Monday, February 14, 2011

What I Learned at the Milwaukee Hack-a-thon

This past weekend I participated in my first hack-a-thon put on by Spreenkler Talent Labs.  My team consisted of myself and 3 other developers: my good friend Ryan Nanney who is a php developer, Joe Steinbring who is a fellow ColdFusion developer, and Russel Stetzer who is a networking guy looking to break into the development side of things.

As this was my first hack-a-thon event I wasn't sure what to expect going in and I was very careful to make sure that my team didn't break any rules by doing any development work ahead of time.  Looking back I think I may have been too careful.  Prior to the event our team only had two short meetings to discuss our idea and go over some of the frameworks and technologies we were planning on using.   So going into the event we knew that we were going to build an application that would help non profits looking for volunteers connect to professionals that wanted to volunteer their time and that we were going to use ColdFusion 9, ColdFusion ORM, FW/1 as our MVC framework, github as our collaboration hub, and jQuery as our JavaScript framework.

The event itself was held in a computer lab at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, which proved to be a bit small for the amount of participants that were in attendance.   I'm glad I decided to play it safe and pack up my keyboard, external monitor, and mousepad since I arrived at the about 5 minutes late and all of the spots with monitors already there were gone.  Lucikly two of my team members arrived early and I was able to get a spot right by them.

Once the event kicked off our team got off to a slow start, I think that it was around 12:00 before we actually wrote a single line of code.  The morning was mostly spent getting everybody's development environment up and running and working on the getting the look and feel of our application sorted out.  When we finally started writing code things became quite hectic in a hurry. While we had our team roles pretty clearly defined ahead of time, we didn't have a very good plan on how we were going to actually build this application.  I was to be the guy person in charge of the master branch of the project and wiring up the different layers of the MVC framework,  Ryan N was to work on the CSS and jQuery, Joe was to work on the data model and database, while Russ helped work on the view pages.   

One of the biggest strategical flaws that I helped push was to use a few technologies that every team member wasn't familiar with, specifically ColdFusion ORM and FW/1.  While I felt that these technologies are extremely simply to use and learn, 8 hours just isn't enough to teach 3 people to use them and be productive myself. 

By the end of the day we had written a lot of code, however our application was quite disjointed and wasn't quite what we had envisioned for the application.   Even though I wasn't completely thrilled with our final product I can say that I had so much fun at this event that it didn't matter.  I also learned a lot of things that I'll put in practice at the next event because I definitely plan on doing this again.  After a little reflection this is what I learned for the next hack-a-thon:

Have all software installed before the event.
First and foremost make sure that every team member has all the software needed before the event, time is of the utmost importance and you don't want to waste it downloading and installing software.  

Don't be over ambitions with your application.
Just as important as being prepared make sure that you have an idea in mind that can be executed in such a short time frame.  The application you develop for an event like this should be extremely simple, I'd say no more than 2-3 screens max with an equally simple data model.  

While we felt that the application was simple enough before hand, we quickly realized that this application would need 4 or 5 distinct areas, each with its own set of screens and database tables.  This is far too many when you are trying to deliver a complete application in less than 8 hours.

A hack-a-thon is not a time to teach and learn new technologies
While my goal going into this even was to show people how great ColdFusion, ORM, and FW/1 were there just isn't enough time to teach, learn, and execute.  While I did succeed in wowing my team members with the capabilities of ORM and FW/1 too much valuable time was spent teaching and learning when we needed to be executing. 

Break free of your "enterprise" or "corporate" practices. 
When I first sat down to start coding I envisioned writing the elegant API with a very clean and nice separation of concerns in the MVC layer. I think at one point I even was going to thrown in a unit test or two???  What was I thinking??  This is a HACK-a-thon, hack the thing together and make the code pretty later.  Heck it ended up a mess anyway, I might as well have just started out throwing code together saved the time putting together a nice folder structure and object structure.  Since there is no shame in my game if you want to see what we pumped out in 8 hours the code is all up at github here:

While I wish our team could have represented ColdFusion a bit better I came away learning some valuable lessons that I will apply in the next event.  On top of all of that I also got a $10 iTunes gift card, the Xbox 360 game "Allen Wake", and a "Make Web not War" t-shirt.  All-in-all not too shabby for a Saturday.  I can't wait for the next one!
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