With the number of coding for cash contests, popularly called hackathons, exploding, now might be the time that you should consider spending part of your weekend or an evening participating, even if you aren't a total coder. Indeed, as citizen developers, you might be more valuable to your team than someone who can spew out tons of Ruby or Perl scripts on demand.
I spoke to several 'Appathon' participants at the QuickBase EMPOWER user conference last month to get their perspective, who were on the winning teams and not. Some had gone to other hackathons and for some this was their first time. All were experienced QuickBase app builders who welcomed the opportunity to try their hand for this six-hour contest.
John Harvey, who is the business intelligence manager at Micron’s consumer products group had attended the first appathon at last year’s conference, and thought this one was much better organized. “QuickBase has become the main tool that I use in my daily work life,” he told me. “We now have ten QuickBase projects and word of mouth is adding new ones all the time.” He loves that QuickBase is so easy to get started with, and doesn’t bury you in syntax. Harvey has a computer information systems degree and in the past has written programs in Visual Basic and Cold Fusion.
Lesson #1: Use the experience as a learning opportunity. “I walked away from the event with a real appreciation for how other people solve problems and learned a lot from my teammates. There is more than one way to write a program and putting us under pressure really highlighted how each of us can approach the problem differently.” And even the most experienced developers can still learn something from the contest. Rama Mohtadi has written over a hundred QuickBase applications for Prospect Mortgage and said "it was great to see how different people use QuickBase and what they do with it to solve problems."
David Jung is the marketing manager for the Espec Group and was on the winning non-profit team. They spent most of their efforts figuring out data structures and dealing with data quality issues. “We realized that the core challenge of the citizen developer is how to build an app itself, and focus on the reporting and user-facing functions once that is in rough shape."
Lesson #2: Take time to clean up your data first. "We had lousy Excel tables to work from, which really mirrored my work environment. The word is out about QuickBase’s benefits -- people have paper forms and Excel documents that they've realized are not the way to due business anymore.”
Jessica McCown is a director at the PSL Group and this was her first hackathon. “It gave me more confidence in my own knowledge about QuickBase, and allowed me to brainstorm and interact with people that I ordinarily might not have met.” She, like many other citizen developers, is mostly self-taught and manages a dozen different databases on various projects. Working in her company has taught her that she needs to develop definite partnerships with IT.
Lesson #3: Look beyond your immediate role and understand the corporate context for your apps. “Especially with QuickBase, I have learned how to integrate it with the rest of the enterprise data infrastructure. My relationship with IT is essential to understand how to improve these integrations.”
Linda Floyd works as the director of operations for Specialty Pharmacy Management. She has built 19 different apps for her company and is their main QuickBase developer. “I learned a lot of new ways to combine data, different ways to import data and even learned a new Excel formula too!” The experience inspired her to start taking coding classes later this year.
Lesson #4: Brainstorming is a big part in the development process. Her big takeaway was the brainstorming sessions, where she learned how to improve her apps. “No two teams went in the same direction, and I picked up tricks in nearly every presentation.”