It’s 2:30am as I write this. And in a Jerry Maguire moment, I am compelled to get these thoughts out of my brain and into words. I like to think of my thoughts as a recipe and every once in a while, you throw in the right ingredients and come up with something that is delicious. I don’t know if this is one of those times, but I needed to get this out so that my brain would stop taunting me this evening.
Ingredient 1: Hackathon
To me, as a developer, the point of a hackathon has been to set aside time to practice skills you wouldn’t do in your day-to-day job and to socialize/be inspired by other talented people. My first introduction to the Baltimore Tech community was the Baltimore Hackathon in November of 2010. It was awesome! There were so many talented people there, and not just software developers. There were some hardcore electronics guys there from the Baltimore Node that were inspiring to me too. It was also the first time I saw the awesome-ness of a 3D printer (which I promptly put on my Christmas list but have yet to be good enough to receive). I chose to work on an augmented reality app that weekend. I just didn’t have a need for this in my day-to-day apps but I wanted to learn about it so this was a great chance to do just that. The awards were for Best Hardware/Software Prototype. This was an awesome event. I am hoping that the powers-to-be hear my cries and resurrect this event.
Ingredient 2: Start Up Weekend
I attended my first StartUp weekend in Philly last year. I wasn’t going because I wanted to found a new company or pitch some great idea. I went to hang out with my buddies Ray and Vicki and to practice my iOS app development skills by lending a hand to someone else’s project. Then at the end of the weekend, right before presentations, came this knot in my stomach as people started asking, “How are you going to make money?” Followed by, “What is your plan to continue this after this weekend?” I remember the side conversations that went on among some of the developers as they summoned up the courage to tell their project leaders that they were done after this weekend. They had no intentions of carrying on the project once the weekend was over. From this experience, I learned that I really had no desire to attend another StartUp weekend. It just wasn’t for me. I felt like I had lead my project leader on because I never had any intention of carrying on the project after the weekend. It was like these project leaders were stuck being in the friend zone with me. They wanted it to be more but I had no intentions of making it anything more than platonic.
Ingredient 3: EducationHack Day
In November 2011, the wife and I participated in the first Baltimore Education Hack day. We had a lot of fun working on our ideas and meeting people. But there was something that made me uncomfortable. I loved the idea of the event, I loved the people running it, I loved the people participating. What I dreaded, in fact almost loathed, was the presentation part. Not because I don’t like presenting (quite the opposite, I love performing for people) but rather one of the goals of the presentations was to entice investors in your product/project. This is where things get uncomfortable for me. There were people walking around the room asking the different teams about their projects and one question that kept coming up was, “How are you going to make money?” And all of a sudden, I started having flashbacks to Start Up weekend.
Ingredient 4: StartUp Weekend vs. Hackathon
Based on my experiences with the three events above, I learned to differentiate a hackathon from a StartUp weekend and which one I favor. As I said, a hackathon is an opportunity for creators (for lack of a better term) to work on projects that are new to them or practice skills they want to focus on.
A Start Up weekend, is for people who want to be entrepreneurs, who want to start a company (duh, it’s in the name). That’s not me. I’m 32 years old and I have a job that I love and provides with me a very comfortable living. If I was in college still, oh man I would be loving these events and jumping at the chance to be on the next Instagram or Draw Something. But I guess I’m at a different comfort level and set in my ways where I’m not willing to take those risks just yet. I own my own company, yes (and so does my wife) but I also have a safe day job that pays the bills (and college loans, ugh!). I am extremely fortunate in that I love my day job and I love my extra-curricular jobs.
Ingredient 5: The Measure(s) of Success
The whole point of the “How are you going to make money?” question is to ensure that you’ve taken sustainability into consideration for your project. I think many critics of hackathons and Start Up weekends, point to the “success rate” of these events by measuring how many of the projects still exist after the event or are actively being developed on. I’ve heard numbers tossed around such as “only 10% of these projects ever become some thing.” I don’t’ think this is a good measurement of the success of these events. For one, I have not produced a single award winning project at any of these events. But my intent has never been to “win”. My intent has been to learn new things, meet new people. And in that way, every one of the above events has been a win to me. Because of the first Hackathon, I am now an active member in the Baltimore Tech Community and a huge champion of it. Even at the StartUp weekend, I learned that I don’t want to do Start Up Weekends so it’s a success in my book. And because of the Education Hack day, I know Andrew Coy and Jess Gartner who are real life inspirations to me. I see the challenges that they are dealing with and it makes me want to help them in any way possible.
Ingredient 6: Kevin Smith
Okay, how does the director of Clerks fit into all of this? I recently read Kevin’s book, “Tough Sh*t: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good“. Ok, read is a strong word, I listened to it on my road trip to New York (which was perfectly suited since he’s a Jersey boy and I spent a good bit of time on the Jersey Turnpike). I learned that Kevin and I have way more in common than I ever thought. First is the obvious physical characteristics, we are both fat. I both laughed and cringed as Kevin told the story of Southwest Airlines telling him he was too fat to fly on their plane (not true by the way; we can both fit a single airline seat and pull down the arm rests). I related to him telling of how he is fat, but not so fat that he can’t put the arm rests down on the seats (it’s a big distinction to us huskies). I’m also extremely lazy. I used to sub-contract cutting my parents grass in high school (maybe sooner) because I hated/loathed manual labor. To me, manual labor was just less time I could spend in front of a screen or keyboard. To this day, I moved into a condo because I didn’t want to cut grass or shovel sidewalks, it’s that bad. But Kevin’s Dad also worked in the post office, like my own. A job that his father hated for all its bureaucracy and physical demands, but still pushed on to provide for his family.
Ingredient 7: My Dad
My Dad is one of my heroes and it took me a long time to realize that. We seemed so different and we butted heads a lot (like when the grass was long and I was still sitting in front of a computer screen). Then one day, I realized how much he is sacrificing so that I can have a life better than he had. He worked so I could go to college, he worked so I could have a computer at age 7, he worked so I could have a laptop in high school (that’s a big deal if you were going to high school in 94-98 like me). But not only did my Dad work, he WORKED! My Dad had a walking route most of the time and in the city, that was brutal because it wasn’t flat suburbia, it was steps, and lots of them. Then you add in the weather. I live in Baltimore, we have all four seasons (well except we didn’t have winter this year). My Dad walked in snow, rain, heat, humidity. I can remember him having a line of boots in the winter that he had to wear because they wouldn’t dry out by the next day, so he had a dry pair in reserve. The man had to get stitches because a dog bit him, and that’s the one that actually got him, I’m not talking about all the ones that he was able to out-maneuver by jumping a porch railing or exiting a gate. The walking alone is enough to make this fatty cringe but then my Dad would show up to almost all of my wrestling matches in high school. Sometimes in his sweaty mail man uniform because he didn’t have time to go home first. Then the man would take me to Boy Scouts once a week, and weekend trips once a month when he could get off (even when he couldn’t get off, he would drive up Saturday after work just to spend one night with me). So what does this have to do with Kevin Smith? Kevin put into words what I had been feeling my entire life watching my Dad struggle, that was not the life I wanted to live. I wanted to enjoy my job and enjoy what came after I stopped working for the day.
Bake for 32 Years
What do all these ingredients result in? Another nod to Kevin Smith on this one. At the end of his book, he’s summarizing his career and what he wants to do next. He gives a node to Wayne Gretzky. Now I’m not a sports fan, in fact, I pretty much loathe sports. Not because I’m lazy (well partially) but because I think too much emphasis is put on athletics and not enough on education. Families would rather sit around and talk about the Sunday football game and the draft than talk about scientific discoveries or the retiring of the Space Shuttle. When someone starts talking about football this or baseball that, I pretty much put in my mental headphones, click my heels there times and wish to be anywhere but there. I just can’t help but think if they put the effort they spend in memorizing facts or analyzing fantasy teams into something actually productive, we might all be a little better off. Anyway, I digress…
As for sports, I like hockey, lacrosse and wrestling/MMA (collegiate not WWE, although I was a fan of WWE in college and below). I don’t memorize stats, hell half the time I don’t even know when games are, but on occasion I like to watch them (about as often as I enjoy a salad). Anyway, Kevin Smith, yeah that guy again. He summarizes in his book about Wayne Gretzky, The Great One. So Kevin talks about Wayne’s amazing scoring abilities, but what he draws attention to most, is Wayne’s even more amazing assists record. Even though Wayne was great at scoring, he was even better at helping other people score.
The Great One
Where does this all leave me? And how does it all tie together? I don’t need to score goals, I’m already ahead. Now I want to help other people score. I want to rack up assists. I want to connect people so they can achieve their goals, I want to provide entrepreneurs with contacts to the developers that can make it happen. There needs to be a place for people like me at events like StartUp weekend and EducationHack day. I don’t want to carry a solution to the goal, I want to help you skate down the ice, pass it to you and let you shoot it in. Gawd I hate sports analogies. What I’m trying to say is, I want to be involved in your “entrepreneurial” events, but I don’t want to start my own business there or even maintain the product after I leave. I want to get you jumpstarted and have you take over.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read)
Entrepreneurs: if you want developers to build/maintain your product, you need to look at young talent, groom them and provide them with opportunity. You most likely are not going to get a seasoned developer to start eating ramen again so you can build your product. You need to look at younger talent that has less financial responsibility (be it family, house, or car).
Hackathon Organizers: Hackathons are great opportunities to get new talent involved. Reach out to colleges and professors to get their students involved in these events. This is a great opportunity for seasoned creators to mentor and inspire new creators and to deepen the talent pool. We need more of these!
StartUp Weekend Organizers: If you want designers and developers at your events, you need to reach out to Hackathons and support them getting talent interested in local events. They should be your feeder event.
Other Event Organizers: It can’t just be about starting new businesses at your events, otherwise there is no motivation for happily-employed and experienced creators to show up. I want to be there to support the community but I don’t want to start a business. What is my role? How can I help? Where do I pass the puck?
It’s 4am as I complete this and who knows if anything above made any sense but at least now I can, hopefully, go to sleep. Thank you Kevin Smith for putting into words what I had been feeling for all these years. Thank you Dad for being my inspiration even if I didn’t realize it. And of course, thank you Steph for always being my sounding board and being with me on the crazy adventure we call life.