Tagged: hacking

Ascend Project Kickoff

Last year I approached Debbie Cohen, our C-level People person, and made a proposal.  With all these Hacker School/Dev Boot Camp/Hackbright accelerator programs popping up, I had an idea to create an open source version and specifically target participants who come from underemployed, LGBTQ, Latin@, and African American populations – aka: people who are terribly underrepresented in tech but also very much more so in Open Source. The idea was that instead of people paying to come learn to become developers in the capitalist, Startup-focused, feeding-frenzy the Silicon Valley promotes we could instead seed other towns, other communities with open source and create an in-depth technical contribution training program that more mirrored the experience I had with Dave Humphrey at Seneca College. Imagine my surprise when Debbie clearly, and without hesitation said to me “Great idea! Do it!”.  I’ve been building up to something that is more sizeable through running local events, hack meetups, participating in community building in several ways so I saw this proposal as the next step for me, as an organizer.  This time I’m going to do something that is bigger than what I could do alone. I will have Christie Koehler working with me as well as several community building team members in advising and mentoring roles.

The populations I want us to reach out to have resulted in certain adjustments to the typical setup of those for-profit accelerators which I see as being key to the potential success of our cohorts. Attendees in the Ascend Project will benefit from taking this course in the following ways, which are intended to remove many barriers to participation in Open Source:

  •  a $50 per day honorarium will be provided to encourage regular attendance and help ensure participants can afford to focus on being present to learn & develop
  • laptops will be provided to use during the course and upon completion, graduates will get to keep theirs
  • food (breakfast and lunch) will be provided every day
  • where needed, childcare stipends are available to participants who need additional care in order to put in the time this course will request of them
  • transit passes for the whole 6 weeks

The purpose here is to not only acknowledge that we know we’re missing people in our open source communities but that we’re willing to put our money and time where our mouths are to go and explicitly invite people who like to solve problems to come and see what it is like to get to just focus on learning, developing, fixing a bug, getting hooked, being a part of a bigger community with a mission for global good.  I see this as a solid way to counter the manner in which many of these populations are pushed away from participation in computer science and open source contributions.

We can’t expect every person who might be a strong, longtime, and impactful contributor to Open Source to find us based on passion alone.  That leaves all the systemic issues in society to decide for us who gets here.  If we can remove some barriers and provide an environment where participants in a program get a chance to feel confident, trusted, strong, and *wanted* then we can see how that might blossom their abilities to learn and contribute to an open source project that has a ton of pathways for potential input and impact.

The project is currently still in the kickoff phase so this is the first public post.  Mostly I’m braindumping, trying to work backwards from September when the course will start, and getting my head around who will do what so we get everything ready in time.  I’ve got a budget for the first pilot, which will take place in Portland, OR in the Fall of 2014, and it’s almost approved.  Next up I will be designing the curriculum while Christie works on partnerships locally in preparation for our call for applications.  We’ll be doing our best to reach far outside the typical degrees of separation to get word out and to attract applicants.  I’ll be in Portland next week to meet with local orgs and gather information on where we can promote the project.

Applicants will go through several steps before we whittle down to our final 20.  There will be an expectation that they can complete the highest level of a free, online Javascript course and the Mozilla PDX office will hold drop ins with computers available to help applicants have the time to do this with the right equipment and a mentor or two nearby.  Following that stage, we’ll ask for an essay or video that briefly describes a ‘hard’ problem the person had to solve, if they were successful what worked and if not what didn’t.  Staying away from specific, alienating technology language seems key here. We need problem solvers and self-starters, not people who know syntax (yet).  That group will then be the pool from which the final participants will be selected from, with specific ratio targets for populations that I mentioned earlier.

The first session, as a pilot, will have certain ‘training wheels’ on it. Mozilla has a great space in Portland.  Portland has a wonderfully large open source community I fully expect to tap into for networking and partnerships.  We’ll be using this first pilot as a way to test the participant selection process and the curriculum itself.  I really want to be setting people up for success.  This is measured by committing at least one patch to production code (in any area of Firefox) before the end of the course.  Our first course will focus on Mozmill automated testing because we can get our participants to that level of success with independently-written JS tests for several of the Firefox products.

Following Portland we’ll be reviewing, updating, improving, and then taking the next pilot to New Orleans in January of 2015 where we can test “what happens if we don’t have an office, a large community already in place?” with our tightened up selection process and curriculum.  The two pilots should give us lots to go on for how to scale up an initiative like this going forward and hopefully it can become something that happens more frequently, with more teachers, and in many more places (like in some of our Firefox OS launch markets).

That’s the gist for now.  I’ll be posting more frequently as we hit milestones in the project and also am happy to take people up on offers to review curriculum.

Why I was part of creating a thing called TransTech(SF)

Last night I helped hold the third local meetup of trans and genderqueer people who are interested in getting together to hack on our projects. This is the third event since the amazing Trans*H4CK  Hackathon (the first one of its kind!) that took place in October 2013.

When I heard through the grapevine that there was going to be a trans-focused, trans-organized, local hackathon I was beside myself.  Finally I would get the combination of identity and technology in one space that I have been dreaming of since going back to school as a mature student in 2004-5 in order to get a degree in Software Development.  My lofty goals in going back to school can easily be summarized in two ways: 1. I wanted to get a better job than being a brunch chef or a non-profit artist-run center, contract employee with no job security or dental benefits and 2. I hoped that whatever I could learn about technology and software would become tools I could bring back to my queer/trans/genderqueer/arts community and help anyone who wanted it at whatever level they ask for.  This has come to mean hosting websites for people, helping build websites for people and small orgs, and also doing some random consulting. It has also led, funny enough, to a certain amount of fixing people’s computers.  That’s nothing I learned in school, it’s just something I seem to have the right combination of lucky and chutzpah to try — ratio of success lies at about 85-90% so far (some things are unfixable, by me at least).

Anyway, I got into tech and got through a grueling 4 years of school with all its associated stresses.  No need to go into details because I finished that thing AND I got a pretty amazing job right out the gate.  Health benefits (specifically the much-needed dental)?  Check.  Ability to help my communities with tech stuff?  Yes….ish.

Turns out it’s not that easy to still be people’s go-to for tech help when you start working more-than-fulltime at a fast-paced company. Also when you move across the country from the majority of your closest friends and aquaintance community.  I made that decision though because I wanted to take the opportunity that existed for me to come here, to SF, and be in the heart of it all.  Little did I know at the time I was walking on stage at a very precarious time (that’s a whole other post).

Skip forward.  I’m lucky enough to have one woman (self-identified to me as a feminist on our first meeting) on my team of 8 people.  So I think tech is pretty awesome. Then she leaves, goes to another team.  Then I go to my first PyCon and swim in a sea of homogenous men I don’t know.  Then I meet a handful of really exciting people who put the words “Queer” and “Tech” on a scrap of paper for a DIY session in the basement of that hotel in Atlanta, 2009.  That is one of the *big* moments.  It’s when I started, with that group of people, to promote teaching Python to women. Based on the success of RailsBridge‘s workshops teaching Ruby on Rails to women (I went to one, Ruby and Rails are not my thing for now) and also the Boston Python Workshop which did a lot of the groundwork for adapting the RailsBridge-style weekend material to a Python version, I ended up starting PyStar with a few people. Our goal was similar:  make it possible for more women to feel comfortable learning Python in a non alpha-male space.  We had a few workshops in SF and Mountain View (Mozilla office space was easy to get and use for weekend workshops). There were groups creating workshops in Philadelphia (still, to this day, the most active city for this project) and in Minneapolis.  I even threw one together in Paris for a night when I was living there for 3 weeks and working from the Paris Mozilla office.

I’m sharing this with you, reader, because this is the backdrop for what comes next.  For me, teaching women to code was…OK.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s important work and I’m glad it’s happening.  For me though, I still felt kind of lonely.  Since the majority of attendees were middle/upper class, young, heterosexual women I wasn’t really connecting on the levels that I do with people who share other similar identities and life experiences with me.  Or at least ones I am more familiar with, if not my own.

I got a bit disheartened by organizing events that I no longer felt I truly connected with and I took some time to try and figure out how to best spend my time and how to be the activist I wanted to be.  Enter GeekFeminism, having several of the people I met through that hired on at Mozilla, PyCon drastically improving its ratio of women attendees (speakers, still being improved), and meeting Leanne.  Over the past couple of years, again keeping it short, I’ve managed to go to conferences and meet lots of people and dream big with them. The LGBT lunches at Grace Hopper have been fascinating.  Getting to attend AdaCamp – huge boost.  Finding people and connecting with them on all the things that are big problems we want to be a part of solving — the one is often comes down to is “How do we get more diversity in tech?”.

At Mozilla I end up making that a second full-time job that is not what I am paid to do (working on that).  Instead I got discretionary funding that I could use to help leverage women in open source which eventually grew into supporting anything with diverse populations that were not prominent or numerically well-represented in open source.  This looked like me being able to offer up the Mozilla office(s) if and when I could be there to hold the space.  It looked like being able to sponsor a variety of events with amounts less than $2k who were promoting, retaining, or otherwise engaging people in tech & open source more specifically.

One of the events I ended up directing money towards was Trans*H4CK because, as I mentioned at the start – I was so frickin’ excited that this was going to happen and I wanted to help it happen.  I reached out to Kortney and offered money, asked if (while I was planning to attend regardless) I could talk for 5 minutes about open source. I did that.  I went and talked and gave my, now usual, talk about why open source is important (think: View Source on webpages and how you might have benefited from being able to do that).  Then I hacked on stuff and met people and generally soaked up what it felt like to be in a space where I felt seen, whole, and just surrounded by people who were also being seen.  We exist, in numbers more than the one or two at your day job! What a fun weekend.

Then I wondered – why just one weekend?  This was in the Bay Area and while a handful of people traveled to the event most were local.  In the style of user groups and meetups, why not continue to have a monthly get-together of this particular blend of nerdgeektransgenderqueer fabulousness?  I proposed this to Kortney, offered up the Mozilla SF space to hold it, got food for the attendees, and we had one in November that was probably attended by about 20 people.  Pretty sweet.  There was a lot more socializing than actual hacking but that happens when people are still so new to getting to be around each other.  With the success of that, I wanted to hold more but I think the holiday period got in the way so the next one I helped put on, this time at the Double Union maker space, was February 18th, 2014.  It being closer to my house and not at the office I rarely go to anyway was awesome, btw. Also I bought snacks with my own money to bring. That night I thought: we need a regular night – say, the third Tuesday of every month, so that it can be something people just *know* is on and can show up to. No need for invites, mailouts, or headcount – keep it simple. I proposed this to the people at the meetup, and thought this was generally agreed upon.

With that in mind, and with a pretty busy schedule coming up, I wanted to get the March date on the Double Union calendar sooner rather than later so a couple of weeks ago I reached out to the membership list asking if the Tuesday night circuit class would be up for sharing the space with another trans hacking night (as that was the best date for me, as the organizer).  They were open to it and all seemed fine but another email thread started up about whether or not the trans hacking nights would be trans-only or not (if they should, even).  This is something, btw, that the TransTech community participants will be chatting more about so as to determine what guidelines and priorities to have when choosing space or setting up meetings. In that thread Kortney expressed concern about not being able to make the date and I said that I was trying to set up the every-third-Tuesday nights, as discussed at the February meeting.  No further response came and I went ahead with booking it (circuit group moved to another night to give us the whole space, thanks!) and setting up an invite.  Double Union still doesn’t publicize their address so the invite was needed to have a way to reach people who said they would attend.  My goal was to use this next meetup to set up open communication tools that could be used by any member of this nascent “we get together and hack on stuff with other trans/genderqueer people” community.  So we did that.

Last night I was at Double Union with some others and I set up a mailing list, a wiki, and IRC channel, and a Twitter account.  I shared all the admin/login details with the others because this isn’t *my* thing. This is, to the best of my knowledge and experience in open source, how we start communities that are as free of bottlenecks on getting things done as possible.  Then I put that information out there.  The goals, again, are to have spaces where trans and genderqueer people who are in technology (or want to learn to be) can meetup to work on their projects or even work on each other’s projects.  I hope we’ll also get to work on projects that help our communities, for example I’m trying to figure out how to help Homomobiles get an app as it drives me nuts to see people using Uber and Lyft when we have this opportunity to put even a sliver of our collective queer and trans money back to a queer and trans organization and help grow it.

All that to say:  There’s always room for lots of ways to bring people together. This is my expression of how I do it.  Mozilla, while being my employer, does not dictate what I do with my spare time and yet I am fortunate in being able to book our office space(s) when available for events.

I’m being told on Facebook and Twitter that this is stealing, that I’m stepping on Kortney’s toes and please believe me, I tried to do everything I could to avoid that. I intentionally sought another name out of respect for the way that I see Kortney branding and promoting Trans*H4CK and how he is doing great things with that.  I see TransCode (teaching coding), Trans*H4CK (hackathons and speaker series), and then TransTech (local community building, mentor/mentee finding, getting things done in a room with people you have that certain connection with) as all being part of the building blocks for continuing a trajectory of making and taking up space in technology for those of us who are outsiders, underrepresented, or just plain want to put our efforts into working with other social justice activists in building trans & genderqueer focused space.

If you’re in the Bay Area and want to know about meetups, be part of shaping this community, or otherwise lurk about to see what might grab your interest down the road then please follow us on Twitter and/or join our mailing list: https://mailman-mail5.webfaction.com/listinfo/transtech-discuss

Let’s support each other in always leveling up.

 

 

 

 

 

Women Hacking Glass – First SF community meetup

I’ve created an event for the first meeting of Women Hacking Glass in SF at the Mozilla public space.

Since I posted in G+ a few weeks ago things got busy and I didn’t have time to lean on Google like I’d planned to ask for hardware but then a pair of Glass practically fell in my lap when a coworker decided he didn’t want to be an Explorer any more so I wrangled a ‘donation’ to get his Glass in order to use them for community hacking with other women in the Bay Area.  I’m curious to see how the first meetup goes – what will we be able to create?  What kinds of feedback will we provide to the GDK developers who are working on the first version of a release?  What kinds of barriers will we hit with Mirror API?  I look forward to learning about everyone’s hopes and dreams for this exciting hardware and finding ways to hack our way to making them a reality.

Copy from the event invite:

Are you interested in learning how to make apps for Google Glass?  Don’t have the access to the hardware?

Come out to Mozilla SF and meet with other Glass Hacking gals to experiment with Android Studio, creating simple apps, getting access to Mirror API, and trying out your hacks on an actual pair of Glass that will be made available during WHG meetups for testing on.  Since there are very few people out there with the hardware, and few of those early adopter/explorers are women let’s work together to increase the numbers of women getting in on the ground floor for development (as well as being able to provide feedback to Google GDK developers) on this revolutionary new hardware.

There is a small (non-refundable) fee to prevent no-shows from taking up space – all money generated from this event will be donated to Mozilla Foundation via http://www.mozilla.org/donate

Prepare ahead of time:

* Have a google account

* Read https://developers.google.com/glass/quickstart/index and do as much of the pre-installation of tools/IDE that you can

* Think about your first app and what you want to learn to build

* Dream big, show up

For people who are interested in applying pressure to Google and showing them there are women interested in developing for Glass (the current Glass Developers group is easily 95% male) – go to http://www.google.com/glass/start/how-to-get-one/ and submit your request anyway, even though they say the waitlist is full.  My coworker can’t be the only person returning his pair and I trust Google will open more spots when they see a lot of interest.

Creating a Mozilla workshop for beginner Hacking of Mobile HTML5 Games

Participants in the Mozilla Hacking HTML5 Mobile Games workshop at the 2013 Dare 2B Digital conference.

Dare 2B Digital is an annual South Bay conference that brings 300 young women ages 12-16 together to encourage them to consider STEM fields in college by coming together for a full day of inspiring talks and workshops showcasing women’s work and relevance in technology.  For the past three conferences I have signed Mozilla up as a sponsor and created a workshop that is run 3 times that day and reaches about 80-100 attendees.  Last year I created kits for participants to learn about soft circuit hacking and lighting up felt foxes, the year before I taught Universal Subtitles and Popcorn before it was even a 1.0 product yet. I’m always trying to keep our workshops current and, if possible, on the bleeding edge of whatever Mozilla is working on. The participants get a taste of one exciting aspect of what is happening RIGHT NOW in open technology.

In the past year I’ve been really inspired by Mozilla’s outreach around web literacy and at the same time there’s been all this work done around our upcoming Firefox OS for mobile devices that will allow apps to be built entirely of the web and installed/sold/shared outside of the silo-structures such as Apple’s App Store and Google Play.  At MozCamp Asia in November of 2012 I watched the Mozilla Taiwan reps showcase a fairly simple card matching game they had made of browser icons and they turned it into a Firefox OS installable app in only a couple of hours.  All of these snippets and ideas led to my proposed workshop for the girls being about hacking their own version of the browser-pairs game and installing/playing it on a Firefox OS device.

Now this was all before the Firefox OS phones even existed, and it was also before I went away on a 3 week vacation to Vietnam over the holidays.  I mentioned it to my co-worker Margaret before leaving and she said she’d be up for working on it with me but when I returned from vacation I lost about a week just on jetlag & minor flu-like symptoms then another on my birthday and having my family in from out of town.  Next thing I knew it was February 1st, the workshop was on February 9th, and I had NOTHING ready and there was no public Firefox OS device yet, either.

So I called up Ruth who organizes the conference and tried to beg off this year.  Would it be so bad if Mozilla didn’t do a workshop this one time?  Thankfully Ruth very calmly returned my panicked email with a phone call and asked me what I needed to get this workshop on track.  What did I need? Mostly just to buck up and finish what I started, me with my big mouth. The pieces were all out there.  I had code (thank you Mozilla Taiwan!), Chris Heilmann had recently posted some inspiring slides about HTML5 and mobile for Firefox OS App Days, and Hackasaurus has plenty of youth-focused resources.

Hastily, I organized a couple of lunch time meetings during the week leading up to the workshop with Margaret and we hashed out who would do what.  We made an exciting discovery in our first meeting, which was that we could host the game from a github page and this meant every girl in the workshop could hack on her own customizations of the game in github’s web interface code editor and see their changes reflected on a mobile device immediately.  No need to deal with the minutia of web hosting, no server-side code, and minimal development setup – the freshly imaged laptops we borrowed from Mozilla IT would be good to go in minutes!

I drove to Redwood City on the day of the conference with: 20 laptops, 15 Firefox OS test driver devices (thanks to my co-workers who let me borrow their phones!), and some slides about why hacking HTML5 is the future of mobile apps. One thing we realized as we were setting up was that there would be some delay between when the participants created their GitHub accounts and when they would see their github pages live with our demo code.  We ended up front-loading that and having them start right away as they arrived at the top of each time slot then going into the presentation after they had forked the repo which had the gh-pages branch set to default.  We later learned (through Margaret’s chatting with GitHub support) that it was likely the delay could be caused by not having edited anything yet on the gh-pages branch so in later workshops we had the girls follow along with Margaret and change the <title> of their index.html and commit the change.

Getting paired up, creating GitHub accounts and FORKING!

The presentation portion was about 10-15 minutes and started out with asking the girls to shout out what comes to mind when I say the word “HACK”.  Answers included “death row” and things along the lines of breaking or sneaking into someone’s computer, mostly things associated with dark or criminal activities.  A few did mention things like ‘nerd’ or ‘creative’ too.  When I showed them my examples for the talk we had a brief discussion about not asking for permission, being curious, creative, and taking ownership. After that we talked about Apple/iPhone and Google/Android.  Most of the girls had one or the other we explored how non-interchangeable they are, how much it might cost to be a developer for one or the other, the need to play by someone else’s rules in order to get your ideas out there.  My favourite part of this talk is repeating over and over how using open web technologies and the web itself is all about NOT ASKING PERMISSION.  You put your stuff up, tell people where it is, and they can go use it.  It can (and should) be that easy.

After the talking was done the young women had about 45 minutes to hack on their github sandboxes and test out making customizations to their matching game. We modeled it after Mozilla’s Thimble project which uses comments in the code to explain various areas of the code and gives ideas on what to change. Our take was to suggest they try (in increasing levels of difficulty):

  1. changing the background color/images (of the page, game box, card backs)
  2. changing the images on the cards when flipped
  3. change the music (few got to this part in the allotted time)

We saved 15 minutes at the end to do demos of what people did to their code and to come up and tell us what they did to achieve their end results.  Some of the customizations led to a newly themed game like pigs, magic, twilight, book covers, and other things the designers liked. A few girls went further and took snapshots of themselves on the laptop camera and used their own action shots in the match game, one girl had her own laptop and drawing tablet so she drew her own card faces and intro screen background, and another girl removed the card backs to make it look like the game box was all black – when I started to click during her demo and cards flipped I was surprised since I had thought the game was broken but she laughed and said it was on purpose.  It’s hilarious to me that she made a simple match game into a much harder challenge by hiding the discover-ability of the game.

LOTS of hacking going on here. Margaret and Larissa help out with question.

All in all the three workshops went smoothly, everyone got to do some hacking and see their results during the time we had allotted, and all the girls left with a new github account and code they can keep hacking and learning on over time.  During the course of the workshop we went around helping and answering questions and taught them about commit history, rolling back changes, and also using “Inspect Element” to figure out where to look in the code to make changes.  I should mention that at the beginning of every workshop I asked “Who here has touched HTML/CSS before?” and there were never more than half the hands in the room raised.  This comes up every year in the workshops I run. Some girls are getting this knowledge from parents, friends, self-teaching, and now things like CoderDojo (as one participant bragged) but there’s no indication that any of them are learning this in school where they spend a majority of their time. The thought that some girls are being left behind on this is sad to me, and I want to do all I can to help change that. Every single one of these young women left our workshop with a new spark in their eyes having now had first-hand experience with the power of creating web apps that can run on ANY WEB-ENABLED DEVICE. It was powerful to see.

So many new hackers of open source, mobile games.

So, what’s next?  I think this workshop should become another Webmaker and/or Hackasaurus project that can be taught anywhere, to anyone who wants to have a first-time experience with mobile app development.  We’re 80% of the way there, I’d say what’s left to do is:

* Code clean up (especially CSS) so that everything in the repo is clearly marked for its purpose and with comments on how to mess around with it. Specifically comments in the Javascript and exploration of that code – we didn’t touch this at all in our 1:15 hr workshops.

* Spend a bit more time, if you have it on basic HTML/CSS editing, using Inspect Element, and having cheat sheets printed up for participants.

* Have options for what to do next – getting off of github pages and hosting your own app, possibly with some server-side code.

It won’t take much to turn this into something more generic and useful for introducing people to the power of Firefox OS and HTML5 app creation and I look forward to continuing to develop this sort of material whenever I can. Thanks to the Desktop Support staff who prepped laptops for the conference, SF co-workers who lent their phones, and most of all to my coworkers who lent their time and their expertise: Margaret, Larissa, and Amy*.  Without all of you this would not have gone smoothly and because of you it was the best day of 2013 so far.

 

* At lunch we had a little Q&A with the 30 or so girls from the first workshop. They got to ask all of us questions about what we do and how we got there.  The four of us had such different paths & connections to technology. I love that we got to show these young women a variety of ways to engage with tech and to be in open source.

Daughter wins with Geek Dad who hacks video game gender pronouns

[x-posted from Geek Feminism]

Michael Chabon, in “Manhood for Amateurs”, writes an essay telling the story of being at the supermarket with his child, feeling quite run-down and barely hanging on, with his toddler in tow on a Sunday morning so as to give his wife a chance to sleep in. As he’s in line to pay, a woman in line with him says something along the lines of “You’re a good dad, I can tell just by looking”. At that moment he has this epiphany that to be a ‘good dad’ in our society one must merely not be in the process of killing a child in public whereas a women can rarely achieve the status of ‘good mother’ in the public’s ever-shaming eye. If they ever do briefly get told that, it is all too quick to fade with the barrage of societal and internalized messaging women get telling them they are never good enough.

Michael Chabon’s take was this:

“The handy thing about being a father is that the historic standard is so pitifully low.”

As someone who did not have a dad, I have nothing in my upbringing about what it’s like to be a young female with a grown male caring for you, teaching you, or taking an interest in your life’s outcome. Chabon does sum up for me the conclusions I came to, quite young, about these creatures called ‘fathers’. Growing up with my lesbian, feminist mother my understanding of the odds was that netting a ‘good dad’ seemed so low and I was convinced I was lucky for not having to participate in that particular life lottery.

To folks who did have ‘good dads’, this story might seem familiar to you, but to many it may come as quite a pleasant surprise. Someone I am proud to consider a friend had their blog post picked up by ArsTechnica today and, yes, the title of this article is very unfortunate but the amplification of what Mike Hoye did for his daughter is such a ‘good dad’ moment that I hope there will be ripples of this for months as well as more hacking of games to do even just that simple binary flip that helps a young girl see something more like herself as the hero of the stories the games people play are centered around. Imagine for a moment if we could take this kind of hacking to children’s television and movies. Those are immutable objects for now, but video games? Well, Mike has proven that a bit of hacking can go a long way.

Because I am fortunate enough to know Mike through my time at Seneca College where he was a regular mentor to our zealous open source program, I asked him if I could interview him for a Geek Feminism post and he said yes so we hopped into an etherpad and had a talk.

LB: Hi Mike!

First let’s be clear, you didn’t give a fictional character who exists only as pixels in a video game a ‘sex change’ but you certainly upset the dominant males-as-heroes pattern in video games by simply flipping the gendered forms of address in the text of the game where the Hero does in fact have quite a gender-neutral appearance. Does it feel radical to you to do this kind of hack?

MH: It certainly felt… transgressive. I’m an inveterate gamer and Legend Of Zelda fan, and the Zelda series revolves around some pretty well-used tropes. You know you’re going to be the hero, that there’s going to be the Master Sword, a bow, the boomerang, the hookshot… Changing something, especially something as basic as the nature of the characters, feels like it should be a pretty big deal.

But at the same time, it seems like I’m just solving a problem that’s stubbornly refused to solve itself. That option should always have been there.

LB: You gloss over a bit in your post, will you put up more details (maybe another blog post) of step-by-step instructions to help people who have less technical depth than you try to do this at home with their kids? Alternately, is there a way to package up what you did and distribute it without getting yourself put in jail (or heavily fined)?

MH: The way I packaged it up – by making it clear that you’ll have to find the original material on your own, but here is the tool you’ll need to apply the following changes – is the best I could come up with. As for the step-by-step instructions… I found the game’s disk image, opened it up in a hex editor – I used http://ridiculousfish.com/hexfiend/ for that, because it works really well with extremely large files – but once you’ve done that, you just need to make a copy of the disk image, and work on that one; just page around the file until you find the dialog, and then start editing it. The important thing, at least as far as the approach I took, was that you need to be extremely careful to use phrases that are exactly, letter-for-letter the same length as the phrases you’re replacing and make sure you can see the difference between a space (one kind of whitespace) and a linebreak, that look the same in the text but have different numerical values.

It helped me to use a very basic text editor with a fixed-with font, so that I could copy the phrases I was replacing out and work on them for a while without committing anything back until I was reasonably happy with them.

LB: I wonder if you handed this hack back to the game developers/publishers, would they be receptive to putting out the alternate version, considering how simple the hack really is?

MH: It’s unlikely that my approach is well-suited for that – I’m not building in an option that a player would be able to toggle. You either change the whole game or nothing.

LB: That’s a good point. Advocating for more options in the game defaults seems like a great tactic here over asking for entirely different releases of games.

Any plans for other games that you play with your daughter where you might want to make this similar adaptation?

MH: I don’t know – it depends on what she’d like to play next. We haven’t started The Ocarina Of Time yet, so that’s a candidate. But so much of this depends on whatever holds Maya’s interests that it’s impossible for me to say.

LB: It will be interesting when she grows up and talks to others about playing the game, perhaps slipping in a female pronoun. The looks of confusion from other players will hopefully make her laugh and perhaps feel bad for them that their dads didn’t take these matters into their own hands. My mom did a similar thing for me with pronouns in Dr. Seuss stories on characters that were too gender-stereotyped with no bad side effects so far, to my knowledge.

MH: God, I can only hope.

LB: Obviously you’re an accomplished hacker, what is your approach to hacking with your child(ren) in terms of meeting kids where their skills are at?

MH: I don’t have fully-formed thoughts about this yet. I’d like to start by asking Maya what she’d like to create – not necessarily out of code, but starting with carpentry or paint, and then helping her work stuff through. The only overarching principle I want her to understand is that she can, if she puts her mind to it, make and change things.

LB: Have you had to deal with any sentiments from your daughter that suggest she might get messages telling her that computers are ‘for boys’ or that doing anything hacky or tech-related isn’t ‘for girls’?

MH: Yeah, that shit is pervasive. It’s not so much computers – there aren’t a lot of those in school yet – but “boys do this”, “girls do that”, that starts awfully early.

I quiz her on it, when it comes up – Why do you think that? And the answer is always, always that one of the other kids, usually boys, in her class told her. It’s… disheartening, but you push back when you can.

LB: That’s interesting that your anecdotal evidence is that the boys seem to be doing more of the gender policing. In my experience it was more the girls who seemed invested in protecting ladydom.

MH: My sample may not be representative (interviewer acknowledges that hers wasn’t either) (also, it’s certainly possible that I’m not getting a reliable story from Maya, who has in the last two weeks claimed to be a girl, a boy, a crab, a moose and, earlier, a pentagon. So she may not be the most reliable narrator.

LB: Starting kindergarten can be a time when the gender binary really hits home for kids and the positive messages a kid gets at home start to become overwritten by the massive mainstream’s – are you having to up the ante in un-learning?

MH: She is in preschool, not quite kindergarden yet – and I don’t really have a clear sense of how things get addressed there – I suspect well, but I don’t know. Having said that, I think the old lead-by-example tropes are important. Mom and Dad treat each other with respect, even when we disagree, and insist that Maya does so as well. When she uses some other kid’s misbehavior as a justification for her own, we don’t accept that as an excuse, and occasionally admit our own mistakes as well.

photo of a child with a backpack ready to head out the door to school

Mostly, though, we just try to avoid television and Disney movies, and try to avoid books where the women are either helpless NPCs or props or both. It’s not always a perfect approach, because frankly there’s not a lot of those books out there, but it’s an uphill battle. But so is all parenting, so hey.

LB: Should we talk about the “P” word? Are there inklings of wanting to be a princess? Even if it was Princess Leia (who is now owned by Disney) would this fly with you and your particular approach?

MH: I don’t really know. We’re not there yet. She’s expressed as much interest in being a princess as she has in being a moose at this point, so I’m not super-concerned about it.

We’ll go through that phase at some point, I’m sure, but I just don’t want it to be the only phase she goes through.

LB: Love the moose stuff – where is that coming from?

MH: She has a shirt where the moose has antlers, so she holds up her hands to her head like antlers and says “MOOSE” and charges. It’s pretty great, unless you’re afraid of moose.

LB: Have you broken the news to her that moose are really big and stinky? Also a menace on country roads in Canada? :)

MH: For polite situations, she’ll hold up only one hand, and be a half-moose.

LB: You’re doing a great job here :)

Are you aware of projects such as: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/16029337/goldieblox-the-engineering-toy-for-girls ?

MH: Yeah, I gave them some money on general principles.

LB: Can you speak to what works/doesn’t for you in terms of making technology feel accessible to your daughter and what seems to entice her or dissuade her from the things we technologists might be taking for granted?

MH: It’s too early to say. Right now, she’s surrounded by the tech Mom and Dad use in our day to day lives, watching us work with it. She understands very quickly how to use it herself. So far, to be quite blunt, “Accessible” means “stuff I can manipulate without needing to know how to read”, which basically means touchscreens with icons or hardware with big buttons, where interactions don’t generally have hard consequences.

LB: That brings up a good question – what does Mom do with regards to hacking or owning/customizing things in a way that teaches curiosity and exploration of creativity? Are you a one-man show, or is a love of technology, gaming, hacking something the whole family participates in to varying levels?

MH: Mom has almost no interest in technology per se. It’s not her thing, but her hobbies – more artistic, craftier in general – are complimentary, and also something Maya’s taken to.

LB: So your daughter gets balance then, between those many areas. I think it’s great that you take such responsibility for transferring your knowledge and sharing your passions with your kids.

MH: I’m not sure how they learn any other way.

LB: Final question:
What would you list as starting point for useful tools/skills a geek or geek-leaning parent might want to have at their disposal tohelp them alter the tech realities around us in this way and other ways that upset the defaults?

MH: I don’t think there’s one answer to that question, certainly not one that’s less than book length or applies to everyone. The thing that you ultimately need to do is to believe that not only can you look behind the curtain, but that if you’re a little bit smart and a little bit careful, you’ll be able to step up and operate the machinery there yourself. That’s what I’m hoping Maya takes from this – there may be an infinite number of things in the world you don’t understand, but there’s nothing that you can’t understand, and a little patience, a little courage and enough small steps. will get you there.

LB: Thanks for sharing your approach here, Mike, I think you’re an inspiration for open source geek parenting and I hope we’ll see more of these sorts of hacks in the years to come until they are no longer even “hacks” but in fact, defaults or built-in options.

MH:There’s a lot of work left to do, but we’ll get there.

Isn’t “hack” a bad word?

This past weekend I led another soft circuits 101 workshop as a Mozilla Rep at a women’s music festival near SF called Fabulosa. I had one hour to teach people really basic electricity, circuits, and how to ‘hack’ their clothes/sculptures/lives with a 3V battery and some LEDs.

The reason I love to do this workshop is because I find it gives participants a physical representation of the hacker spirit Mozilla aims to embody for the web.  Learning soft circuits is just the tip of the iceberg and I always stress that the web has much more info for them to continue exploring, learning, being curious about how to create and modify technology in their lives.  In one hour, I just show them how to make light.

This workshop was smaller than the ~80 girls who came through at Dare 2B Digital.  The festival setting meant there were more conflicts of interest so I had 6 participants instead of the 20-25 I had planned for. The 6 participants were all very enthusiastic though, and we started off with a go-around to hear why people were interested in learning soft circuitry.  One person was hoping to learn how to light up her clay sculptures, another wanted to make art for Burning Man, and a few had costume ideas in mind.

I spent the first 10-15 minutes explaining electricity, how a circuit works, and what kind of circuit they would be creating with their 3V batteries and LEDs – their circuits would be made using conductive thread sewn into felt (or some other material if they brought it).  With only 40 minutes left, we got to work – everyone started in on their first circuit.

While we were casually chatting during the building time, one woman said “I thought ‘hack’ was a bad word” (I had written a large “HACK” on the whiteboard to inspire).  I’m so glad she brought this up and we had a chance to discuss the very reason for workshops like these, and for Mozilla. I explained to her that while it might once have been a vilified term, it has now been largely reclaimed as people work to make sure that they have full ownership of the things they buy, or make.  Encouraging people to open their minds up to the potential of hacking their lives – whether on the web or in the physical world – always feels great.  I was happy that even in this small gathering, we got to discuss this very key issue for technology going into the future, and that there are now 6 new hackers in the world.

Dare 2B Digital 2012 – Wrap up post

Fox with firefox logo

Better late than never, I will recount Mozilla’s participation in the 2012 Dare 2B Digital conference back in February down in San Jose.  This year we were hosted at the eBay campus and instead of being out in a hallway demoing and playing with open video and universal subtitles (2011) this year Mozilla was all about making, in a large space shared with Microsoft, encouraging the girls to work with a variety of hardware, circuitry, robotics, and creating 3D printer designs for a MakerBot.

Before I go into the details of the kits and the day of the event, there are some very important people to thank:

Tremendous amounts of props must be first given to Emily Lovell whose soft circuits teaching guide I discovered at the 2011 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.  Her exercises, diagrams, and lists of resources were at the core the kit I designed to teach the girls about parallel circuits through assembling a felt fox and attaching LEDs to the eyes that are powered by conductive thread and a watch battery.  Thank you to Mozilla for sponsoring the Dare 2B Digital conference again this year, it is such an important space for us to be in as it gives us a chance to promote open source to a young audience that is still undecided about college majors and it’s our chance to encourage them to at least consider a technical career path. I hope that having an early, positive, creative experience with Mozilla and open source technologies provides the girls with an awareness of alternative ways of engaging with technology. Mozilla Reps provided the budget for these kits to be made – not only for the workshop attendees, but also enough kits to put one in every take-home bag for all conference participants.  It is certainly my hope that many girls who couldn’t make it to the workshop due to lack of space will still attempt to make their foxes at home with a parent or sibling.  Finally, I cannot thank enough the various Mozilla employees and other friends who helped me assemble 350 kits for the actual event – my vision for this event could NOT have been done without their generous donations of time and their assistance on the day of the event helping the girls complete their kits. Thank you especially to day-of volunteers: Kate, Vicky, Alex, Christina, the Super Awesome Sylvia and her parents James and Christina,  and the add-hoc assembling factory workers: Mariko, Heather, William, and the entire UX team at Mozilla.  My girlfriend Jenny also helped me assemble some of the first kits at home while I cut all the felt sheets into smaller sizes for the foxes. My most sincere gratitude to you all, it went off without a hitch…except for the handful of batteries that exploded…but that was my fault :)

Now for some detail about what was involved in this project in case you want to replicate or improve on it.

A lot of felt foxes

The idea was pretty simple. The kit would be a takeout food box that contained everything needed to make a parallel circuit on a felt fox.  I ended up designing the felt fox myself after attempting to make something work with Lisa Higuchi who does amazing work but as I found myself running out of time I just created a simple pattern that could be held together with felt glue and then sewn/wired up in about an hour – which was the length of the workshop.  The soft circuit guide had the information needed for ordering supplies so in the end the kit’s component list looked like this:

  • 100 9×12 sheets of copper brown felt (400 fox faces)
  • 100 9×12 sheets of white felt (400 fox eye areas)
  • 30 9×12 sheets of black felt (450 nose/eye/inner ears)
  • 10 spools of conductive thread from Adafruit
  • 400 3v batteries
  • 400 battery holders
  • 800 yellow LEDs
  • 400 red takeout boxes
  • 5 bottles of felt glue
  • 400 small ziploc bags
  • 400 needles
  • 1200 pins (intended for holding the felt pieces together for sewing, they ended up being superfluous because of the glue)
  • 400 manual/pattern sheets

 

Shot of the pattern and instructionsThe felt firefox kit contents

I literally threw together a manual and a pattern at the 11th hour, as the UX team was coming to help me assemble the kits one night after work.  The manual leaves out a lot of the detail as to HOW to make the felt fox. Fortunately it includes a picture of a completed fox, so hopefully a resourceful teen at home can determine how to make her fox kit work. I have definitely learned from this experience to make creating the instructional materials a much higher priority next time.  The pattern was done in haste with a sharpie, me tracing around the parts of my prototype fox, I’m actually pretty OK with how that part turned out. When we assembled the kits we put all the small components into a ziploc bag and put said bag, one square each of white/brown/black felt, and a folded up instruction sheet into each takeout box.  The takeout box was a really robust container for kits and yet kept things light. I had no trouble carrying the 350 kits, in various bags and boxes, to my car to take down to SJ on the day of the conference.

The kits are in the bag stuffing lineEarly in the morning on Saturday February 12th, 2012 I drove the 350 kits down to the eBay campus and kept ~70 kits in our Maker room, leaving the rest with the D2BD volunteers who were stuffing bags with swag for the girls: Make magazines, usb bracelet, stickers, notebooks, a water bottle, and (among other things) a Mozilla felt fox circuits kit.  Then back in our room I had two of the Mozilla volunteers for the day make their own foxes so they’d be ready to help the girls when the first round arrived a few hours in.  Kate and Christina did a wonderful job of creating their first parallel circuits and spent the rest of the day being professional felt fox makers :)

Helpers make their foxes

As with last year, I found that out of the three workshops we did that day the first was a bit rough, the second quite smooth and the third was a cakewalk.  We can learn so much in one day about how to improve the process and the set up.  The first thing learned was that we had a bottleneck situation on scissors and glue.  5 bottles seemed like a lot to me but when split between two tables with at least 10 girls at each that was no longer the case.  I had brought in all my scissors from home, which turned out to be a lot (6) for a home, but not enough for the workshop.  We did scare up a few more pairs and optimized for workshop two by keeping the pre-cut paper pattern pieces for the next group of girls to minimize scissor time needed.  Another surprise: some girls did not know how to sew.   This was something I hadn’t thought of ahead of time since I learned to sew at a pretty young age.  This fact leads me thinking that because of time constraints, 1.25 hrs per workshop, using ‘squishy’ circuits might have been a stronger learning experience here.  The sewing is probably more appropriate for a half-day workshop or even full day if possible.

Customization of the fox pattern

Customizations happened.  I loved that girls immediately took to hacking the fox pattern as designed by me; adding bows, crowns, and eyelashes to their foxes.  It made me glad I hadn’t found time to pre-cut the fox parts.  The back of the fox head is easy to draw a circuit path on and see/experience polarity – using sharpies on felt was a great way of going over the concept of a circuit, right on the material about to be used.  I am really happy with the overall teaching experience here.  Several girls showed incredible tenacity in the face of adversity.  One young woman in particular, having a very hard time with the sewing, went out and got her lunch and then brought it back to the table to continue her work – she re-did the sewing and managed to get it working.  The whole time she was silent and focused and I really wish I had pointed out to her that her attitude was the most impressive, hire-able skill I can think of.  I’m sure she’s going to do well in whatever field of study she pursues.  One young woman cracked me up when she became frustrated with threading her needle, exclaiming “This is why women revolted!”.

In conclusion – the event was a tremendous success – both the conference as a whole and the Mozilla workshop flourished this year. The conference does a great job of pulling feedback from participants, as they must hand in a form to get their swag bag at the end of the day.  We see in the feedback that we did a wonderful job of getting the young women excited about and considering career paths in technology. In the summary from the feedback forms “87% thought the robotics workshop (Mozilla/Microsoft) was great or good”. Also 100% of respondents would recommend this conference to a friend or another parent.

I really look forward to dreaming up something next year to top this.  I have no fixed idea yet because part of the fun of doing this conference/workshop is waiting and seeing what exciting new open technology would be a good fit at the time. I’m definitely going to keep the issues from this year in mind when formulating a plan for next year, and pay attention to minimizing participant wait times in order to increase overall satisfaction with the project.  When I initially came up with this idea, I was worried that it didn’t have a strong tie to Mozilla’s mission, but as I continued to develop and finally executing it I felt more and more like the way we work on projects like this is such a product of how we work on keeping things open on the web.  It was thanks to the web that I found the guide which helped me with planning, it was thanks to the spirit of the open web that people I work with (and some with whom I don’t) came out and volunteered to help make this happen. Getting your hands on a building block of technology, modifying it to make it your own, sharing the results – that too is the open web, and it’s what the day provided for all the young women in our workshops. I look forward to seeing what the future holds with these potential hackers in it.

Group shot with completed foxes

Lukas helping with fox making

 

 

 

 

My First Startup Weekend: Women 2.0 Startup Weekend

On November 18th, 2011 I jumped into the deep end of the Bay Area startup culture I have been lurking on the periphery of for the past two years of living here. After going to my first Geek Girl Dinner at Microsoft a month ago, and preparing to talk about women in open source at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, it seemed very much up my alley to sign up for the Women 2.0 Startup Weekend held in SF at The Hatchery.  Originally Angie had asked me to be one of the mentors which, while incredibly flattering, seemed beyond my current skill set.  I do always have ideas for new projects/apps though and I’ve been trying to get even more full on development experience under my belt so it seemed like a deal to get to spend 54 hours working on a startup idea for $50.

[tangent]

I love the immersion-as-classroom experience, btw.  I made my first Super 8 film in 1999 at G.I.F.T.S under similar conditions where I lived with my other new-to-filmmaking cohort in a couple of trailers-turned-bunkhouses over on the beautiful island of Galiano and for one week we did nothing but eat, sleep, and breathe guerrilla filmmaking.  We shot, hand-developed, transferred, and then edited our work, cranking out an entire short film in just one week.  I left that experience filled with confidence that I could make a movie a week for the rest of my life!*

What I was hoping for out of my first Startup Weekend was an up-to-your-armpits code-a-thon and what I got was…very much NOT that. Here’s what I got out of Women 2.0 Startup Weekend instead:
Pitching 101
Some people had come prepared.  They had read an email I missed, knew what was supposed to be in a pitch, perhaps even had some code or a site name or some idea of what they would need to take the next step into their imagined company.  I had none of these things.  I had 2 ideas, one of which had occurred to me the week before on a bike ride.  I jotted down my ideas quickly and ‘pitched’ them to a couple of women I knew from other local events (like my CodeChix pal, Vicki).  Both of my ideas seemed to get people interested and with the help of a few very kind listeners, I chose which one I would officially pitch and worked on naming the imaginary app as well as figuring out what salient points I wanted to get across.  It seemed wise to me to get into the early round of pitchers, little did I know that there would be about 67 pitches.  I was #6 and so it took a long time to get to the point of being able to move about the room chatting people up, which I am sometimes not so good at.
  • What I did: I pitched it, was too shy to really reach out to strangers and try to woo them to my idea, I hid my sign for a while only taking it out when people asked me about it, I got 7 sticky-note ‘votes’ for it (which was amazing to me), but I already knew that I would not be working on this project over the weekend and I was shopping around for a team that I would be excited to spend my next 54 hours with.
  • What I will do next time: Work more on my pitch ahead of time, have a clear idea of WHO I would like to join me, go around the room and find people who match those roles, have more research about my ‘market’ ready to help with the business side of things.
  • What I wish Startup Weekend organizers could improve: Help people match up by roles – so have all the designers go to one corner, all the marketing folks, all the developers, etc.  Give us a visual of who’s there looking to do what so that we can more easily go around and network.  It seems less efficient to me that I would have to go chat up 10 people and perhaps discover that none of them are a match for what I’d be seeking. Even putting this info on people nametags would help – especially for folks who have multiple skills they want to highlight.
A Team is Formed
The eliminations were happening and I already knew I was going to put my idea aside for another time, so I had to figure out where I would lend my energy for the 54 hours to come.  I’d been interested in a project called Safe Steps whose goal was to help independent women set a timer on their travel to ensure safe arrival at their expected destination. I spoke briefly with the woman who pitched it, and I had already learned from a conversation with a volunteer that the pitcher was a seasoned pro at marketing.  I felt like I would learn a lot in that team but I was still checking around for other ideas.  In the chaos of the eliminations I ended up behind a pillar with 4 people (one is a coworker at Mozilla) and two of them I had met briefly when they accosted me, they were looking for people who could program in C (and though I did it in school 4 years ago, I was not about to claim any proficiency). I asked if they had found what they were looking for and inquired about what they were planning.  Judy explained her pitch about doing an educational project with the Kinect to teach language to children. I have experience teaching technology to both youth and adults, so working on anything that helps make educational materials accessible to all types of learners, as well as the possibility of doing hands-on Kinect-hacking for the first time, was all it took to sweep me up into this team that was bouncing off the walls and repeating those magic words: “Kinect” and “education”.
Team Roles
We had 54 hours to come up with a demo of our ‘company’ for a panel of judges to evaluate based on marketability, creativity, and feasibility so when we got our workspace assigned to us at 9:30pm that Friday night we went straight to work. Introductions all around, describing our experience and what drew us to the project, came first and then we divided up into the technical team: James and I, and the Business/Strategy/Research team: Judy, Elsa, and Jen.
Our technical idea seemed simple at first – Grab the Kinect motion data and send it to
Processing.js so users could interact with a language learning flashcard game that was one of many ‘decks’ our ‘platform’ would support. The initial deck would be a simple game with a bear where the bear calls out a verb, enacts it, then waits for the user to imitate both the motion and the word.  I really did go into this thinking that was simple.  Am I crazy?  Turns out none of that was within our reach in a 54 hour period. The challenges are too many to list completely but here’s a few: both James and I were completely new to Kinect-hacking. While open source Kinect hacks exist there were lots of library conflicts, documentation gaps, and finicky
installations that led to failure on several frameworks we were trying and build on. I could get the Depth.js example to work in Chrome for a second (but never again for unknown reasons), but couldn’t compile the native google plugin from the depth.js
project so couldn’t write new code for the extension. I couldn’t build the OpenNI Sample-NiUserTracker after altering
it to add a network tunnel so that it would report data to a
node.js server (though I’m happy to have now touched Node.js even just a bit!). By Saturday late evening we had nothing to show except an intimate knowledge of library linking errors and compile failure messages.  There still isn’t a ton of material online about how to work with the Kinect data in a usable way.  This actually gets me excited for future projects but at this point in Startup Weekend, we had to get ourselves a demo for Sunday’s judging.
We decided to move on to the Kinect SDK that Microsoft provides, we installed Visual Studio 2008 Express and an open source gesture recognition library which allowed us to capture a movement and assign it to a saved gesture namespace.   In the end, our demo was created in a few hours by James using those tools (and a bit of C#) while I came up with some very quick animations objects and put together our landing page.
Needless to say, the weekend was nowhere near being a code-a-thon.  It was surprising to me how long it took to try and get a development environment setup and what I take away from this experience is that when the time comes to work on my own idea, if I bring it to a Startup Weekend, I should have the beginnings of an implementation already and have settled on a framework to build on that I am familiar with so that I can spend more time being creative about the idea and less time fiddling with configurations and installations of unfamiliar code.
Oh ya, but we won!
I should mention that the whole time we were having our ups and downs with the technical side Judy, Elsa, and Jen worked hard at analyzing all the angles of language learning by doing.  I listened in at one point on a very helpful discussion with Cindy Alvarez who asked great questions about “what next?”. Sure, verbs and kids are easy and lots of language-learning stops there – how would we push the envelope and take people to other levels?  We had lots of mentors come by, and all of them poked and prodded at the research and story-shaping that the business end of the team was doing. At the end of the weekend our team won first place with a demo that had very little custom code in it, but I think we did well because we told a great story and had an extremely well thought out marketing strategy. When our demo was complete the judges were silent at first.  Finally one of them asked the question we had prepared for “so, after learning verb with bears- what next?” to which I answered that we could build a platform for AI interactions in WebGL 3D space with the Kinect.  Yes, I like to promise technology that doesn’t really exist yet.  It sure is exciting to imagine it though.
Some final thoughts
Startup Weekend, to me, felt a lot more like a school project than ‘real life’.  This is most likely due to the fact that I have a really great full time job right now and am looking at startup ideas mostly as learning and hobby and not necessarily something I would do for money for a few more years (at least). All the reading I have done about startups gets me thinking that I would likely go the way of bootstrapping and working on my scalable project in my spare time instead of trying to get a big VC investment and leave a steady job for the unknown. In terms of working during the weekend there are lots of ways to fall down rabbit holes and lose focus when you are working on something that is completely new. I love getting to learn about new technologies but there was this time pressure that kept us coming back to a general goal of having something to show at the Sunday evening presentations. The Startup Weekend environment isn’t one for coding/development efficiency. It’s distracting to have other people and their ideas/surveys/questions coming around a lot and to be working out in the open with your entire team instead of under noise-cancelling headphones as I normally do.  It’s not bad, it’s just not a focused environment and it’s good to know that for next time.  I think it would help me set my expectations differently.  It was important for me to learn that the goal of Startup Weekend is not necessarily to have a working application at the end but to have a really well thought out idea and story about your company’s goal.
Speaking of story, come on out to TEDx Women next week where Elsa from Words With Bears will be presenting ours! Most importantly,  I want to say that Words With Bears was a great team to work with. I heard stories of teams falling apart or losing team members, none of that touched us at all. We started strong and we ended strong. We’re continuing to stay in touch and aim to develop this idea
into something bigger.
* This is not what ended up happening, but I will always carry with me the knowledge that with little else than enthusiasm, a couple of rolls of film, and willing friends, a tremendous amount of creative output is possible in a short time with no budget.