Back in January 2017, I was assigned a mentor through the SheSaysMcr Mentoring scheme. I was lucky enough to be introduced to the great Clare Sudbery. Meeting Clare has been fantastic for me. Not only for career advice but also the friendship I have gained with someone wise who is always on hand to help me improve my professional and personal skills. I would recommend getting a mentor to anyone!
Now I know what you are thinking “Luce, what has something from January got to do with Hack Manchester?” Well my lovely reader, I shall tell you!
For those that don’t know, Hack Manchester is an annual event that is run as part of the Manchester Science Festival. It happens every Halloween weekend, at the Museum of Science and Industry here in Manchester and is attended by a few hundred people, usually formed into about 60 teams. This post, as the title, suggests, is the story of what happened and why I am thrilled that we came runner up.
This year I decided I was going to attend, as I haven’t been to a hackathon since 2014. My best friend didn’t want to go this time so I decided to attend solo. I attended my first hackathon solo so it was not something I was too worried about.
I had my reasons for wanting to go solo; I didn’t want to be limited to when/if I could go home to wind down and sleep, I didn’t want to be limited to what sort of project I did and I didn’t want to have to feel the pressure of being up to scratch as a programmer among a group of strangers.
However, a few days before the event, Clare contacted me and asked if I wanted to join her team. For the reasons mentioned above, plus knowing how much fun we have pairing together in other projects on the side, I said yes. I was nervous in case there were other team members I didn’t know but Clare knows me well enough to know I am useless after about 9pm so I am best off going home and coming back early anyway.
Between Clare, and my job at BBC using the Kanban style of Agile, I have learned some good techniques for planning work. This led to Clare and I having a meeting before the hackathon to discuss what tools/equipment we would need at the event. We settled on post-its however on the day of the event when I was in town, I ended up purchasing a whiteboard as it was on sale anyway and seemed like a useful tool we could find a place for in our planning.
Now before I go into our adventure at Hack Manchester, I just want to take a moment to recognise the great work of the Hack Manchester team. Why single them out you may be wondering? I am singling them out for a moment of real kindness I experienced before the hackathon started.
I had mentioned in a tweet that I am on the Autistic Spectrum and nervous about all the noise and excitement of the Hackathon. They contacted me directly off their own back (later transpired this message was sent by the amazing Gemma Cameron, Queen Bee of the Manchester Tech scene) and not only mentioned a side room I could use, but generated a sign specifically to point it out so I knew what to look for.
To someone who struggles with the ‘chaos’ of these kinds of events as fun as they are, this kindness really meant a lot to me and put me at ease for what was to come so thank you Gemma and the Hack Manchester Team!
Now, Clare and I are list loving planners so we took our time to discuss our app with the help of lots of post-its and the lovely Katy, who was our user. She had requested we make an app for tracking menopausal symptoms as nothing out there exists yet that quite matched what she was looking for. We felt it important she was involved in the planning and testing phases.
So we had some discussions about what Katy experiences, the impact it has on her life and what kinds of things we would want to put in the app, and form that Menopaws was born!
Our post-it wall at Hack Manchester, complete with Whiteboard just out of view
Our work flow involved using Github for version control, Trello to track our work, post-its and the whiteboard to plan ideas, and regular breaks. We used the Pomodoro concept; 25 minutes work followed by a short break. It allowed us to keep our minds fresh and bodies stretched. We also ensured neither of us skipped a break just because we were in the middle of something.
I went home in the evening as planned and Clare kept working for a few hours. I then returned first and picked up from Clare’s latest commit to version control and had a look at what needed doing from an email she sent me.
Once Clare returned and later Katy, we cracked on with what needed doing. We had a long list of things we wanted in ‘version 1' and not a lot of time to do it before the hack deadline. This is a standard feeling at hackathons. The last minute rush is all part of the fun, honestly!
In the app, we didn’t achieve that much in terms of functionality, for reasons including our ‘looking after ourselves’ first approach and technical issues I will outline later on when I discuss how we made the app. But we had a fantastic time.
A screenshot of the homepage of our 'final' product at the Hackathon
The crisis button implemented on the homepage, as shown above, gave a user the ability to send a text to a loved one or emergency services to request help. Now one of the things we did was set it up to use the Clockwork SMS API for sending messages, to allow us to enter the competition titled “Using SMS to save lives”. Of course using an SMS API on a mobile phone seems silly but sometimes at a hackathon it is just fun to enter a competition.
As part of the hackathon, one of the things we had to do was create a video describing our ‘hack’ which is used as part of the judging for ‘Best in Show’ that everyone is entered into, as well as any competitions we entered. The video is used in conjunction with updates and chats we had with the judges for each competition an attendee entered into. Our rather rushed entry can be found here (so rushed, I had to talk right up until the last second!)
So in the evening there was a fantastic ceremony put together including more free food, drinks and a guy rapping about Doctor Who! The way the various awards worked was that the judges for that category would discuss their criteria again, then the final 3 shortlisted each had their video submissions played on a large screen. The judges then gave their reasons for liking those entries before announcing the winners who came up to receive their prize and have their photo taken.
We only entered the one category as well as the default Best in Show category so when the Clockwork SMS one came up and our video didn’t appear, we breathed a sigh of relief. None of us are particular fans of seeing ourselves on video or a big amount of attention and we knew we hadn’t achieved that much in terms of functionality, even if we did have a great time, to be considered for Best in Show. What then transpired took us completely by surprise!
After getting through the various competitions, some other categories came up for things such as best video submission and then it was time for the main event, Best in Show. The first video that came up was ours, all 3 of us slid down in our chairs and cringed as we saw ourselves being broadcast on a screen that must have been about 100 inches!
Once ours was played, the other team in the running had their video played. As I sat there watching I got quite emotional and tears did actually fill my eyes. I was so shocked that our app had made it onto that list. Not because I doubted our team but because compared to many teams we had achieved so little and as mentioned in previous posts, I lack confidence and regularly get Imposter Syndrome so I was totally shocked to have work I had done considered as part of Best in Show.
It was quite emotional to have my own doubts about myself so contradicted by this achievement. But I was also pleased for my team mates. Clare is fantastic at what she does and Katy came up with the idea so I was pleased that their contributions were recognised. None of it would exist without them.
Now what made me the most proud, and why I am as pleased as I am about coming runners up is the speech the head judge Craig gave because of our app, and the conversations we had with people afterwards. Our team was all female, a mixture of older and younger and was touching on some subjects people sometimes consider taboo such as women in tech, older women in tech and more importantly mental health.
Craig talked about how everyone should be welcome in tech and that mental health is something that should be talked about far more than it is. It helps to talk about it! So I was delighted to see that our app which was made to help those who might need help, made this issue relevant and talked about. We also had various people approaching us after the awards show, both men and women, to tell us how much it meant to them to see these topics get coverage and how they were rooting for us. All rather lovely so thank you to everyone for the kind words and tweets.
I was also pleased to see that our self-care approach was noticed. Yes we didn’t achieve as much as some but we got sleep, regular breaks, were always smiling and considered ‘production’ quality code over too many hacks. I know that sounds contrary to the point of a hackathon but we have every intention of working on this app until it is ready to be made available to those who need it.
We came runners up to some very worthy winners who achieved a staggering amount in the space of the weekend. Clare knows one of the members personally and in fact worked with him at Hack Manchester 2016 so I am even more pleased it was them we came runners up to. I still consider us winners in our own right so bring on 2018!
For those interested, I just wanted to make a quick list to explain from a technical perspective what tools and technology we used to make our app:
- Visual Studio & Visual Studio for Mac, for writing and deploying the code
- Xamarin for the mobile development framework
- Xamarin Forms for the UI and project architecture
- Syncfusion to create a calendar component for logging hot flushes or changes in mood. We had tried using another well known Xamarin Forms component library called Telerik but had issues accessing their repository so our code could get the packages it needed and we faced errors we couldn’t find answers to fast enough considering our time constraints.
- Clockwork SMS for sending text messages
- Xamarin Live Player for testing our code on a device without playing around with deployment times and cables
- Samsung Galaxy S8, Galaxy S6 devices and iPhone 7 simulator for trying the code
- Both Mac and Windows laptops
- Trello for task planning
- Github for version control