Friday, November 25, 2011

The SL Hacktivist movement


It’s about time this got started. So, this morning’s post on hacking received a generally decent amount of positive feedback if the retweets and faved tweets were anything to go by. Also a quick review of my blog’s traffic shows somewhere upwards of 80 page views. That’s just for the individual post so I figure there must be around another 20 page views coming through the standard blog home view. Not bad. 100. I think we would be off to a super brilliant start if anywhere of a quarter and upwards of those views were converted into people participating from tomorrow. I’m really not expecting too many people, mainly due to the spontaneous nature of this suggestion which also equates to way short notice. But I think its important that we start. Even if its just me tomorrow I will forge ahead because I think starting is the most important thing. How could it not be? It’s the one thing we keep putting off after all. And it’s time to change that.

If you read the post on my mild disappointment at refresh Colombo there were several interesting comments regarding my observations on us not having a community of individuals who actually create stuff. One set of comments that interested me most were the ones left by laktek in which he said this.

“It's very hard to cultivate this attitude on Sri Lankans.  They are more comfortable with cursing the system and envying others for lack of opportunities rather than creating it by themselves. Well, of course there are few exceptions (like you :)).
Also, another cynical piece of advice - just ignore these so-called tech events in Sri Lanka. I know the people organizing these events are passionate and have pure motives. But if you analyze the audience carefully, it's a just a bunch of rich kids who wants to show off their new gadgets and some smugs desperately trying to find some way to get noticed, upon realizing they have just wasted the best in their lives.
If you want to get some real shit done these events are just poison. It's easy to dream up all sorts of crazy ideas. But it will take lot of stamina and courage in you to turn them in to realities (and even more perseverance to get people to pay you!)
(Disclaimer: this is just my personal opinion based on my experiences, so take it as a grain of salt)”

He wrote another post on his Google+ as well. Scathing. But sadly true in many ways.

Lakshan Perera  -  Oct 27, 2011 (edited)  -  Public

These are the people you will actually meet in a Sri Lankan tech event:
1. I work for [insert a big multinational organization] as the Chief Social Media Strategist and my job is to tweet the inside jokes of the office.
2. I work at a cubicle farm and I just masturbate to Endgadget & Gizmodo all day.
3. Dude, I have compiled & installed Linux distributions that don't even exist.
3. I'm a final year engineering student at [insert any prominent university in Sri Lanka] and I have a first class. I'm planning waste my next 5 years in this CO2, for the prospect of going to US and getting a PHD (I don't know what to do with it after that).
4. My parents could afford to send me to [insert one of the top 10 universities in the world] and there we had this thing called [insert a name of a popular web app]. I'm looking for someone do a clone of it for Sri Lanka. Guess I could make big bucks out of it.
5. I'm just here for food.
6. I don't trust my boyfriend, that's why I'm here.
7. All these tech stuff are greek to me, but our professor said he will ask questions from this conference in the final exam. So I even took notes of lightning talks.
[6, 7 are the only kind of female species you will find in these events]
People you will not find in these events:
"I'm the one who developed ____________"
"I'm working on _____ to solve ________"
That's why I don't attend to Sri Lankan tech events anymore.”

So I replied to his comment on my blog. A long rambling reply both agreeing with his observation about tech events as well as defending the whole concept of Refresh Colombo which I think has done a lot of good for the community. I’d never have started down this road if not for them. And if this takes off then it’ll at the end of the day have been because of that first Refresh Colombo meeting I attended. The reply I received to this sparked my interest.

“As I said, the second point was based on my own experience. There was a time I even used to gatecrash tech events searching for inspiration and guidance. The audience I've seen around all these events (including RefreshColombo) seems to remain the same (I don't mean it as in individuals, but as in personas they represent). That's why I remain skeptical, but there's a hope for change.
Anyway, rather than ending this conversation by just dissing the system, let me suggest something. It seems there are many folks with cool ideas out there, but they are not committed to spend time and effort on those.
So let's gather around all these inspired people for a Sri Lankan style Hackathon, fueled with Kottu and lime. They will have to hack on their idea for 48 hours. If they run the full race, they will have a tangible output on their hands after those 48 hours. Then, they could come up and present it confidently in the next editions of RefreshColombo.
More importantly, it would be a great start to evolve just an idea in to a fully blown product.”

I thought I could get this started. I pitched the idea to my dad and his reply was one of interest but which at the same time didn’t seem to be too convinced that this sort of activity could lead to better things. If you are wondering the same thing, “can something as small as this actually work out to something worth while?”, then I would suggest you go ahead and read this gist on github. Big thanks to laknath for posting this link. One of the most valuable things I’ve read in a while. The gist of it is basically that the people who created successful web apps and iOS apps didn’t just create it out of no where. At least not in the case of the majority. The way this happens is that there’s a lot of tiny apps and experiences and slightly larger apps and a lot of difficult work that actually happens before someone creates an experience that turns out to be a hit. The problem and the reason that people rarely get there is that they don’t take those first steps towards creating the small apps and suffering through the difficult experiences.

Which brings me to the last point I want to make on getting things started. It’s not just about the small experiences and the tiny apps. The fact is that if you don’t get started you won’t go anywhere. But the other side of that fact is that once you do get started you won’t know where you will go. A recent question thread on quora questioned the validity of the incessant amount of photosharing apps and other things that seem to be permeating the very atmosphere of silicon valley these days. In an extremely logical and eloquent fashion this claim is not only disputed but the value of these kinds of projects are also brought to the front. For me the most valuable lines were,

  • "Trade Pez dispensers online" -> a marketplace larger than many national economies (eBay)
  • "Tell your friends what you are doing" -> a global communications network (Twitter)
  • "Hook up at Harvard" -> a billion person network, disrupting governments (Facebook)
  • "Send money to your friends" -> disruptive payment network (Paypal)

Large, disruptive ideas start with teams who jump into the game, start with small, tangible problems, then grow and expand from there.
But that requires their getting into the game in the first place. They need a starting point of something that feels achievable and caters to their passions and aptitude.
And they need encouragement. They don't need criticism from various pundits and hanger-ons who deem them to be working on the wrong problem. Especially since many of the pundits don't work on them either.

Do you see that? Small seemingly worthless ideas that don’t have any capability of running at a profit or ever generating a worthwhile revenue have grown to be something not only worth billions of dollars but also something completely different from what they started out to be.

So let’s get started then shall we?

Here’s the deal. Since I can’t afford to put up a physical hackathon yet and since the logistics are a little beyond me without knowing the real interest of the community I thought, why not we start a cyber weekend hackathon and a general hacktivist community?

This is how it’s going to work.

For the hackathon, the serious hackathons will happen every 2nd and 4th weekend of the month. This is where we actually try and work on an idea and smash it into place in 48 hours. Maybe an old idea even but the point is we work like the hounds of hell are after us for those 48 hours. Saturday morning 6 AM I should be on the IRC (more on that in just a moment) and hopefully you guys will join as well. Come along. Introduce yourself. And if you know what you are going to be hacking on just tell the rest of the community. You don’t have to be specific. Just a general idea.

What you decide to do at the hackathon is for you to choose. The point is to get started.

At the end of the hackathon we need to show each other what we’ve done. I would like to see some sort of standard here that we upload the stuff on to github so that we can actually see tangible work from each other. A physical hackathon would actually have people being able to point to their laptop screens but since we don’t have that let’s just go with this. Open sourcing side projects is a good thing imo. If for some reason you don’t want to open source your work that’s fine. But leave something tangible to show what you did during the last 48 hours. Preferably something more than a screen shot. If it was an Android app, upload the apk. Desktop app, upload the exe. Web app. Host it on your machine and let us know how to remotely connect to it for a few hours. Or take a screen cast of it using screencastr.

On all the other weekends it would be nice to see the community still hanging around on the IRC but more as a way of working on stuff in a chilled out way. Ideally talking the product you are working on/worked on the previous week with you co havktivists would be the best thing to happen. Features might get added. Unwanted stuff will get dropped and at the end of it we might just see the growth of the hacktivist ecosystem.

The SL Hacktivist culture

Since we don’t really have an Hacktivist culture I think it would be a great idea to work right from the start on being supportive. Be critical of ideas. Question the person working on those ideas on the whys and whats. But don’t be destructive. If you feel something isn’t right, don’t just say it. Say it with a suggestion of what you think might be right. Essentially the best case scenario would be a community which continues to pump ideas into other people’s projects in order to spur further innvoation.

There will be zero tolerance towards those who want to put down other people’s work. If you don’t think it’s something anyone will use then please have an explanation ready to be given in a civilized way rather than simply putting it down as “what is this I don’t even…”. That’s the sort of thing comment trolls write. That will not be tolerated within this community.

The communication mechanism

I racked my brain trying to figure this one out and the realized the answer was simple. IRC. I will write a quick tutorial later on how to get IRC started up so you can join the conversation. Because if you don’t know how to use IRC I really don’t blame you.

Server will be (port 6667 if needed)

Channels are

#SLHackathon – Will be the default channel we land up in for the hackathon days. Also on non hackathon days if you want to discuss your hackathon projects going to that channel would be a good idea but I’m not sure how the non hackathon days would pan out. Most important and distinguishing factor of this channel, going off topic will not be tolerated here all that much. I came to realise some time ago that conversation can be the bane of all productivity in situations like this. So chit chat will not be allowed. If you want to have a friendly chat and get to know your fellow hacktivists,

#SLHacktivists – Will be the channel you want to go to. Discuss your random programming problems. Share stuff you find interesting and just chill and get to know the community there. There might occasionally be interesting topics based on what you guys want. So enjoy your time there. (Right now at the time of writing this it may be a little cricket like silent but don’t worry. People will come soon hopefully).

Also on Twitter we will use the tags #SLHacks and #SLHackathon to talk about it. I’m sure we’ll agree on a standard in the end but let’s leave it at that

Timing and management

Apart from the no chit chat there’s also the time management technique called pomodoro technique. I went through it and it sounds ideal for getting people into a high focus mode with a goal oriented approach. Check it out. (Another one of laktek’s suggestions).

The end

That is it. That’s all you need to know. The first hackathon starts tomorrow (26th Novemeber 2011) and finishes Sunday Midnight-ish (or goes on if you wish)

Let the hacking. Begin

A big big big thank you to laktek for the advice and the ideas provided. You and the rest of team at Curdbee (vesess) keep making us proud :).

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