Scenes from BarCamp New Orleans (a.k.a. BarCamp NOLA), Part 5


BarCamp NOLA 4 logoHere we are at the fifth and final installment of my series of articles chronicling BarCamp NOLA 4, the New Orleans BarCamp that took place last weekend. If you've missed any of the previous four articles, they're here:

Hack Day


Hack Day initial design meeting.

The Hack Day project was announced the previous day, just after lunch: a directory of New Orleans talent, in the spirit of Portland's PRTLND and Des Moines' Des Mob. A number of people, including Shopify's Edward Ocampo-Gooding and Wufoo's Chris Coyier, discussed the idea that afternoon and concluded that the project could very easily be built using a specific Tumblr theme. By taking this "ready-made" route, more time could be devoted to content, styling and tweaking.

The creative team's room.

The next day, Edward and I went out with some New Orleans-based friends for breakfast (at Elizabeth's, which is worth a visit), so we arrived at Hack Day a couple of hours after it had started. Chris Coyier and MailChimp's Federico Holgado were already there. They told us that the group had discussed the Tumblr implementation and decided that it would be a better exercise if we built the site "from scratch" rather than on Tumblr and a ready-made theme.

The developer team's room.

The development team's initial plan was to build the app using Sinatra, a lightweight Ruby-based web application framework. Very few people were familiar with it, and it didn't take long for Edward to convince the rest of the team to switch to Rails: more people were familiar with it, and it would improve the odds of having something ready by the end of the day.

The developer team, again. Hey, this is where I spent the day!

Not everyone's machine was set up for Rails development, so we spent a good chunk of time helping people get set up. For some people, it was a matter of installing the latest version of Rails, while others were working from a blank slate, needing to compile Ruby first, then get gem, followed by installing Rails. While this happened, we talked about ways to get around this problem next year, which included agreeing upon a development stack before Hack Day and even handing out virtual machines containing the proscribed development environment.

Lunch break!

There was a silver lining to the inconvenience of having to get people set up with Rails: it let us get to know some of the people a little bit better, and it also gave them some practice installing unfamiliar open source software. There's something to be said for "wax on, wax off" exercises -- those seemingly pointless activities that end of teaching you things as you go through them.

Post-lunch status reports.

I was relieved that Chris was on the design team. The guy is a bona fide HTML5/CSS genius, and his expertise is why the site looked and felt wonderful in very little time. He also wrote about his experiences on his blog; you should check out his article about the experience, My First Hack Day.

Sometime during the morning, the project got a name. The creative team were tossing some ideas about when one of the locals -- he's the kind of guy who people ask for creative advice, and he can provide it at a moment's notice -- simply walked in and said "NOLAdex". Clever.

The developer room in the late afternoon.

One of the younger guys heard that the name was a pun on "Rolodex" and asked me what it was. "It's what we used before 'Contacts' apps," I said, Googling this image for him:

"You used that?" he asked, with great incredulity.

"They were dark, ugly times. Phones were attached to walls and we used leeches for medicine," I replied.

The NOLAdex team photo.

I'm still a Rails amnesiac and kept using too many ASP.NET MVCisms when helping people code, so I left it to Edward to help people create the initial models while I helped people install Rails. Edward deserves a lot of credit for helping drive the project towards Rails and doing a lot of the heavy lifting with the initial coding. Without his contribution, I don't think the NOLAdex project would have been working by the end of the day.

I also have to give kudos to Matt Tritico. Not only did he organize BarCamp NOLA, he also did a lot of the coding for NOLAdex. That's no easy feat: running a BarCamp is a lot of work!

At 8 p.m., we had a working project. People could start entering their contact information and browsing the site. The project has since been taken over by one of the New Orleans developer community groups and continues to be worked on. It's great to see a project like this come together, and even more so to see it happen in a day!

I'll close with the closing paragraph from Chris Coyier's article on Hack Day, because it describes what happened very well:

I do think that while there are some things a group does well, there are some things that a group does worse on as well. If you took the best developer in the room and had him work on the app all by himself to provided specs, he could have moved faster and likely created a better final product. If you found the best designer in the room and paired them together, they could have finished the thing in half the time. But then what? The community around the project is gone, or worse, turned off. Momentum becomes inertia. Learning opportunities vaporize. Yes there were inefficiencies. This workflow wouldn’t work for a “company”. But the day as a whole worked very well for what it was, and everyone who took part should be proud!