Diggz of Tropo and Geeks Without Bounds

Who are you?
Johnny Diggz. Chief Evangelist for Tropo. And a piano player. And GWOB.

What do you think about hackathons?

I’ve been participating in them in one way or another for almost four years. Used to do what is similar to a hackathon back in the early 2000s, but they were much more vendor workshops than what I’d consider a hackathon today. First of the modern day ones was an OpenGov hackathon in August of 2010. The company I work for, Tropo (API) is always looking for different ways to get our API in front of developers, both from a revenue perspective and as instant feedback from new developers looking at our product for the first time, so we sponsor events and offer prizes at hackathons to give developers incentive to try Tropo.  In doing so, we have an opportunity to first-hand watch a developer use our API and documentation from never knowing what we do, to implementing and see the pain points. Good point for us to get feedback. Also fun!

How many have you attended?

What role did you fill at each of those (orga, facilitation, mentor, speaker, etc)
In the last 3 years I’ve participated in over 100 hackathons.
Everything from complete facilitator role – I pick the venue, the food, running the show. Main organizer. Done some where I show up as a sponsor. Give a little pitch about Tropo. Workshop or an intro, stay on hand to assist with developer questions, hand out some tshirts and perhaps a prize (sometimes participating as a judge as well). Or signing up and participating as a developer.

Do you think of the events you hold as hackathons?

If not, what is your event, and what makes it that?
It’s a broad term. Sense that it’s thrown out there for a variety of different types of events. Code sprints, hackathons, codeathons, tinkerstorms. Different varieties of a set of challenges are put in front of developers, and/or a set of tools, challenged to come up with something innovative. Or specific vertical like open data, city data, NASA data (those are tools). Tools as software API vendors. Give a prize to that.  Sometimes they are centered around specific technologies, like a platform such a Drupal or a language like Ruby.

What do you think the purpose of a hackathon is?

For software vendor / service providers and sponsors it’s a marketing exercise. Feedback. I show up to rep, I’m constantly giving feedback to our support team. our engineers. Until you can sit down and go through the pain points through another set of eyes. Things you thought were QA weren’t. “Why would you click that?” Well..
If you’re a developer, it’s great for your network. Get your startup, meet other developers.
If it’s a specific type of hackathon, like social good, there’s potential you’ll develop something that will help improve quality of life or save lives.

What do projects look like for your event?

Common type is a weekend event. 48 +/- hours to develop your idea into something that is demo-able. For the most part, teams struggle to get something that is barely demo-able. You end up with a prototype that may have some features that work. Scramble at end to include as many APIs as possible to garner prizes. Tack on things that may not be a part of the core functionality. Xboxes, drones. There are some devs I see time and time again that I would say are professional hackathon-ers. They go after the prizes. Some companies offer big cash prizes. Full fledged application ready to be used is rare. Requires a team to keep going, unless they came to the ahackathon to further it.

What has happened to projects from the events you’ve been to?

OpenGov hackathon as part of Gnomedex, a team came up from Portland – Aaron and Amber. LoqiMe says you can text into a number and it’ll put your location on a map. Ended up launching a startup off of that. Now been acquired by ESRI. GroupMe came out of a hackathon out of NY. Now in Skype. Smaller things like The Pineapple Project that are generated out of a NASA hackathon initially. Still going on, members of the group come in and out. Each hackathon they add a little functionality to the project.

Industry vs Cause

Just did one in NY that was more of an API focused. SendGrid and Tropo and TokBox. Each has different APIs. Photo API to look up photos by keywords. Our Tropo API is a communications API. TokBox is video communications API. Mashery was there. Bloomberg was there. Challenge in those types of events is, from a developer’s perspective, how many of these can I mash up to build something? Include for prizes, to learn, networking. Prize motivation to get the year’s free GitHub service or whatever the prizes are for that event. Cause-based ones are less prize focused. I spent a weekend improving my city government services. Getting out an app to farmers on what crops to use. Vision impaired people on making websites easier to use. Still have prizes, but motivation is social good.  API vendors are there for these, but less competitive, more cooperative. Use best tool for the job.

What are the attendees of your events like?

What do they get out of the event?
Changed from geographic region to region. Bay area is where I have the most experience. SF Bay. Typically male. 4:1 ratio of male to female. Typically white male. Younger, in their 20s. Don’t get high school students. Older folks have other things in their life. 20 somethings have the weekends free. (I realize I’m stereotyping here, but just giving my personal observations). Different hackathons cater to different groups of people. EveryoneHacks series is focused more on the less served groups that might want to go to hackathons, also newbies. If you’ve never done one before.. the term hackathon has gotten less threatening over recent years, but people immediately think “hackers” and stealing my bank account or identity. When I was in the Phillieans, much for 50/50 genderwise, much younger – high school students. Really depends on where and type of event.  Fairly male dominated type of event. Challenging for organizers to try to attract people who haven’t ever been to one, might be itimidated. Can be brogrammy – I try to avoid those.

Tell me your favorite story from an event.

My experience at the second one we participated with (RHoK) in Seattle in June 2011. Which was one of the larger ones I participated in helping to organize. I really thought that the overall energy and the quality of the hacks.. it’s a social good event, Random Hacks of Kindness.. It was the first time I saw a combination of OpenData and physical hardware (soldering was involved!).  The participants were really energized.  We had people from Microsoft and NASA and local emergency responders, and I felt like it was one of the most positive events I’ve ever participated in.

Do you see yourself as a part of a wider movement?

How do you connect with other folk from that movement?
I do. Every weekend, there are hundreds of these across the globe each weekend. Wasn’t true a few years ago. The concept of social good hackathons has been blowing up. Maybe 2-3 years ago there were maybe 2-3 a year. Now a bunch of companies are jumping on the bandwagon. Which is good. But with too many, you lose.. there’s a potential for burnout for participants because they can’t do them every weekend. But multiple hackathons are happening in the same city, developers leaving one to submit the same app in both hackathons. There’s almost a competition for attendees. Angelhack is arguably the largest ongoing hackathon. Global, they have events nearly every weekend in every city. They’ve taken the whole concept of hackathon and really comercialized it. They have 400 people at their events. Almost too large, I think. Because as a judge (another role I play).. in Berlin, we had to sit through 70 demos. At the end of 3 hours, I didn’t care. Same hack from 3 different people, 3 different teams. Having been a mentor, advisor, etc to large organizations like RHoK and AngelHacks and SpaceApps, EveryoneHacks, these are global events I’ve had strategic input in advising and guiding and participating in.. I’d say yes. There are a few of us who have participated in this for as long as it’s been a movement. I’ll be intereseted to see when this movement started. When I came back into tech in 2010, I know it was going, so know I didn’t start it, but I helped grow it to where it is today. had influence. Not like I’m doing a research project on it. Done public speaking about hackathons at things like SXSW, worked with AT&T, RHoK, etc. Lots of big ones, little ones.

Are hackathons accomplishing something?

One overall purpose that hackathons do achieve is education in technology. One universal thing, whether it’s social good or social enterprise or.. people end up learning more about technology than they knew before. A skill, an API, form a connection, a work connection, not just technology stuff but design.. you get exposed to a wide array of people. When I was a kid growing up, there would be gifted program classes. Me and some other kids would do non traditional school things like play with LEGOs. What I think a good analogy of what a hackathon is. Get people in a room, give them some challenges, some coffee, take a step back and watch what happens. They want to learn, engage, build things. Universal thing hackathons are good at. Whether that’s their intended purpose, that is what is happening.

Anything Else?

Interested in the history. Workshops at conferences in 2000, 2001. The Gnomedex hackathon : I didn’t know what I was doing, and I read a lot of the internet about what they *should* be. The agenda I put together was not too far from what we do today. Maybe I invented the modern day hackathon agenda…I have no idea. Amber and Aaron were doing civic hackathons before then.
Organizations like Code For America. That is less that 4 years old. Geeks Without Bounds.