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Getting The Most Out Of A Hackathon

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The Basics:  A hackathon goes by many names – hack day, hackfest or codefest. Essentially, a hackathon is a design, build and demo sprint-like event where you get random people to team up and collaborate intensely, usually for 24 to 72 hours. The skills required are typically in software development, graphics or human centered design; user interface and user experience design, project managers, and domain or subject matter experts.

The organizer will provide some challenges, and the participants will form teams and try to come up with their best ideas/solutions. Eventually, the team(s) who presented the best ideas/solutions will get to win some cool prizes. Prizes can be cash or some gadgets.

Here are some thoughts about how to make the most of your participation in a Hackathon.

Ideate – It’s important! You should be prepared to spend time brainstorming… first defining what you’ll be building. Start with the kind of challenges or problems presented by the organizers. Social or support forums are also a great source of insights into what people are frustrated with, their problems, and what they’re asking for. This way you can be certain that you’ll be developing a solution that provides value and solves a problem.

Do not take on an idea because it sounded the most impressive or tech savvy. Think about the kind of impact your work will have on users. Take time to make sure that your idea is impactful and this should save you time down the line when you need to put all the features together.

Sometimes the idea falls into your lap in a flash, and other times it takes some digging to lock onto a great idea. The hackathon will teach you how to be patient under pressure. Keep in mind that at some point (ideally before the end of the first day), you definitely need to start building.

The All Conquering Team – To win the hackathon, you have to have a dream team. Usually the first thing to do when you get to a hackathon is to scout the registration form to get a sense of who else (and what skill set) is around. Often your team will be random people. Your goal is to locate people for these 3 key roles and ask them to join your team (would be great if you yourself are one of these 3 as well):

  • The Dev/Coder — this is someone with front-end development experience. mobile development is even better. If your team doesn’t have a single person who can code, it’s time to find one.
  • The Presenter/Pitch maker — this is someone who will sell your idea to the judges. You need a good mix of confidence and empathetic charisma. If your team can’t sell, it won’t matter how great the idea is.
  • The Designer — this person understands Human Centered Design – they know how to start with people, and then add technology to the problem. It would be great if they are good with user interface and user experience design. This role is a strong recommendation.

A hackathon is very short. Time flies when you are having fun, 4-5 people are trying to break the ice, pitch ideas, win over team-mates, and still get working. This is the time to communicate openly about what you think (and know) is incredibly helpful. If you have a question, ask for clarification. If you think of a better way to solve a problem, tell your teammates. Don’t hope that someone will see it the way you see it. Make sure that everyone is on the same page – this will save you time down the line.

An important part of finding a good team is determining to be a great team member. Hackathons are high stress, so you want to make sure you can rely on your teammates and they want to feel the same way about you. There is no time to worry about how or whether you will get along with a teammate. Going into a hackathon with people you have worked with before can save you the mental stress and energy of figuring things out during the hackathon, but you won’t always have this opportunity.

Figure The Heart and Soul – Figure out what your hackathon host and sponsor are looking for. Some hackathons will be more impact driven while others may be more technology focused. Knowing the focus of the organizers will help you decide how to narrow down your project idea. If they have organized previous editions of the hackathon, research the winning ideas. See what ideas were accepted to participate. Researching each judge’s background before the pitch can also make a difference on how well you do in the competition. Without a direction, you won’t be able to get to where you want to go.

During the event, make time to talk to the organizers and sponsors – figure out if there are products you will have access to which may help you overcome roadblocks. Talk to them about the idea you are building and the problem it solves, as well as your approach. The advice you will get ranges from which pathways to not tackle, or how you can do it more efficiently, which will save you lots of time.

If you are a developer/coder prepare by reading all about the APIs you are expected to work with and researching libraries you can use. This way, on the actual day you can focus solely on building your prototype and every team member will be on the same page.

Also, leverage the opportunity to network and find out about what other features or even different integrations their customers are asking for. You might just get your next great product idea from them! Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for advice.

Learn, Unlearn and Re Learn
Get prepared – there’s going to be a lot of learning that happens in such a short time. I have been to a few and it’s clear that even in such a short time you can learn anything if you really want to. You will likely encounter tools you have never used, get insights into domains other than yours. A hackathon is a great place to learn how to learn. Although winning is nice, learning and appreciating the unique experience that a hackathon offers is something I’ve always enjoyed.

Probably the most important life lesson you will get at a hackathon is how to fail fast, and fail often. You will face some uncomfortable moments such as you are not the only expert in the room, but if you learn to deal with simple and small failures, you will muster the power of persistence, endurance and teamwork. Most importantly, that it’s okay to fail. Every failure will lead to a new insight about yourself and the world. Challenge yourself, and apply for hackathons for areas you know nothing about. You will walk away with newfound knowledge.

Coding – How Deep Should You Prototype?
So you have this cool idea – doing many awesome things – the tricky part is stripping it down to its core and focusing on building only what’s essential to deliver it’s value proposition. After all, you have to make it real. It’s time for the coder and designer in your team to start shining – by building a Proof-Of-Concept (POC). We are not looking for a bug-free solution, infact, you can even have zero functionality. Your audience wants to see, so visualize the solution, help them understand how your idea works. Try to make it look really good. Judges can easily be impressed when they see your team coming up with such a beautifully designed product in a short time.

A good technique is mapping the entire user flow you have in mind. This activity is best done along the product, design, and the dev team so everybody brings their perspective to the conversation. Techniques like Story Mapping should get you started.

After mapping, review the flow with the dev team and make them estimate how much it would take to accomplish that. If it requires more time than the hackathon allows, you’ll have to prioritize features and build only those essential to the core value of the product. If you can, work on everything that’s not code beforehand. It is of top priority that you define the specs of what will be built and that the design team gets mocks ready.

The Pitch – Your 3 Minutes Of Fame.
Your presenter needs to prepare for the presentation. Do not wait till the end to put this together, start working on it while the POC is being built. If the presenter is also the coder, prioritize the POC and then get to the presentation. You will need about 2~3 hours preparing for the presentation. 6 slides, 5 bullets on each. The slides are complimenting your own charm and charisma as you interest the audience enough to buy your idea. There’s no hard and fast rule on slide content, but generally make sure you get this across:

  • The problem statement — Prepare a few slides telling people about the background of the problem that you are trying to solve. Remember we are trying to solve a problem using technology.
  • Demo — People get bored easily. After telling people what the problem is, straight away tell them how you are going to solve it. Quickly show them your demo and WOW them. (Please make sure your demo works!)
  • Compare — Do a comparison. Is there already an existing solution to the problem, if there is, how is your idea better?
  • Hidden Slides — Always prepare some hidden slides that discuss potential future enhancements of the idea, business model, and what are some difficulties you faced during the hackathon. These can be useful during the Q&A.

The presentation is the only chance where you can sell your idea to the judges, the only time you can tell them: “my(give) idea(me) is(the) brilliant(prize)!”.

And Finally…
The most meaningful hackathons and experiences revolve around the people you meet, and not just what you build together. Your teammates can turn into future coworkers, collaborators, and friends. You get to know someone very quickly when you have to problem solve together in a compressed time and place – think of it as the perfect relationship icebreaker!

Hackathons are not just pizza, soda and free high speed wi-fi all day (and night) long – they are intense! You will not do much good for your team if you are not in a better shape physically and mentally. You’ll have a much happier and more productive experience if you take care of yourself along the way. Drink water. Take care of potential distractions like small errands – get up and walk down a flight of stairs – do whatever you need to make your hackathon a fun and happy experience, whether that means going home to sleep or taking breaks to get some air and some salad.

Prepare for the prize. Of course it’s not guaranteed, but if you work diligently, and follow the guidance above, most likely you will win something. Plan for what to do with tricky prizes like mentorship and incubation – which might require you to set up a business entity. Decide if a cash prize will go to developing the idea further or not.

Not all hackathons are the same, but when it comes to experiences preparation and good team communication will get you through. Many teams think the best outcome of a hackathon is winning the prize, but the better goal is to build the prototype of a product for which there is a proven market need.

Good luck in your next hackathon!

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Raising Andela’s Pocket Change

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How do you fix a thing that isnt broken?

John Doe was terrific at Java. John left the university, worked for a software company here, and even found time to lecture at the University. A USAID project came looking and John was the natural fit – top and exceptional Java talent to run a mega IT project. Soon, the project came to a wrap. John – now accustomed to an 8-figure salary and great perks couldn’t get rehired by regular companies. John couldn’t find gigs small enough to sustain his life. Also, there weren’t many Java projects in town – the tech stacks were fast and fluid, the specialist left feeling jurrassic! After a while, John landed an opportunity – but he had to relocate abroad. His skill, though precious and top-notch, is now fit only in specific markets, for people who are ready to pay 8 figures (I know, wait, I mean Ugx). You could say, John is not a fit for this Ugandan “ecosystem” anymore.

Andela is currently being vilified for what smaller software companies are now calling “a drain of the ecosystem” – of all the top developer talent. Junior developers are not spared, they even run a teen-code club (by the way its an excellent free program!). What happens to this talent? The simple version – Get in, get a mac, get trained, and for 4 years develop, as part of a team, world class software, for a global market! Surely what’s evil about this?

Until you start to see the net (and unintended) effects on the ecosystem. Andela requires that developers work in teams, on solutions that are not born of your neighborhood, for a client that stays in a city you only see in the movies. You get a world class education in software development techniques and a great office to work in (Kampala, Kigali, Lagos, Nairobi, New York, Austin, San Fransisco with HQ on the Internet!). Moreover, soon enough, you start earning a really great 7 figure salary. For some of our impressionable young people, its hard to look back. The problems you solve for clients in the global market are so big.  Its like tasting the fruit of the garden… Your eyes are opened, you are wiser, so much more – and now, your peers are in Mumbai, San Francisco, Barcelona and Toronto!

Again – you have to ask, what is wrong with all this?

Andela believes that while brilliance is evenly distributed, opportunity is not. Their mission is to make available opportunities to brilliant talent on the African continent. (Strong Applause Here).

Here’s what I think Andela should consider, in repairing the unintended consequences of its brilliantly executed model:

1 – Reconsider hiring talent straight from the University – because such impressionable kids will loose an opportunity to exercise their skill locally, before it becomes available globally. Moreover on the back of holistic development, Andela would benefit from hiring great software development talent that has actually experienced industry – Education, Agriculture, Health, Finance etc.

2 – Ask your Devs to Develop Others – as part of their full-time contract. We already know that training others supports mastery of any skill. Holding 2-3 mandatory community training sessions by 15 senior devs will create a give-back attitude, strengthen mentor-coach skills and add to the soft skills needed to produce a great Andelan. Just their tee and mac is sufficient branding. Moreover, the social capital one gains from that tends to be invaluable a few years later. Where its happening, take the ALC away from the building.

3 – Give Devs back to the industry – without turning your own lights off. Andela is perfectly positioned to support devs – in partnership with carefully selected local non-profit partners – to work on local technology solutions. This partnership model would be available to companies below a certain budget threshold. Carefully managed, this model has every opportunity to use local problems as the sandbox for training and development – a much added value.

4 – Some people are not cut out for working away from home – or relocation, or working in 4 time-zones. Some people are  perfectly fit for the local market. Andela can create a pricing model that makes such talent available for the local recruitment needs. Yes, they wont be paid top dollar relative to their colleagues, but that’s the opportunity cost of choosing to enjoy all 12 hours of the equatorial sun! And there’s nothing wrong with that.

This morning when I went over to the Andela breakfast, it was to honor an invitation to hear President and Co-founder Christina Sass. I enjoyed listening to her passion, but mostly to her compassion. I agree, we needn’t attach intention where there is none. Andela is not evil, and no they are not snatching the top 1%. Andela have a model, that works. Kampala has talent, that’s brilliant. The world has opportunities, ready to be filled.

Let’s not fail to feed the very ecosystem on which this model thrives.

 

2 Commencement Speeches I liked

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Glossophobia is still the world’s #1 fear, yet we have people who seem to have been born with a golden mic in their mouths. They wow us all the time. One of the best seasons to feed on the genius that oratory can be in the commencement speech cycle. They come once a year can carry platitudes and/or conjecture, but often they are delivered by people from all walks of life to inspire and challenge that next generation of leaders. Here are 2 that I took time to dive into…

Mark Zuckerberg – As a young man growing up and working in Africa’s nascent technology space, this man, perhaps together with Google, have had the biggest influence on my generation. I love that he is coming into Africa to see how far a dollar really goes.

“Change starts local. Even global changes start small — with people like us. In our generation, the struggle of whether we connect more, whether we achieve our biggest opportunities, comes down to this — your ability to build communities and create a world where every single person has a sense of purpose.”

My work is in Leadership development, and for me these words cannot ring any truer. If you have heard me say it once, you have heard me say it again, I love computers and all the magic but I love people more. If we can give people a sense of purpose, build a community around service, we cannot get it wrong.

 “Ideas don’t come out fully formed. They only become clear as you work on them. You just have to get started. If I had to understand everything about connecting people before I began, I never would have started Facebook.”

In his book, Never Eat Alone, Keith Ferrazzi writes – Be brave enough to put it all out there, stuff that worked and stuff that didn’t, with your insights on why and how to fix it for next time.

Zuckerberg is famous for dropping out of Havard, but that is not his most proud failure – its facemash, a prank site he put up which drew attention of the ad board. As he awaited his fate, he met Priscilla and as he says, “ But without Facemash I wouldn’t have met Priscilla, and she’s the most important person in my life, so you could say it was the most important thing I built in my time here.”

Oh how we need to teach the virtue of failing smart.

 “I hope you find the courage to make your life a blessing.”

You can read (or watch) Mr. Zuckerberg’s full speech.

 

Donald J. Trump – Quite frankly, as a non-citizen global health advocate working in the expensive bubble that New York is, I happen to share a home city with the man many of my ilk have come to hate. But he is still the leader of the free world, so we got to listen.

“Adversity makes you stronger.  Don’t give in.  Don’t back down.  And never stop doing what you know is right.  Nothing worth doing ever, ever, ever came easy.  And the more righteous you are, the more opposition that you will face. “

…this after the rhetoric on how the media has treated him and his political sojourn thus far.  That’s not how the speech begins, though; he dishes out quite many thankful remarks to leaders, and graduates alike. He also pardoned cadets for minor offences and offered them a clean slate. I wish that life and the rest of us did this for our young people – that at the turn of important milestones is NOT the only opportunity to turn a new page, and a clean slate, but that you have that opportunity daily. Yes, every time the sun comes up, it’s a new slate, a new chance to make it better.

“Just days from now, you will put this vital skill into the service of your ships, your sectors, and your country.  You’ll serve as deck watch officers on our amazing Coast Guard cutters. You’ll bring law and order to the dangerous waters as boating officers.  You will block illegal shipments of cash, weapons and drugs.  You will battle the scourge of human trafficking — something that people are not talking about, one of the big, big plagues of the world.  Not our country only — the world. 

The call to service continues to ring out, as if a call to this generation. I could not agree more. Service is the new way to work; service is the new entry to employment.

Americans will place their trust in your leadership, just as they have trusted in generations of Coast Guard men and women, with respect for your skill, with awe at your courage, and with the knowledge that you will always be ready.  You are Always Ready.    

For a man under so much fire, this speech came off as very composed. Perhaps thoughtful of his first world trip, and realizing the opportunity to speak a less combative audience, Mr Trump did make some strong remarks which are clearly of a bigger vision than his own political lifeline.

You can read the full speech text.

You can catch up on extra snippets as captured by Business Insider and Fast Company

KCCA, Stop the Sugar Coated Incompetence

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Thanks to @jameswire for this piece – I absolutely agree.

A visit to the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) Website led me to read about the Directorate of Physical Planning and I saw these opening lines, “To plan the development of the functional urba…

Source: KCCA, Stop the Sugar Coated Incompetence

Humanity’s Public Library

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At Outernet256, we believe that free access to information is a human right. The Internet has dramatically enhanced our ability to exercise this right, but unfortunately most humans cannot access the Internet. Today, over 4.3 billion people cannot connect to the Internet at all and another roughly 1 billion people have their Internet connections censored or monitored. A world where only 20% of humans have truly free access to digital information is unacceptable. That is why we support the creation of Humanity’s Public Library, an initiative by Outernet.

Outernet broadcasts a data signal from satellites that is free to receive anywhere on Earth. While this is not an Internet connection, it is a free stream of critical information. What information is considered “critical?” You decide.

Outernet256 and Creative Commons Uganda are co-hosting the first edit-a-thon for Humanity’s Public Library on July 18-19 2015, at Victoria University, alongside #MozFestEA to decide what is included in this library. Anyone on Earth is encouraged to participate – details on how to have your voice heard in this process can be found at http://editathon.outernet.is. We want to encourage our users to submit their own work and to submit content from Outernet256 that is licensed for redistribution. One such work is this very blog post. Copy these words and post them on your own blog and let’s all gather together and build a #LibraryFromSpace.

This blog post is licensed under CC0 and is free to be distributed and edited without restriction.

Becky Nampijja and 308 Others

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This week, the Ugandan community is awash with news of the demise of Becky Nampijja, a recent graduate and a beneficiary of the Watoto Child Care Ministries.

Becky was raised up as one of the thousands of orphaned, abandoned and vulnerable children that have characterised the Ugandan social scene in part due to the scourge of HIV and AIDS reaping their parents or the burden of social responsibility being too much for unemployed parents.

In a unique model of a foster community, off Mityana Road, Watoto Child Care Ministries places 8 such children in a home with a mother and there, their lives being to take shape as they should have been had they stayed in a proper home. They get brand new brothers and sisters, and learn to accept new mothers with whom they share life. They go to school, have a medicare facility and a community centre where they meet on the weekends for events and church services.

Becky, would have, earlier on, travelled on the famous Watoto Children’s Choir where she would have sang and danced to share the gospel, and tell of the story of her rescue and transformation; and help to raise funds so that more children like her can be rescued. In the course of her life, true to the african adage, Becky would have been raised by a Village!

That village would include sponsors, from 6 countries where Watoto Choir has been, that village would include me and you, who for a paltry UGX 70,000 every month, provide the resources that Watoto Child Care Ministries needs to put children like Becky through an education all the way to the University.

In January 2015, a little orphaned and abandoned gal had grown and transformed into a beautiful young leader, armed with an education and the best possible upbringing – Becky graduated with an Economics degree. She bit so many odds to get to this point, and she already had a job, a rare and priceless acquisition in a country with nearly 83% graduate unemployment.

There are 4000 such children in the Watoto Children’s Homes and thousands more in the other foster homes scattered allover the country. In those homes, there are children who look up to their big sisters (read: Becky) and mothers who pride in sons and daughters who have lived to beat the curse of a fatherless generation.

To have  to live with the death of Becky Nampijja in such a senseless spectacle is a heart wrenching matter – Becky is the very future of this country and before we have to reap the reward of years of hard work in rescuing and raising her to rebuild her nation, Becky is taken away from us.

My heart weeps, and the pain cannot be verbalised.

On the day of her death, Becky was one of the first of many fatalities for the month of March 2015, recorded at the Central Police Station in Kampala. This station reports 308 deaths due to Boda Boda accidents for the first 60 days of this year – that is 15 lives every single day.

If Alshabaab was killing 20 lives every month, there would be a supplementary budget for military acquisitions to the tune of many billions of shillings. Yet we sit idly by as Boda Bodas kill 15 people daily.

We had Operation Wembley when armed thugs began to kill and rob, at the height of it, no more than 30 people were killed in a month – but today we sit idly by as Boda Bodas kill 15 people daily.

Uganda, how many young people are we prepared to lose before Boda Bodas become a terror in our lives? How many excuses and reasons are we going to give before we consider this a serious threat to the very life of this community?

The strain on the country’s limited health budget is growing. According to a report by Makerere University College of Health Sciences and the department of orthopedics at Mulago, about 40% of trauma cases at the hospital are from boda-boda accidents (pdf). The treatment of injured passengers and pedestrians accounts for almost two-thirds of the hospital’s annual surgery budget.

For the life of Becky Nampijja and 308 other Boda Boda deaths in 2015 alone, I demand that we do something!

In Awe… a firm foundation

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I am in awe of my City’s Executive Director, Jeniffer Semakula Musisi.

Its been 3 years since she’s stepped into office. Kampala has started to feel like a city. There’s a lot of things that have been said, about her style of work and her methods. I listened to her one day, when she pleaded her case before Kampalans – we had forgotten what the difference was, between right and wrong. We had lived for so long in a dysfunctional city, that we had become used to it.

Today, I exchanged emails with the ED, and i learned something new. In her email signature, just below her name was a scripture. So i dug it up –

Ezekiel 36:33-36 New International Version (NIV)

33 “‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: On the day I cleanse you from all your sins, I will resettle your towns, and the ruins will be rebuilt. 34 The desolate land will be cultivated instead of lying desolate in the sight of all who pass through it. 35 They will say, “This land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden; the cities that were lying in ruins, desolate and destroyed, are now fortified and inhabited.” 36 Then the nations around you that remain will know that I the Lord have rebuilt what was destroyed and have replanted what was desolate. I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.’

Yes, its common knowledge that the ED is a bible professing christian, and so you can expect some biblical influences in her life. Uganda is said to be over 60% christian, but when you walk through Kampala, and see how we drive, and where we trash, you have to wonder if any of the biblical influences of stewardship have infiltrated our hearts.

So, this is why am in awe, that my city’s ED is influenced by a passage of scripture that brings hope to a city in ruins like Kampala! Is it the reason she fearlessly goes about her work? Indeed, Kampala is shaping up and is looking more beautiful and inhabited by the day.

The neglected land will be worked again, no longer overgrown with weeds and thistles, worthless in the eyes of passersby. People will exclaim, “Why, this weed patch has been turned into a Garden of Eden! And the ruined cities, smashed into oblivion, are now thriving!” Ezekiel 36:33-36 (The Message Bible)

Thats how the Message Bible puts it.

There is an air of hope and optimism about this city. I dont think its enough for one woman (even at the helm) to be greatly inspired to make this city liveable and thriving, its time for each one of us to ask ourselves – what will your role be in rebuilding this city? You may not be equally inspired by the Bible, but what is it you commit to do in making this city grow and prosper?

Jennifer Semakula Musisi will rally us towards a better city, but the bigger challenge is how many of us (christian or not) will choose to walk with her, as we make this city the best place to raise our children’s children!

I will, what about you?!