Dorothy Stringer School Hackday

The Dorothy Stringer School in Brighton ran it’s first ever hackday on Friday 6 July 2012.

Eh? You don’t know what a hackday is?

OK! According to the dictionary “hack” is a word which has 16 possible meanings and the one which is closest in meaning to the one we want (in software developer circles) is this one:

  • hack – to devise or modify (a computer program), usually skillfully.

And that’s a pretty good definition, but it’s not quite the whole picture. The verb “to hack” means to change software and/or hardware and/or anything really (whether skilfully or not) in order to make something new, or to make the old thing better than it was before. Normally, devs use the verb “to hack” to mean brainstorming and designing and writing a bit of software.

Hack is also a noun, and in this case we could describe our chosen project as “a hack”. The kids were bemused when the standard question was asked . . .

“what’s the name of your hack?”

. . . which to a dev means . . .

“what name have you given to your project or your application?”

Anyway, today’s task at the Dorothy Stringer School Hackday was to come up with an idea for a piece of software, to brainstorm it, to design it, to write it and to implement it. And whilst I have done many hackdays, and longer hackathons (they can last up to 60 hours, with or without sleep) this was the first time these pupils had ever encountered the concept, and we had just a 5 hour window of opportunity in which to deliver something.

We chose a broad theme which we called “community” and bravely allowed the pupils to organise themselves into teams of their own choice and to assign roles. Thankfully they followed our suggestions and divided themselves up into teams of 4 or 5, and assigned team members various roles including project manager, lead developer and chief designer. Each team then had a short time to come up with a “community related idea” and to decide whether it was going to be a software package for a computer or a web app or a mobile app.

In line with regular hackdays run in real life businesses, the teams were invited to pitch an outline of their fledgling ideas to the whole group of 100 at the start of the day. Most chose not to, but it did lay the foundation for the “pitching to the judges” which did take place later that afternoon.

We left the main hall and headed to the ICT labs, each accommodating around 20 to 30 pupils. With the available resources, a lot of the work was about brainstorming and design, and much of the early discussion was about “wireframing”.

At this stage it became clear that the budding designers amongst us were going to provide representations of their ideas in PowerPoint or in PhotoShop or in Paint, and a handful of teams with budding developers threw themselves in at the deep end and actually wrote some code (in a Text Editor).

There is no need for us to worry about precise definitions of designer and developer, though the customary split says that designers work on “front end” and make sure that the whole arrangement is both usable and good looking, whilst developers work on the “back end” and get your app to actually work on your computer (or other device). A team of adults (plus 10 year old  Mark Brannigan from CFK Books) had been assembled from business and from commerce and were on hand to help, and somebody very kindly affixed a label calling us “the experts”. And although we all denied that we were “experts” the label endured.

Moreover, we (the blushing experts) all agreed that there is an overlap in the roles of designers and developers (a lot of people can do both) and that in addition to these job specific skills, one of the greatest skills that designers and developers can posses is “communication”. I can design stuff and I can develop stuff. My work demonstrates that I am more a dev than a designer. By knowing the basics of each discipline devs and designers can work together. In the real world they have to cooperate and have to  understand each others’ needs, hence social skills are critical to effective team working. Every mainstream app or software package is put together by teams of people and not by an individual.

Our teams took that on board and also quickly grasped the concept that “wireframing” a hack is a bit like “storyboarding” a film or “essay planning” an essay,

Watching the teams with the Text Editors open on the screen (in this case Notepad++ turned out to be the editor of choice and Chrome the browser of choice) the “experts” worked with a number of teams who were actually able to craft meaningful first steps in HTML. Ten year old Mark proved to be very popular as an honorary expert and he spent a lot of his time showing 13 and 14 year olds how to get started with “pure” coding. It’s hard to say who enjoyed the experience more as both tutor and tutored were thrilled to see every step unfold before them, first in Notepad++ and then in the browser.

The only restriction placed upon the pupils had been to “keep it legal” and some teams took advantage of what was in effect carte blanche to do anything you like (as long as it’s legal) and they went on to develop wild ideas with crazy names and concepts. These things would never have seen the light of day when I was a teacher, and probably wouldn’t happen even now. At least not on a regular school day!

And that reflects a valuable lesson which came out of the message delivered by our expert from Google. Creativity is the key. In the right situation you should let your mind run riot and do crazy stuff. He compared it to being very young and playing with Lego. Make it, break it, make something different, break that, make the first thing again, break a bit off, add on a different bit, only make it better this time. Building apps is like building with Lego. You can make some weird stuff! Whether other people like what you’ve built is another question. But get enough projects on the go, and one of them will turn up trumps, it will look right, it will work correctly, and others will say “I want one of those!”

Each of the “experts” found themselves deeply involved in work in different rooms, with hardly a moment to spare, and hence my own experiences of the day are largely limited to the 7 teams I had in room D12. The hacks I saw included:

You Twit a web app – a mash up of YouTube and Twitter
Sports Day App a mobile app – a multi device/multi player athletics game
Community Board a web app – a closed portal for membership organisations like a Youth Football Team or a Computer Games Club
iTourist a web app – an open portal for small or large tourist attractions like Madame Tussauds or Stratford-upon-Avon
Name redacted a mobile app – a well laid out multi level game where the player can kill enemies
Virtual Tour
a mobile app – an information service providing tailored visitor information designed for a small screen
Near U a web app – an open portal giving details of places of interest based on clever geometry and post codes

As the day drew to an end the teams realised that no apps would be completed fully (given the time available) and that the important thing now was to prepare something to showcase. In the true spirit of regular hackdays that can mean a healthy dose of fudge and a mock up of what you had wanted to show. Couple that with a succinct and sometimes witty bit of dialogue and then the final choice you normally have to make is to go with the classic methods of either:

  • blind them with science; or
  • dazzle them with diamonds

Almost without exception, the girls flatly turned down the opportunities to speak in front of the room, and that (together with some reluctance amongst some boys) led me to think that a little more encouragement and a little help with presentation skills would benefit every pupil. After all, we can all benefit from good social skills, and not confine that purely to the field of software design and development.

The five presentations we saw were well thought out and delivered with sincerity. There were prizes for all, graded according to merit, and a copy of our book was included in the award for the winning team. It was very hard to decide between the top two candidates as each team had devoted extraordinary efforts to their hack. In the end, it came down to the speaking skills of a team which had also worked well together. The three lads had taken “the stage” with confidence and had addressed the audience (not the white board) in a manner which was both clear and convincing. It was evident that the team included both a scientist and a diamond merchant and I had seen how the dev had prepared the HTML and how the designer had made the image files. By a mere half of one point, the award went to Near U.

This photograph shows the Near U hack. On the left hand screen, the dev has coded everything by hand using HTML and has prepared two files. The HTML includes a form and a submit button which drives the second stage of the app. On the right hand screen, you can see that the browser has pulled in the (second) HTML file. All pages (all two of them) include a coloured banner at the top and the bottom. Although it’s hard to see in this photo, the centre of the top banner has a logo (navy blue on light blue) made by the designer, and the map is intended to represent the data imported from the form on the first page.

What amazed me is that this dev took to coding like a duck to water. Having no prior knowledge, and apparently being just another ordinary pupil, he displayed this hidden talent in abundance today. Earlier, when I had talked about skills and passions and the needs of the world I hadn’t expected to see such a clear demonstration of skills and passions being combined like this. I am genuinely impressed and it is my hope that this young man can take this further and help satisfy the needs of the world.

If he can, then he will become one of the few who can truly achieve the outcome which Aristotle promoted:

“consider your skills, your passions and the needs of the world;
where they intersect; therein lies your calling.”

For future reference (and “witty dialogue” for presentations) you should be aware that devs love pictures of kittens. Whenever something is lacking in a pitch, the normal solution is to chuck in a picture of a kitten and even hardened, grown men will start cooing!

London Hackathon

The weekend of 29 Jun 2012 to 1 Jul 2012 saw the CFK Books team at the London Hackathon run by Markco Media.

It was quite a challenge being surrounded by so many clever people, and 10 year old Mark made the most of the opportunity to make new friends.

Here he is presenting his latest prototype of The Ace Card Game! That’s the material that we’re curently working on for Workbook 2.