a terrible way to write anything careful or considered, a terrible way to contribute to a larger project.
They are not meant to do that!

They are an excuse to muck around with something you otherwise probably wouldn't and to get a lot of ideas of how to do things flung around haphazardly.
Build something dumb, mess about, compete if you want, or don't, but surely no one thinks they're going to actually come up with a full fledged solution. It's supposed to be fun.

I fully accept the inclusion point, I am probably not going to make it to another Hackathon soon because of having a tiny child to take care of, but when she is old enough I fully plan to go and hack something silly with my daughter over a weekend. The event I was at had a pretty good male female ratio (compared to engineering as a whole), in fact my team (who I met there) was 50% male, 50% female. Also several families, children included.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 5:32 AM on December 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


it's like someone invited him to a race and he said he didn't like having a finish line or a starting line. Come on.

It's not anything like that. My one experience was at a one-day Baseball Hack Day a couple years ago. It was a good idea, I generally enjoyed it, but I agree with pretty much all of the author's points. The general experience is weird because it's intentionally an exercise in herding cats made "more interesting" (worse?) by the wild variation in experience among attendees. Random, two year old observations:
  1. The restriction on bringing in existing work is understandable but only because of the need to award prizes. And the need to award prizes is, to me, a misreading of nerds' incentives. You need sponsors (or money from somewhere) to run the thing and that results in sponsors wanting to give away crap to advertise.
  2. Not being allowed to bring in work cuts down on the number of ideas in the room. I came in with an idea (which I'd started to prototype because I really liked the idea and because Fuck That (see point #1)). It turned out in a room of 50+ people, the guy with the idea was king and I had to fend off potential team members with a bat.
  3. Even so we wound up with a team of 6 which violated the arbitrary maximum team size of 5 so we weren't eligible for the prizes. I took on 6 people because even though I look (and act) like an alpha male asshole, I'm still a shy kid at heart and I could see people too shy to ask to join teams and even one middle-aged guy simply walk out because he couldn't do it. That sucks.
  4. The sponsors, who were admittedly more Axe Body Spray than you'd normally find because they came from ESPN, MLB, etc were in the room "to help". There was one dude from MLB who was great and knew their API. The rest spent the time trying to depants the female sponsor representatives. The room was not big enough to have a cordoned off area for shitbirds and it was like being on display in a zoo for 6 hours.
  5. The nerd belief in self-organizing out of chaos is a pipe dream. I was the best coder on our team by an order of magnitude but spent more than half my time as project manager because we needed to get some of the people set up with a dev environment (always amazes me when nerds drop big dough on a Mac and never bother to learn the command line or anything more than XAMPP -- you can do that on a $300 crapbook), keep people on task, find task for the freshman from Local U who is a nice kid who wants to work in baseball analytics but not only doesn't know how to program but isn't particularly computer-savvy and oh, something's broken on the other side of the table.
  6. The awards were hit and miss because the judges (sponsors) were more interested in looks than ideas or functionality, so you were way better off mashing up a data set with Google Maps, giving your creation a double entendre of a name and calling it a day than taking on a big idea.
  7. It would be great, as the author suggests, to keep working on the thing at the next Hackday but instead you have to let it go and start the next Great Unfinished Idea* if you come back. Our app is still out there and once in a great while I get an email from someone on the team talking about starting up again (we get an itch right around Spring Training) but it never lasts.
* I am not going to make the Sand mandala analogy because the Internet has killed that metaphor through overuse so you'll have to think about it yourself.
posted by yerfatma at 6:06 AM on December 19, 2014 [13 favorites]


best coder on our team by an order of magnitude

For the record since the edit window went away, best back-end coder.

posted by yerfatma at 6:13 AM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


"meetups where everyone gives a five minute talk (what?)..."

Do you mean Ignite?

I always thought that was more like a mini-TED-meets-Toastmasters-and-Dale-Carnegie thing. People practicing organizing and presenting ideas, and generally showing off things they like (and not always tech related). I didn't think that was as brogrammer as the other stuff.
posted by JoeZydeco at 6:15 AM on December 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


Yeah, lightening talks are great. The point isn't to walk away an expert in everything that was presented; its to learn about the existence of a bunch of new APIs and tools you wouldn't have heard of otherwise that you can then go and Google yourself for all the details.

You can also do what a meet up I presented an iOS lightening talk at recently did, and have an hour or so after the talks for everyone to just schmooze. People wound up finding the presenters they thought were interesting and then going in to more depth in their subjects in smaller groups. It was pretty neat!
posted by Itaxpica at 6:19 AM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


People without a free weekend can't go camping either. This is just "I don't like what other people do for fun."
posted by yonega at 6:23 AM on December 19, 2014 [11 favorites]


Regarding lightning talks, five minutes is just not enough time to cover anything very interesting. "There is a gem that solves a problem" is not interesting, because, if I have the problem, I will go and Google it, and probably find the gem. More difficult topics are just not suited to the format. Dependent Typing, five minutes, go! just isn't going to work. I like the concept (everyone participating to share knowledge) but it feels... gross, in a way. I'd be more interested in a connected conference, in which the only actual attendees are all presenters; say, sixteen presenters who give eight hour-long talks over two days, each attending all of the other peoples' talks, with the talks live-streamed. Question sessions via social media. That seems more sensible and substantive.
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:40 AM on December 19, 2014


It sounds like my idea of hell, but as long as people are having fun I'm not going to criticize. If the profession as a whole creates expectations of giving up unpaid weekends and working through the night (with the oh-so-surprising consequence of being hostile to anyone who isn't a single young man), though, that would be shitty and should get some serious legal stinkeye. But if it's just a hobby thing, then more power to them.

The five-minute-talk thing sounds like a meeting where all you do is introductions. Really long introductions. Granted, that is often the most interesting part of a meeting, but I'm not sure that really justifies it.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:44 AM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


If the profession as a whole creates expectations of giving up unpaid weekends and working through the night

That is, like, the definition of startup culture.
posted by grumpybear69 at 6:47 AM on December 19, 2014 [8 favorites]


Dammit scruss.
posted by clavicle at 6:48 AM on December 19, 2014


1) "Hey, let's put teams together and do a goofy bare bones project on a white knuckle timeline and at the end of the weekend whoever's goofy bare bones project is the best gets a 12 of coke, and a box of pop tarts!"
2) Some sort of professional types get involved.
3) Soft drink corporations get involved.
4) A miasma of Axe body spray and bro dude douchery.
5) Bitter disillusionment.

This, with different values of step 1, is pretty much the story arc for every niche of geek culture as it becomes the-in-thing and I am on record saying that "If you want to be a safe haven for artists, weirdos, outcasts, geeks, dreamers and rebels the first thing you need is an action plan for convincing Maxim magazine that you live in your parents basement and never have sex."
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:54 AM on December 19, 2014 [15 favorites]


Regarding lightning talks, five minutes is just not enough time to cover anything very interesting.

That's your opinion. Having gone to lightning talk based conferences where I've learned a great deal, and having been told directly that people learned a great deal from lightning talks I've given, I disagree with it one hundred percent.

I think the trick is to have the topic of the talks be sufficiently restricted that the audience has the necessary background to get something out of the talk, even if it's just learning that some tool exists so that next time they run in to a problem it applies to they'll have it kicking around the back of their head and know where to start. This has been the case for all the ones I've been to - it's always "lightning talks about new iOS 8 APIs" or "lightning talks related to tooling for work our department does", not "lightning talks about whatever", which, yeah, seems like a recipe for confusion.
posted by Itaxpica at 6:57 AM on December 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'm pretty sure I could do a thorough overview of the human adaptive immune system that was at least thorough enough to shut down about a petabyle a day worth of bad healthcare advice shared on Facebook.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:11 AM on December 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


"I also like getting a good night’s sleep." --- by Alex Bayley aged 39 1/2.

I knew I had to change how I played the backfield when I couldn't outrun and outlast the 22-year-olds strikers anymore. This despite doing 300 to 400 km of distance cycling a week as well as soccer. I was mid-thirties.

You get older, you need to learn strategy, how to trade knowing more for speed and wind.
posted by bonehead at 7:12 AM on December 19, 2014 [7 favorites]


I'm not a programmer, but I would love to go to a hackathon. Someone should organize a hackathon for dummies/ non-programmers in Toronto, please. I have plenty of ideas and a basic understanding of variables, if/then logic, boolean stuff, and loops or various types. Maybe it would be a two weekend event: first weekend would be workshops introducing various programming or hardware tools (I have some ideas that I think would be arduino do-able, though I have only the most basic idea what arduino is). The second weekend would be the actual making.

I don't have kids, but childcare would definitely be a good idea. Also, I'll need on-site doggy daycare.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:24 AM on December 19, 2014


You get older, you need to learn strategy, how to trade knowing more for speed and wind.

Yep. Applies to every discipline and pastime.

22 year old at club: "Dude, how are you still awake and dancing after 8 hours here?"
Me: "I took a six-hour-long disco nap before leaving the house, had a real dinner, and didn't triple-stack mysterious pills on top of six beers."
22 year old: *boggle*

A big part of learning how to keep ahead when you get older is learning what games NOT to play. Anything that requires me to go on a three-day bender of any description, whether it be coding or making music or writing legal briefs, is not going to go well. At this point I'm supposed to know how to plan so those last-minute rushes are hardly ever necessary.
posted by 1adam12 at 7:24 AM on December 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


But this half-working phone app is going to change the world!
posted by thelonius at 7:34 AM on December 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


People without a free weekend can't go camping either. This is just "I don't like what other people do for fun."

I don't get the idea this post is saying "Stop hackathons". It's not, it's suggesting ways to improve them and I do believe they can be improved. A bit of prep, a bit of documentation, a bit of organization and a bit of realizing not everyone is exactly like you would go a long way to making them better.

Of course, all of those things would help the average programming project and team as well, so don't hold your breath.
posted by yerfatma at 7:36 AM on December 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


Most lightening talk meetings that I've been too seem more about getting people to present, rather than informing the audience. I often see them used to coax people with a bit of imposter syndrome to stand up and say something. After all, it's only 5 minutes.

That being said, I've seen some on youtube that were really worthwhile. For some things, you only need 5 minutes to make your point. I really like Wat.
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:37 AM on December 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


People without a free weekend can't go camping either. This is just "I don't like what other people do for fun

You can take children camping. Generally camping also involves sleep and downtime.
posted by schroedinger at 7:48 AM on December 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


When I was 22, a hackathon would have sounded like a great idea. All-nighters, just-one-more-turn, 24-hour charity runs, all good. When I was 39 and 1/2, not so much.

This isn't going to stop hackathons, it's just the author realizing that, as he gets older, his priorities are changing.
posted by bonehead at 7:49 AM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


think about a genuinely worthwhile project (most of them are written in C, of all things!)

Wat? I'm still (probably) proficient in C but it's been over a dozen years since anyone has asked me to code in it. Unless you're doing embedded systems or writing kernel modules, there aren't too many opportunities to write in C these days.
posted by octothorpe at 7:50 AM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


This isn't stop hackathons, it's the author realizing that, as he gets older, his priorities are changing.

Alex/Skud's pronoun is "she." Can we please stop misgendering her in this thread?
posted by dorque at 7:52 AM on December 19, 2014 [21 favorites]


I was about to post the same thing, dorque. For those interested in her bio, here it is.
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:52 AM on December 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


The "Alex" who wrote this article is a woman.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:54 AM on December 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


I just hate them because the biz guy who turns up at the photo op then says to the real developers in his company on Monday "3 months, these kids can build it in a weekend!" and then you have to explain regression testing, fiduciary responsibility,legacy apps and the difference between a nice front end that works on his phone and an indestructible COBOL transaction processing beast that lives in the basement.
posted by Damienmce at 7:54 AM on December 19, 2014 [18 favorites]


Most lightening talk meetings that I've been too seem more about getting people to present, rather than informing the audience. I often see them used to coax people with a bit of imposter syndrome to stand up and say something. After all, it's only 5 minutes.

Personally, I think that's great and one of the big benefits of the format. Plenty of people have really interesting things to say but think, incorrectly, that they aren't 'smart enough' or 'good enough' to do a real talk (bringing this back to one of the themes of the OP, this seems to be especially true of women in my experience). Anything that lowers the barrier to entry and makes them more likely to speak is a net positive in my book (especially if the experience then spurs them to present more and in a wider variety of contexts). I know the exact same thing happened to me - I started presenting at lightning talks because I figured what the hell, it's only five minutes. I loved it and now present whenever I can. I just don't think that coaxing people to speak and informing the audience have to be mutually contradictory goals.
posted by Itaxpica at 7:59 AM on December 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


Alex's critiques are great, and apply well to many of the corporate hackathons. Fortunately, there's a rich history of community-building events that doesn't follow the pattern described here. What happens is that the corporate and prize-focused events tend to get more press and visibility than gatherings in a community that are focused on learning. Consider, for example, the Restart Project, who convene regular weekend community gatherings focused on repair, or the DC Funk Parade tech embassy.

Many community oriented events also play into these bro/winner/competition narratives themselves, even when it doesn't reflect their values. I've written here with a guide to creating media that values learning and community rather than just competition and winners.
posted by honest knave at 8:01 AM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Wat? I'm still (probably) proficient in C but it's been over a dozen years since anyone has asked me to code in it. Unless you're doing embedded systems or writing kernel modules, there aren't too many opportunities to write in C these days.

I would say the most important open source projects are in C (or C++), and are complex. Web servers, database engines, HTML rendering engines, security packages, utilities, network packages, and on and on; even if you're using a scripting language, chances are you're actually interacting with C/C++ packages behind the scenes. (Heck, numpy is mostly fast because of Fortran.) These are the projects that really need eyes to make bugs shallow, but they're certainly not what counts as "participating in the open source community" for purposes of hackathons, meetups, and so on. Usually those are either Yet Another Web Framework, or possibly A Clever Way of Templating Text, or other well-trodden (and relatively simple) problem spaces.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:01 AM on December 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


I write C and C++ all day, although it's true, it's a lot harder to find a job than doing web or mobile consumer facing stuff.

I also go to hackathons where I code in JS and Python. Although the last time our hackathon was infiltrated by a bunch of 25 year olds with MBAs who were really annoying and kept steering the team toward synergifying and productization. You can be old regardless of your actual age.
posted by miyabo at 8:32 AM on December 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


Oh, and we've gotten a lot of feedback that parents (and particularly moms) can't go to hackathons due to lack of childcare. For one 1-day hackathon in October we actually had a free childrens track with maybe 5 or so kids and someone supervising. Obviously that requires an event with lots of participants and maybe a separate room for the kids, but I think it is worth it to make hackathons more inclusive.
posted by miyabo at 8:43 AM on December 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


I don't get the idea this post is saying "Stop hackathons". It's not, it's suggesting ways to improve them and I do believe they can be improved.

Yes, but the end result of her suggestions looks nothing like a hackathon.

Ongoing projects, that are maintained and used over several years.

A welcoming environment for people of all skill and confidence levels, with opportunity for mentorship, learning, and working at your own pace.

A schedule that makes it possible to participate without having to make heroic efforts to juggle your other responsibilities.


This is almost the exact opposite of a 3 day long code fest. Now, you may argue for which one of the approaches is better, but she seems to want the cachet and corporate sponsoship of hackathons, but for her own ends.

I do believe hacker and geek culture could use more childcare options, as a way of being more inclusive. It's the same issue with scifi conventions.
posted by zabuni at 8:47 AM on December 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


At least in the context of workplace-organized hack-day, work on ongoing projects becomes "let's have a fun workday". If it directly benefits the company, then it's really just a workday with punch and cookies. It needs to be something that you wouldn't work on in the normal course of your job.

My workplace is trying to organize something, and we've recognized most of these issues because we have an older group with kids, so a weekend lock-in is right out. We're bouncing between two options, which will either be on a paid Saturday or a regular weekday. One option is a specific cool thing to do with the sidewalk in front of our office having glass squares accessible from our basement space, and using LEDs to light them up.

The other idea, that I favour, is picking an open source project on which we rely a lot that isn't a tier 1 project, so it doesn't get the community support it deserves (e.g., HVAD, probably the most used i18n lib for Djang), and spend a day showering it with love: Submit properly built and tested pull requests for as many major issues or requested features as possible; involve our designers to submit updated style or graphics; have a PM go over it all and clean up loose ends. Of course, you'd want to co-ordinate that with the maintainer to avoid a mixed blessing of a gift; but at the end, you've done something charitable and useful, that benefits you and the company as well as the project.
posted by fatbird at 9:00 AM on December 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


That second idea sounds great; a cool project to take a friday to work on.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:05 AM on December 19, 2014


(Benjamin Pierce? Who's that?)

I took a full year of programming languages and type theory in grad school and also go to hackathons and barcamps. You can do both! And it's not that uncommon, it turns out that the people who bother to show up to these things are generally very very smart.
posted by miyabo at 9:07 AM on December 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


Unless you're doing embedded systems or writing kernel modules, there aren't too many opportunities to write in C these days.

Yeah, but "unless embedded" is a REALLY PRETTY BIG unless.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 9:10 AM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


The "Alex" who wrote this article is a woman.

Well I'm a little bit sad now because I was thinking how nice it was that for once a guy would raise the issue of the unfair burden society places on women in making them implicitly responsible for childcare -- and in a context where that wasn't the primary point of the article.

Also, I often wish that English had non-gendered singular third person pronouns :(.
posted by Slothrup at 9:23 AM on December 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


Regarding lightning talks, five minutes is just not enough time to cover anything very interesting.

You want to talk "gross", this notion that the only things that are interesting are things relevant to deeply-experienced developers is pretty fucking high up my list. Lightning talks are great for newbies; they let them know about things they might not have even thought to Google, and they're certainly a hell of a lot more welcoming than "read a fucking book, n00b".

(And as an experienced developer who went to Pycon last year: I got more out of the lightning talks than I did out of the main conference tracks.)
posted by asterix at 9:42 AM on December 19, 2014 [7 favorites]


Showing up to spend 48 hours programming on a collaborative project using tools and APIs I have never used before collaborating closely with people I don't know in a noisy room surrounded by a dozen other similar groups developing a prototype of what is probably a boring idea sounds like my idea of a nightmare.

If hackathons were the only way to engage in programming and develop a career, then I would not have a job. If hackathons aren't your thing, you can safely ignore them.
posted by deanc at 9:43 AM on December 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


Also, I often wish that English had non-gendered singular third person pronouns

Singular they has a proud and noble tradition as just that, as used by one William Shakespeare amongst others.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:57 AM on December 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


You want to talk "gross", this notion that the only things that are interesting are things relevant to deeply-experienced developers is pretty fucking high up my list.

That's not my attitude. However, seeing another talk that's going to be about a webscale text editor? Ugh.

Lightning talks are great for newbies; they let them know about things they might not have even thought to Google, and they're certainly a hell of a lot more welcoming than "read a fucking book, n00b".

What concept can you impart in a five minute talk to an audience of newbies? I have taught programming pretty extensively, and a five minute talk is going to assume that everyone has the same base line of knowledge. That's never true. With beginners you're going to have people with weird gaps or just a lack of experience that make it hard to communicate in the shorthand that short talks require. Books require an investment of money and time, but they allow you to go at your own pace and explore topics deeply. Online exercise and collaboration (like exercism) are also great.

About the best thing I can think of about lightning talks is that, even if they're bad, at least they're short. I don't really like things whose best quality is that they don't waste much time.
posted by sonic meat machine at 10:18 AM on December 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


It's hard to arrange children's stuff.

At a one-time event all the staff are new at once. Things inevitably go wrong, things that would be manageable if there weren't children involved. But when you add kids, every small problem grows to hideous proportions. And then the concern trolls come out of the woodwork, and the event organizer can't even pee, let alone eat or sleep.
posted by elizilla at 10:24 AM on December 19, 2014


What concept can you impart in a five minute talk to an audience of newbies?

This is doctest, and here's how you use it. This is how "import" works. Here's how you can start using logging.

Those are just off the top of my head. Will the experienced developers in the audience be bored? Maybe! But luckily it's only 5 minutes out of their life.
posted by asterix at 10:48 AM on December 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


I've never done one of these, but tons of folks I know do these, and I've gotten some stories from them.

My takeaway is that the stuff to be learned has nothing to do with coding or tech; best case scenario is something will be slapped together that will meet the requirements.

That being said, I get the impression that there are a lot of things to be learned that are relatively low-stakes (ie: it won't fuck up your career and it won't cost your actual employer costly things to learn these lessons).

* How to deal with the person that's an alpha-person who wants to take control of a team but may not have the best ideas for it.
* How to negotiate between folks that want to concentrate on the UI/frontend (important! an unusable app is kind of worthless) between folks that want to concentrate on the backend (important! an app that doesn't work is pretty worthless).
* Opportunities for tech lead or management in folks that normally aren't engaged in this.
* 5 minute presentations; can you explain your idea to upper management in 5 minutes? It's a good skill to have.

I think Alex's critique is a solid one though, and I'm glad that she made it. Her project GrowStuff looks pretty nifty as well.
posted by el io at 11:26 AM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Alex/Skud's pronoun is "she."

Yeah, mea culpa. I saw the name and assumed. I missed the earlier correction in thread too.

Also, I often wish that English had non-gendered singular third person pronouns :(.

I frequently do use "they" in the singular, for exactly that reason. This time, however, I was sloppy.
posted by bonehead at 11:59 AM on December 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


MetaFilter: not big enough to have a cordoned off area for shitbirds.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:30 PM on December 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


What concept can you impart in a five minute talk to an audience of newbies?

"This is a very quick overview of the Meteor web framework." I ended up using it in a project. Never would have heard about it otherwise.
posted by miyabo at 12:34 PM on December 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


Ok, that's a different level of "beginner" than I would think. I would expect newbies to still be learning the ins and outs of one framework, and to probably be kind of baffled by the trade-offs inherent in choosing between several.
posted by sonic meat machine at 1:51 PM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I didn't know people did hackathons about random things. The ones I'd heard of were dedicated to open-source projects, with tasks like "improve the forblug interface" or "fix bugs in the fluxumator module"
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 2:08 PM on December 19, 2014


Are those even a thing? Seriously, does anybody think anything worth anything would ever come out of anything like that?

My former employers. Arrgh, what a hellhole. I eventually determined that the CEO had been a dude-bro coder in his youth and was TRYING to recreate the cowboy culture. What a waste.

a) Hackathons: Straight-up waste. Encourages intermediate coders to figure out how to be shit coders with the help of time-pressure. Want to to see a presentation on a side-project that might really fit into the business domain? Yeah, that took a few hundred hours.

b) Lightning Talks: the Cheetos of technical work. Makes you feel less stupid, but doesn't actually make you less stupid. Read a book or a journal. Shit, watch David West's video and start writing objects. Now *that* is a worthwhile talk.
posted by j_curiouser at 6:40 PM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


What the hell is a hackathon? Who does these things? I've been coding for most of my life and I have basically no idea what this author is talking about. Is this a real thing...?
posted by Mars Saxman at 9:42 PM on December 19, 2014


It is a real thing.
posted by j_curiouser at 11:34 PM on December 19, 2014


Hey, maybe the reason she wrote this wasn't to piss on what other people do for fun - maybe part of it was to call attention to "hey, if you want more diversity in this industry, maybe think of how to design events that don't exclusively cater to childless dudes in their 20's."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:25 AM on December 20, 2014 [9 favorites]


Lightning Talks: the Cheetos of technical work. Makes you feel less stupid, but doesn't actually make you less stupid.
I'd go the other direction. I've been to a whole hell of a lot of technical conferences (and helped organize a couple) over the last decade or so, and in my experience there are very few 60-minute sessions that wouldn't have been improved by forcing the speakers to distill their talks to the absolute essential idea in 5 minutes. A well-written technical book is going to be better for most purposes than almost any speaker—that's not unique to lightning talks.

The "If you can't explain it to a freshman, you don't understand it" principle is good to remember. Any topic or technique that can't be at least summarized in five minutes is unlikely to benefit from the additional 55.
posted by verb at 6:48 AM on December 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


As a student, I participated in several hackathons. They were great fun, I learned a lot, and being on a hackathon team helped me to appreciate, for the first time, the appeal of competitive team sports. (On a coding team, I am a valuable contributor whose efforts measurably help the team succeed! ... on an actual sports team, not so much.)

That being said, I agree with several of the points brought up in this post. My favorite hackathons encouraged participants to eat healthily and get a full night's rest, and they were only modestly competitive, with souvenirs and positive feedback for all participants. I wish more hackathons were like that. Also, since I started working full-time, it has become a LOT harder to make time for hackathons. Weekends are precious, precious resource now.

Still, recurring, collaborative civic hacking events -- while cool and appealing -- would just not scratch the same itch a good hackathon does. The frantic ephemerality of hackathons is absolutely part of their appeal, part of what makes them feel like games, not work.
posted by Kilter at 7:03 AM on December 20, 2014


What concept can you impart in a five minute talk to an audience of newbies?

The thing is, I'm with you. I attend the odd lightning talk in the town next door and I'm usually disappointed because the person who thinks so much of the technology and thinks they know it well enough to be teaching about it really isn't thinking too deeply.

But that's me and that's you and we've been at this a while. I've been working with some junior coders and mentoring high school newbie programmers in my spare time and the thing I've struggled with is trying to see things from their perspective. After a long time not only do you know how to search for the answer to your problem with a quick Google, but you know the words to use to describe the problem and how to filter out the shitty answers from the good. A lightning talk about the latest web framework isn't much use to me, but it's a godsend for someone who's just starting to code and doesn't know you can skip writing a lot of (dangerous) plumbing and get on with the real work by using one. Just the word "framework" alone with a decent explanation of what one is can make a world of difference.

Without trying to flatter my ability, something I've been thinking about is why Ted Williams, perhaps "The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived" failed as a hitting coach in baseball: when asked how to hit a curveball, his answer was something like, "You see it's a curveball and hit it." He wasn't able to remember and/ or translate the individual steps in the process or realize not everyone had his amazing eyesight that allowed him to pick up the spin of the ball in flight immediately and unpack the process for people desperate to learn it.
posted by yerfatma at 7:43 AM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Hey, maybe the reason she wrote this wasn't to piss on what other people do for fun - maybe part of it was to call attention to "hey, if you want more diversity in this industry, maybe think of how to design events that don't exclusively cater to childless dudes in their 20's."

And seeing how many people went to the "it's fun" dismissal of the piece illustrates one of the more toxic aspects of the industry today - the expectation that it's not enough to treat it as a profession - that you have to be fully committed to it as a way of life.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:50 AM on December 20, 2014


I personally like Ignite / Lightning talks. They're a much lighter investment for the speaker and the audience. There's one simple trick for lightning talks: don't expect to get deep insights, expect to learn about problems and tools you never knew existed, and perhaps a demo of what can be accomplished. This is a form of less stupid, just in the form of picking up the right book later.

Moreover, we know from research that a series of short lectures will perform better at educating than traditional 60 minute lectures. Even if you don't like five minute talks, a series of 12 of them conveys the same content better for the average learner.

Hackathons are kinda bullshit though.
posted by pwnguin at 11:23 AM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


And seeing how many people went to the "it's fun" dismissal of the piece illustrates one of the more toxic aspects of the industry today - the expectation that it's not enough to treat it as a profession - that you have to be fully committed to it as a way of life.

I think we got a lot of statements to the contrary here-- people who have long careers in computer science and programming who have no desire to participate in a hackathon. In the same way you can be a mechanic or an automotive engineer without participating in a demolition derby or build custom motorcycles in your spare time.

The biggest employers of programmers are "bodyshops" that employ people to write back-end objects and embedded devices companies. Nobody in the interviews at those companies is asking you if you're passionate about cash register software.
posted by deanc at 4:22 PM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


As a random note: In chemistry (and science in general) we often use short talks to teach people how to give talks, how to distill difficult ideas down to 5 minutes, and how to turn a very technical talk down to something a non-technical person can understand.
posted by Canageek at 5:09 PM on January 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


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