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Background Info

Hey, I pitched the idea of a company Hackathon that would donate our time to a charity to work on a project (for free) to improve morale in my company and increase developer cohesion. As it turns out most like the idea but, guess who's gonna be the one to put it together. lol Yeah me.

I should add that we are a fairly small shop with about 10-12 programmers (some pull double duty as programmers, inters etc..) So, that might make things a bit easier.

Base Question

While I am no means a project manager or of any level of authority (Entry level guy) I was wondering if anyone knew the best approach for someone in my position to put together such an even with possibly (some) company backing. Or for that matter have any helpful advice to pass along to a young padawan.

So far.....

As of right now it is just an idea so, to start with I presumably would have to put together some sort of proposal and do some that office stuff that I became a programmer to steer clear of to some extent.

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Probably you should participate in one of these hackathons yourself and learn from there :) The idea sounds great –  OscarRyz Dec 28 '10 at 17:30
    
While I would love to, South Carolina doesn't do nearly as much of this kind of thing as I would like. But thanks for the tip. I'll see if there is anything around that could get me started. –  Terrance Dec 28 '10 at 17:33
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It's a great idea. According to some audioblogs I've heard where an event organizer was interviewed it was always a learning experience--no matter how many times they've done it. –  Berin Loritsch Dec 28 '10 at 17:45
    
Can this be done remotely? May not be as beneficial, but it's better than nothing. –  JeffO Dec 28 '10 at 20:09
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Walter: "contacting some local charities and find out what their needs are" Jay: "consider the 'maintenance' part of your work" yes yes yes. Really take the time to find out what the charity needs and don't do something just 'cos it's a cool project. You may find one programmer giving them solid advice over coffee will do more than a team of 12. That said, best of luck and well done for trying this. –  James Dec 28 '10 at 21:00

4 Answers 4

Start Small and Work Up

This is a great idea both for your company for the reasons stated and for yourself as a learning/growing experience. When you can pull off a project like this well, you'll be ready to move up to a job with more responsibility and you'll have successes on your resume to justify the move.

Two caveats to watch out for:

  1. It's probably going to be harder than you think. Coordinating software development projects well has surprisingly little to do with writing good code. It's a new skillset, and not a trivial one to learn. Don't take on a hard project as your first 'team lead' experience, much in the same way that you wouldn't write a really complex application for your first program.
  2. Watch out for management to be concerned that you are overtaxing company resources or distracting employees from their day job. It's pretty easy to have something like this boomerang on you to be perceived as a negative. A great way to deal with this is to 'time box' the work so that it's guaranteed to not exceed what management is comfortable with giving. At my workplace, we have a 'Day Of Caring' where every employee is encouraged to take a work day off to do whatever they like at a local charity. It's a great program -- and it's very explicitly limited to one day only.

With this advice, you may want to find a very small project that can be accomplished by 2-3 people in 2-3 days for your first go. If I were you, I would consider doing it informally as a weekend activity with co-workers you have a strong relationship without even discussing it with company management. After you have 1-2 of these very small projects under your belt, you can consider moving up to more formal and larger projects.

One final piece of advice from someone who does a lot of on the side little projects for charities -- consider the 'maintenance' part of your work. Especially if you're going into an organization that has no 'it guy', you're going to find that whatever you do needs some level of maintenance over time. Even something as simple as setting up a free hosted website takes a couple hours a year to update, etc. Once you donate your time to create a project, most charities will assume you've also signed up to maintain it. Think this through before getting yourself over-committed to something you can't maintain.

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I was worried about putting together a website for that very reason (Over-committing). So what kind of charity work do you do mostly? (I'm gonna take a guess at web design). If so then what kind of organizations do you work with mostly and what sort would you keep your distance from? In addition are there signs for that sort of thing. (shady groups I mean) –  Terrance Dec 28 '10 at 18:13
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+1 for maintenance mention –  John Straka Dec 28 '10 at 18:45
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I do web sites, mailing lists, setting up Paypal donations, de-virusing computers -- generally small stuff. There are opportunities for deeper development generally around databases and web forms / reporting, but having done this as a small business consultant many years ago I know the maintenance needs here are significant so I stay away. I haven't really been successful even with simple systems like DropBox/Lists/Calendars -- these technologies are just a little too complex for many folk. –  Jay Beavers Dec 30 '10 at 19:40
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On choosing an organization, I've had no problems there -- every organization I've worked with has been a great choice. Generally I work with grassroots community organizations or local church affiliated organizations. I've also started helping out local city governments some which has been successful because they generally have at least some IT staff to keep things running. I've never worked for an organization where I hadn't first volunteered some non-tech time and gotten to know the 1-3 'primary movers' behind it so I've probably subconsciously filtered out the poorer choices. –  Jay Beavers Dec 30 '10 at 19:42
    
+2@Jay Beaver: Thanks, That helps me narrow things down quite a bit. –  Terrance Dec 30 '10 at 19:50

I would start by contacting some local charities and find out what their needs are. I'd then compile a short list of the company/need and see which one might be the best fit for your company's capabilities.

To help make the effort a collaboration, you could ask team each member to propose a charity and have them do the leg work on that one charity. That way not one person is doing too much grunt work before the coding begins.

PS. This sounds like a great idea. If more companies did this just once a year or two, it would go a very, very long way.

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Thanks, I'll get in touch with the local community charities. I get the feeling we would probably end up doing a website of some sort. Not that that's a problem or anything lol. –  Terrance Dec 28 '10 at 18:03

GiveCamp's Hackathon Cookbook

I found this as a potential solution as well. Saves a lot of leg work here.

Give Camp

Let me know what you guys think.

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+1: I'm doing a local GiveCamp twitter.com/tricitygivecamp. GiveCamp already has connections to national sponsors set up as well to help provide food, training and more. Plus you can contact them and set up calls for personal advice on running your own. Thanks for this, Terrance! –  Ryan Hayes Jan 26 '11 at 19:58
    
@ Ryan I started my own as well. givecampcolumbia.org –  Terrance Jul 14 '11 at 19:56

Running an event like this has little to do with coding and mostly to do with planning, and it can be a lot of work. So start with the basics:

  • What are your assets?
  • Where are you going to do this?
  • Who are you going to get to MC/present/speak (anyone)?
  • When is it going to happen?
  • What do you need?

Once you start thinking about these questions, you'll find that they lead to more questions that need answering. If you're company is donating the location (the office), then you have one less worry. If not, you'll have to call around for places that might be willing to donate space.

Then you have to worry about power, network, etc. If this is going to be a smaller, more informal hackathon, you might be able to get away with a wireless router and a spare desktop for version control/demo server. You will need to be creative for sure.

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As far as facilities go the company owner could provide for that. Speakers not so much as it will most likely be a relatively small group for the event. 10-12 people that know each other. –  Terrance Dec 28 '10 at 17:48
    
computing space might be a bit of a challenge but since it is in company I think we could get some dev boxes together. I can talk to our system admin about the logistical difficulties in that –  Terrance Dec 28 '10 at 17:49
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You're already thinking like an organizer. Speaker is only necessary if you are introducing a new concept. As long as you have someone to lay out what the project for the day is, you should be set in that arena. –  Berin Loritsch Dec 28 '10 at 18:06

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