The Curse Of The Generalist

Or, Why I Don’t Do Well At Hack Days

Hack Days

Hack Days

What do all of the hack events on the right have in common? Can’t see the link?

Well, they’re all Hack Days/events which I’ve attended but never hacked anything worth demoing. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t wasted my time. I’ve usually redesigned my website or noodled about with something trivial, as well as just hanging out with friends. Which is great, but there hasn’t been much to show for it at the end.

Most hack organisers encourage you to play with this or that API or data provided by the Sponsors. They probably don’t want to see the new WordPress theme you’ve written for your own personal photographic site during the demo sessions.

So what? You could have done that at home, anytime.

Why Don’t I Do Specific Hacks?

My problem is twofold. Firstly, I just don’t seem to have any original ideas for cool stuff to build, even if given the data and other info in advance. Some people are ideas people, and they come up with amazing projects in their sleep. I’m just not one of them.

“Ah, well team up and make someone else’s idea!” I hear you say.

This is where we come to my second problem.

I’m a generalist. I always have been.

I know a bit of stuff about a lot of things. But not many of them in much depth. As I lone freelancer building mainly “brochure” websites for SME clients directly, I have to know a wide gamut of things from database management right the way through to visual design and UX. So when other hackers ask what I do, it’s tough to say where my strongest skills lie.Β And because I usually work on projects on my own most of the time, I don’t have much self-confidence to team up with other people. Sounds pathetic, doesn’t it? But that’s how it is.

Like it or not, there’s also a lot of latent (and not-so-latent) snobbery amongst some of the dev community. What do I mean? Well, the vast majority of other hackers seem to use Macs, they don’t write PHP and they use completely different dev tools to me. Most of the “OMG you use Windows and PHP and Dreamweaver?” jibes are meant in jest, but they don’t do much to inspire self confidence in people who are already lacking in that department. And it can be difficult to get these disparate environments to play nicely together anyway.

Learn Ruby! Get a mac! Use TextMate! are all “solutions” to my problem. Apparently. As if I didn’t have enough things I know a bit (but not enough) about…

There Have Been Exceptions

Which Tee - Leeds Hack 1

Which Tee – Leeds Hack 1

Built Hacks

Built Hacks

There have been three notable exceptions to the usual Caz-Goes-To-A-Hack-Event-And-Yet-Again-Doesn’t-Achieve-Anything scenarios.

Culture Hack in London saw me build a rough and ready searchable database of the Radio Times. You could look up what was on the telly on the day you were born. Exciting eh?

I worked on it on my own using my familiar tools. For once, I had an idea. Just not a very useful one.

At Leeds Hack 1Β I teamed up with Alistair and Martin to put together a silly app helping geeks not to wear the same tshirt as their mates each day. We just about cobbled something together, but we had teething troubles and I didn’t really feel like I had contributed very much πŸ™

We won some biscuits – yay!

OTA ’11 saw me throw my hat into the ring and pick up a saw to helpΒ Ewan and LeekyΒ build a little Enigma machine! We didn’t win a thing, but we had fun.

So maybe I should do more hardware hacking? But that’s often not as easy as it sounds as most hack events are heavily biased towards programming, even if you are using some “hardware”.

I haven’t bothered to attend some recent hack events in light of the issues above. You probably think that’s a cop out. But it does stop me stressing about this stuff. It just doesn’t help to address any of it. Which is why I’m a bit apprehensive about attending Hacked.io this weekend. If you see me faffing about with my local camera club’s website, you’ll know why. πŸ™

Maybe my biggest problem is, I know a lot of very smart people and therefore feel so left behind with my skills. That’s certainly not an easy thing to put right in 24 hours, although I’m trying to chip away at it bit by bit, whilst still attempting to earn a living.

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4 Responses to The Curse Of The Generalist

  1. Dom Hodgson says:

    One of the things I’ve been trying to encourage for Leedshack is that you can demo anything you want, if you’ve make a wordpress theme, come up on stage, if you’ve spent the weekend creating a collection of domo’s in weird positions and photographing them.. show us.. I want hackdays to be less about technical skill and more about creativity and trying new things.. the end product doesn’t matter that much..

    I do rails development on windows a lot and wrote quite a bit of PHP last week, I too have a lot of friends that are a lot smarter than me but thats why I team up with them at hackdays, to learn from them and contribute where I can.

    I’m always willing to talk about how I can make my events more inclusive, you know where I live πŸ™‚

    • Caz M says:

      Thanks Dom. Leeds Hack is one of those I don’t feel too pressurised by. And it’s good to know that you are happy to see whatever noodling I’ve been up to during the weekend at demo time – it’s not always obvious that’s the case though πŸ˜‰

      But there are many other Hack events (more and more now) where it just seems to be about WINNING something GREAT if you programme this that or the other and only if you use the Sponsor’s API/data/widget/whatever, and much less about the actual participation – no matter what you have built or not built.

      Which I feel puts undue pressure on people like me because we feel we’re not “worthy” of showing what we’ve done if it’s got nothing to do with the Sponsor’s stuff.

      P.S. I never expect to win anything (not even biscuits!).

    • Caz M says:

      With regards teaming up with other folks, I usually just feel I’m so far behind their skills (yours included) that I’ll be the one holding people back and we won’t get it done in time. Sounds dumb, but most of the time I feel it πŸ™

      It seems that people want to build cool stuff at Hack events, not tutor other people on basic stuff…