[group-organizers] Hack nights?

David Christian david.christian at gmail.com
Sun May 24 06:53:29 CEST 2009

On Sat, May 23, 2009 at 11:34 PM, Catherine Devlin
<catherine.devlin at gmail.com> wrote:
> In our region, the .NET user groups have been very active in
> organizing GiveCamps - hacking weekends to produce software for
> charities - and they tell me that this is a very energizing format,
> something that really draws people in.  I suspect that a series of,
> say, monthly hack nights for a cause would work as well - or better
> (getting the projects to completion in one weekend is apparently the
> hard part).

That format sounds wonderful!  Thanks for letting us know about it!
Yes, I can imagine getting any project to complete in one weekend is
very difficult.

To answer my own question a bit, I've now run a single hack night (not
exactly a wealth of experience but it's a start) and here's what I've

* Three hours is enough to feel like you've accomplished _something_
even if it includes setup time and a break.  It definitely whets the
appetite for more.

* After I wrote the initial email, I spoke to the Portland Python
group via irc - members there recommended pair programming.  Pair
programming was a mixed success.  In general I think it's better than
the alternative, which is someone not being able to find their way and
feeling disconnected from the group.

* Of course one thing to keep in mind are the key details like power
strips - it would suck to realize too late that you don't have a way
to get people power!

* I tried to get people to agree to projects before the meeting, given
that we would only have 3 hours to have and there were a mere 7 of us.
 What I found worked better for that size group was simply to _talk_
about the ideas and then let the actual selection occur as people
showed up.  Having an idea of what was on the table was enough and
acted as a shorthand for actual project selection.

* At the portland hack night (which is actually run by an XP
Programming group if I understand correctly) they actually do things a
little differently.  At the designated starting time, people promote
their particular project and pick a section of the room as their own.
People migrate to the ones they are interested in, and then people are
divided into teams.

* I think there are some XP ideas that map very well to hack nights.
First, it works very well to have a "customer" - someone to resolve
all disputes about what features are necessary.  I hope it's clear how
that might keep programming the focus.  Secondly, that customer
(generally the project proposer) should be prepared with small,
iterable chunks of the project to work on so that work can be doled
out as necessary.

* The size of the hack night you can get is somewhat limited by the
number of experienced programmers you can get.  It could be a very
unsuccessful hack night if you had all people with no experience show
up.  Best is to stack the deck with passionate programmers and then
let the mixture of others to fill in the gaps.  Although I think a
hack night where _all_ the people involved were relatively expert
would also be great.

* In Portland apparently they considered iterations to be in 40 minute
increments; after 40m everyone on a team would get back together and
discuss what they'd done, direction would be reconsidered and people
would be assigned new tasks.  With our small size that wasn't
necessary and would have been a distraction - everyone knew what
everyone else was doing.

* They also mentioned that determine python version, scm tool, etc,
could be an expensive part of the setup, and eat up a considerable
amount of time you'd prefer to be hacking.  Eventually some groups
created startup kits just for hacking.  (They had hack nights for
several months - 2 months they'd do them just on a week night, and
then once a quarter they'd have longer saturday hack days.)

* All in all, I'd say the hack night fulfilled my wishes, which was a
set of time dedicated to a project that was not work related, in an
environment that was setup to encourage focusing on that project, and
that gave me a chance to share the fruits of my (and others) labor.
Their cost is very low, so I highly recommend setting one up, even if
you can only fit 6-8 people.

That's the advice I remember.  I'm hoping to do a much larger hack
night that is django focused over the next few months - I will try to
remember to report back.

NYC Python Organizer

> I'm hoping to go to one to see and model it, but it looks like there
> won't be one near me until July.  You could check at givecamp.org for
> one around you.
> On Thu, Apr 16, 2009 at 12:51 PM, David Christian
> <david.christian at gmail.com> wrote:
>> Hey all,
>> There was some discussion of hack nights when we were at pycon.
>> I'm looking at starting such a thing here in NYC and so I wanted to
>> keep that conversation going.
>> I think the trickiest thing w/ hack nights is how to get things going
>> - do you have one large project, or do you have lots of people doing
>> their own projects?
>> The details of making this work correctly I think are more tricky than
>> they might seem, and it seems like it would be easy for a hack night
>> to either devolve into everyone working on their own thing (I've seen
>> this) or having it die when interest in a particular project dies
>> (I've seen this too!)
>> Any advice would be appreciated!
>> Cheers,
>> Dave
>> NYCPython.org
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> --
> - Catherine
> http://catherinedevlin.blogspot.com/
> *** PyOhio * July 25-26, 2009 * pyohio.org ***

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