Hello, my name is Alison and I’m a web designer that spent my entire Saturday coding various web items around the central theme of farting in a jar.
Now hear me out – this was for my first hackathon. For those not in the know, a hackathon is an event in which programmers, developers and designers come together to collaborate intensively on a software project. Generally from scratch, and often in teams of complete strangers.
Always pulled in many directions, I was excited to finally make time for REDspace’s first public hackathon. See, I had been curious to attend one ever since I first learned Halifax has a thriving Game Jam community. I didn’t really know what to expect, which sets a pretty easy bar to either raise, lower or trip over. Holy shit did I ever trip over it.
There were about 40 of us, from all levels and walks of life. A lot of programmers, web developers, and a handful of designers. Students, professionals and those in between were ready to creative an app, website or game in just 10 hours. Most hackathons I had heard of were all weekend long, so it seemed people were interested in the challenging time frame.
As a freelancer on self-contained projects, I had forgotten what it was like to work alongside a dev team. I was excited to be thrust into a group of strangers to struggle with and produce something in such a short time. For this hackathon, the only constraints (if you could call them as such) were the following:
- no external server access was readily available, so environment creation had to be creative
- create as polished a piece as your team could muster, as there was a panel of judges scoring your final presentation to all participants
- bonus points were given to teams that incorporated the following randomly suggested themes into the project: music, the colour blue, memes, beacons and… a fifth I can’t recall (yeesh)
A few people looking to recruit members to their team were given 1 minute to pitch their idea to the whole group. Some even came to life at the end of the day, such as a collaborative game where players have to work together to win, Voltron style (they did an awesome job, btw).
Of all the suggestions, the one that really peaked my interest was a joke suggestion from an organizer: create an app where you can fart into a jar and send it to your friends.
I was in. I can adult with the best of them, but I find farts the most entertaining thing humans can do, and I will laugh at the mention or sound of one anytime. And I wasn’t alone – we fart enthusiasts ended up being ten people, more than twice the recommended team size. We honestly thought we would pair off into two teams tackling the challenge once we got going but uh, we remained this giant cloud. Our concept was to create a HTML based app where we would demonstrate recording a fart, reviewing it, sending it to a friend, and show the interface to see your ‘collection’ of farts in a jar. Super profound, right?
I’d like to share with you what I learned about myself and others in the 10 hours to create this masterpiece. Please note my terminology may not be exact, and this is strictly my take on the day.
Challenge yourself, but not at the disadvantage to your team (aka: teammates rule, ask a million questions)
I had decided ahead of time I was going to challenge myself try and push my coding skills, and let other designers design. I am mainly a WordPress designer: I know how to tweak code and solve complex CSS issues, but mostly through that platform and its personality. Imagine my embarrassment when I had my ass served to me on a platter… by Bootstrap. Seriously. Wrapping my head around a framework I hadn’t touched since it was in version 2 made me want to crawl into a hole and die. But, I promised myself I would do it and luckily I had amazing teammates who helped me through it. I asked a lot of questions, got feedback and was able to get the job done.
In fact, we all came across stumbling blocks, but the overall vibe was that there was no stupid questions: because of our solidarity in creating complete nonsense in under 10 hours.
Even with carte blanche, you’ll still gravitate to what’s ‘safe’.
You read it all the time: bringing dev and design departments together instead of being sanctioned off leads to more effective productivity. Here we were, strangers who could have formed the project any way we wanted and you know what happened? We went into ‘automatic department mode’. Two people paired off to get a good work station to work on the server side in one part of the space. The dev people in charge of the scripts that would record and serve the farts (heh) went in another location. And there was four (!) designers left to figure out the look and feel of the app and mull over UI/UX.
By hour six, we had naturally migrated to one space, but it was interesting that even with no constraints or prior hierarchy, we all did that ingrained, insular thing – we went with our own kind, and came back to put things together.Which lead to expected results: shit didn’t fit.
We later acknowledged that had we been either a smaller group, or in closer proximity to each other, a lot of silly mistakes would have been caught early on to avoid the mad dash we rushed into at the end.
Silent farts are deadly but useless: don’t forget the big picture
Due to us being late to the ‘work together, solver together’ table, we ran into a host of snags that weren’t caught early. Literally as presentations started, we were still trying to compile everyone’s contributions into a cohesive prototype. Our main laptop decided to shit the bed with only minutes to spare, so once revived, Arash on the dev team whispered: ‘We’re good to go. Where’s the fart?’
Silence… We forgot to record a goddamn fart. Ten people on a fart app and none of us bothered to record one.
That’s like making a flower shop website that has no flowers to sell. We had a good laugh over this and found a recording to pull into the app, but yeah. What happened? We all got caught up in our own tasks and meeting the deadline in 10 hours that we forgot the point of our mission: recording farts to send to loved ones.
If you get the chance to fail without consequence, take it every time
With a lot of hacking to get our prototype to work, time spent crafting our presentation was short. It was hard to understand from the audience’s perspective how our app worked. We had some great lead in slides, but we had to present over 3 computers, and probably lost points (and the audience) because of that. Us designers were especially hard on our selves about this, because we hold cohesive presentations so close to our craft. We basically pitched a fart into the wind.
We did it all with a smile, but it was easy to see that the whole team was disappointed at first at how meager our endevour appeared was when you can’t put the parts together clearly for those who weren’t in the thick of it. But in our team debrief, we realized we were still focused on the end product and not the journey: once the dust settled, we were able to look back at the last 10 hour objectively.
- We overcame the obstacles of working as a large group, and did our best to wrangle a multitude of issues under crazy time constraints.
- Creating something from nothing, especially with a very technical edge, feels amazing.
- When you work with strangers, you give yourself the chance to expand your capabilities and stop worrying about your predefined skillsets.
- Everyone’s laptops are full of breadcrumbs, missing keys and strange stains. We’re all pigs.
- Even the driest programmer will giggle at the word ‘air biscuit’.
This was an amazing experience, and I am very excited to try my hand at another hackathon when I can. Special thanks to the REDspace team for putting on this event. I also want to thank everyone on team Fart Jar, who made this experience so positive, and full of poop jokes: Aaron, Arash, Mahsa, Frank, Joseph, Tyler, Janvier, Monica and Foad.
Let me leave you with this animated fart Foad made. It’s a work of art.