Thoughts on "Festival of Code"

What is it? 
The Festival of Code is the highlight of the week long Young Rewired State (YRS) hackathon.  It works to seek out self-taught developers aged 18 and under and mentor them.  Organisations around the country act as hosts to local young people, YRS alumni, Rewired State mentors and other volunteers.  A challenge is set to build digital products: mobile and web, using at least one piece of open data.  Then everyone meets at a central location (Birmingham this year) to show & tell, be judged and win prizes(?) 

Why Birmingham? 
Because the event has become so popular, a bigger and more centrally located venue was needed (for full details please read http://mulqueeny.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/yrs2012-and-the-custard-factor). 

How did I get involved? 
Although I helped point the organisers to my colleagues in Digital Birmingham who helped with the venue, many thanks go to @cybrum for tweeting myself and others, asking us to help out: - 

@ukgav @Jacattell @siwhitehouse @paulbradshaw @carolinebeavon Can you help young coders in Bham this weekend? http://festivalofcode.eventbrite.com/

I duly signed up and helped out on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. 

It was great :-) 
Firstly, I gotta say, these young coders are totally inspiring :-)  They have a "matter of fact" affinity with technology that reminds me of myself, aged 10, when I socially engineered unrestricted access to my primary school computer and cracked all the teacher's user IDs and passwords, naughty boy).  The passion and dedication of the organisers, mentors and parents was also a real day brightener. 

:-( But... 
There were some organisational issues that could have been avoided.  I've attended and organised hackdays before, e.g. @GODhackday (details at j.mp/godhd-wiki_DRAFT) and to my mind, the two most important things are reliable internet access and plentiful power points.  The internet issues could have been resolved by load testing the existing infrastructure, using additional portable hotspots (such as those used at homelesshack.com in London) and having dedicated wired connections for the show & tell presentations.  There are also plenty of specialists (we have one at Birmingham based fizzPOP hackspace) who specialise in preparing networks for large events and could be pursued to help us at a discount, if not free. 

New volunteers such as myself need to be properly briefed.  I know things were rushed this year, but just as attendees get a briefing pack, so must volunteers.  People will turn to us for help.  If we don't know answers to basic questions such as, "where are the toilets?" it can erode confidence in the YRS brand.  Especially when we have to "wing it", as I found myself doing on Saturday, effectively stepping into the organisers shoes when I couldn't find them.  Bring people in a few days before, sit them down and train them.  This extends to judges, some of whom turned up not knowing where to go and what to do. 

Finally, when suppliers deliver critical services, make sure the bookings are double checked the day before.  Not all the projectors were ready at the start of show & tell sessions on Saturday and the necessary computer connectors were not readily available.  Build service level agreements into these contracts, e.g. we pay you half upfront and deduct penalties from the remainder if you mess up. 

Please don't get me wrong, I loved what I saw over the weekend; confident, talented and happy young programmers who output fantastic ideas and digital products.  But to enable truly smooth success, we have some work to do for next year.  I for one am happy to help in any way I can.  Who's with me?  :-)
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