Innovation: Software developer- focused hackathon
One by one, the presenters got up in front of the crowd gathered in the Ward4 space in Milwaukee. They discussed what they accomplished during the day; some worked on their own versions of chess, others on software development tools, others on projects related to their day jobs.
More than 90 people showed up on a recent Saturday for the latest Hack & Tell, an event aimed at helping to increase the level of comfort between Milwaukee’s software developers and the city’s startups.
The event is produced quarterly by RokkinCat, a Milwaukee startup that serves as a technology partner for businesses, and the focus of Hack & Tell is on spending the day building something, not on whether there is a business model behind the idea.
Nick Gartmann, one of the company’s founding partners, said he’d gone to other hackathon events where the focus was on a particular technology or on the business plan. The result was often an event at which there were 60 to 70 entrepreneurs, a few designers and maybe 10 to 15 programmers.
“It made it very difficult for anybody to build a product or a prototype,” he said.
The typical ratio of entrepreneurs to software developers also made programmers more hesitant to come to similar events in the future.
“Showing up and getting swarmed by 60 entrepreneurs who were looking for a developer was kind of intimidating,” Gartmann said.
RokkinCat has been running Hack & Tells over the past two years with a focus on people building things. Participants own the intellectual property for anything they build, there are no restrictions on what the project involves and the prizes at the end of the day are mostly low-value items.
Gartmann said the last two years have been about building trust for the event within the developer community. Starting with the first event this year, the company sought to add more sponsors and has brought on a number of them, including Wantable, gener8tor, Bright Cellars, Ward4 and GitHub.
The goal is also to make the events a better place for software developers and startups to interact, Gartmann said.
“There’s a stigma in the Midwest about working for a startup,” said Gartmann, noting that most developers are more interested in working at a larger company and startups have to compete with the job benefits those bigger companies can offer.
The idea is for Hack & Tell to be a place where people can meet and work on what interests them. An attendee once built a web store for his wife’s jewelry business. Others have come to learn to code, taking advantage of the chance to ask programmers for advice. People have done video animations, written songs, worked on screenplays and even quilted. Some people continue to work on the same projects each time, allowing attendees to see their growth.
Casey Sobrilsky, IT director at Wantable, attended his first Hack & Tell in January and said he was somewhat surprised by the number of non-technology projects.
He came to the event with a specific purpose – working on an application to help Wantable track packages. It worked well for him because it helped create an eight-hour window in which he could sit down and code.
“I like that it doesn’t have to be like that,” he said, referring to Hack & Tell’s open-ended approach to projects; people can come to learn something new or improve.
He also said it was a benefit for Wantable that he could stand up in front of a room full of software developers and tell them about what the company does.
“We have a really hard time finding developers because we’re using platforms that aren’t super common to the area,” he said.
Sobrilsky brought most of his team from Wantable and they came away with some new ideas of how to address challenges.
January’s event was the best-attended Hack & Tell to date. Gartmann said more than 120 people signed up for the event, blowing away the previous high of 88.
The hope is to continue using the events to build comfort, collaboration and community among Milwaukee software developers. Gartmann said the team that started RokkinCat has a very entrepreneurial focus and Hack & Tell is one way of contributing to the city’s startup scene.
“From our perspective, there’s just not enough people starting things to have a healthy ecosystem,” Gartmann said.