Well, I was going to dump something I had previously written (but you had not seen) on you, but events conspired such that I am home earlier tonight than I planned to be, so you get the fresh stuff. Maybe it’ll end up being more like stepping in fresh stuff.
I went out to Stamford this morning, but did it right this time. I got myself out of the apartment by about 6:45, which allowed me to catch an earlier Metro North from Fordham to Stamford. In fact, I had my choice of several trains. The first one looked pretty full as it pulled into the station, and I didn’t relish the thought of standing for the 45 minute ride. It was an express, with only one stop before Stamford, but I wasn’t pressed for time, so I took the second train, a local through Greenwich, then express to Stamford. I decided to eschew the third because if that one was full, I’d have had to wait for the next train, which is the one I’ve caught the last few times I’ve gone. I wanted to be there before class started today, rather than waltzing in 10 or 15 minutes afterwards. Technically, if everything goes right, the fourth train should get me to Synchrony by 9, but that hasn’t happened yet, so I took an earlier one.
It was kind of a good day to go out there, and kind of not. The not part is because the teaching team wouldn’t actually be teaching. Instead, Synchrony was hosting a hackathon for the girls. I’m not going to presume that you know what that is. Here’s a definition stolen from a Google search: “an event, typically lasting several days, in which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming.” Our was a one day event. Hackathons are very popular at colleges and tech companies. They are frequently done as social justice or charity projects, developing apps or websites for causes that can’t afford to pay developers. Sometimes, companies host internal hackathons to stimulate creative thinking within the organization and build networks and teams. It’s a boon to the company because departments in big organization are siloed (not like schools, where that never happens), so developers from one department don’t ever meet those from other departments. Hackathons break through all that by mixing departments for a couple of days. The GWC class at Viacom was invited to watch one where teams came up with new apps around the Sponge Bob theme. I was at the final presentations (which were judged), and saw some games, but also apps like organizers for kids.
Still, before today, I’d never seen an actual hackathon in progress. It is good for the girls to see them, and if possible, to participate. About half of the panelists and guest speakers I’ve seen in the classes have participated in hackathons, and all of them sing their praises. They turn out to be great places to network with other coders and to sharpen your coding skills. Plus, they’re fun – coming together as a team and using everyone’s skills to solve a problem no one was sure could be solved. Combine this with free swag and often free food, and you have a winning combination.
There are two other really important aspects to hackathons, especially for neophyte coders. First, there are many different levels of hackathons in terms of coding skills. There are even events where you don’t need coding skills, so they are easy to get into. Second, there is an ethic of everyone helping each other, even if you are on different teams. It is not unusual for an experienced coder from one team to come over and give new programmers on another team a hand.
As I started out this morning, I had no idea what today’s hackathon was going to be about. It was a one day event, run by three tech volunteers from Synchrony. I quickly discovered that the plan was to work with Amazon’s Alexa voice recognition system. The goal was to to build a new Alexa skill. A skill is to Alexa what an app is to your smartphone – a tool to make it do new things.
First, I must say that the three volunteers did an amazing job with the girls, asking questions to make sure they understood what was happening. If they didn’t, the volunteers carefully explained everything in more basic terms. The teaching team actually had very little to do today – they used the time to try to build Alexa skills on their own.
Each of the three teams had an Amazon Echo Dot, which is a small device which you can ask to do certain things and it does them, kind of like Siri on Apple or Google Now. It won’t mop the floor for you, but it can order something or look up stuff. The girls played with them for a while to get a sense of what they could do. It wasn’t long before “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” was playing. “Alexa, lower the volume.”
After that they buckled down to work, first working to get Alexa to understand new voice commands, then to connect those commands to computer actions. It took longer than expected, and came down to the wire (4pm), but all three teams were able to get theirs going.
Here is a video of me interacting with the final skill one team produced.
VIDEO (it’s taking a while to get in place. Eventually, I am assured, the video will make it to that link)
The girls, though confused early in the day, became really engaged with all this. One girl, toward the end said, “I wanna buy one of these things! They probably do this so they can sell those things.”, the implication being that she wanted to continue to program it. Fortunately, Synchrony had anticipated this level of enthusiasm, and gave each one of the girls their own Echo Dot. They has specifically designed the hackathon so that each girl already had created the developer accounts they needed to pick up the work right where they left off.