Idea or Execution #79 #cong18


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About Stephen Howell:

Stephen Howell is the Academic Program Manager for Microsoft Ireland. Stephen is a passionate advocate of CoderDojo and Computational Thinking both in and outside the classroom. He developed Kinect 2 Scratch and is a PhD candidate in SMARTLab, UCD on Computational Thinking education with kinaesthetic learning. Before joining Microsoft he was a software engineer and Computing lecturer on software development education and games based learning. He is dad of 4, a dedicated geek, an Aspie & ADHD dad, and a Breaker of Things.

Contacting Stephen Howell:

You can follow Stephen on Twitter or send him an email.

By Stephen Howell

I help host and organise student hackathons, events where groups work in teams to build and present something new in a day, or weekend. Once the domain of engineers and computer scientists, increasingly hackathons are open to students of all disciplines. Teams have become a blend of engineering, business, and arts majors. Generally, this is a good thing. Students should be exposed to ‘other’ disciplines and learn the value of different skills and working with people they aren’t already friends with.

The hardest part of hosting a hackathon is when the group doesn’t work. The student who can code offers to build the entry. The artistic student is sketching the UI. The marketing student is ready to polish up a presentation on the finished work. And then there’s the student, who could be of any discipline, who thinks they won’t need to actually doanything – they are the ‘ideas’ person.

Ideas in a hackathon are rarely the deciding factor in a successful entry. The learning process of building, presenting, and striving to finish in a constrained time are key. Students who think that what they have to offer is idea generation, and not implementation or illumination, are often disappointed when they realise that their contribution was quite small to the team’s overall success.

Hackathons can be a muddy reflection of a real start-up; the start-up I was most closely involved with had the ‘idea’ coalesce over a pregnancy, but the hard work and success took much longer than 9 months. The idea was so simple it could be summarised in a sentence, the creation of a successful company to implement it, a hefty tome.

The same bias as to the value of an ‘idea’ to a successful hackathon or start-up is evident when speaking to judges and investors. Those of an engineering background critique implementation. The business folk are excited by the idea, even if the implementation is incomplete, non-existent or occasionally, against the laws of known physics. This is not to say that ideas have no value, but to highlight the angles at which differently experienced folk look at the same idea & implementation.

The most humbling aspect of reflecting on one’s own history of ideas must not be the good ideas you had and how you executed them, but what other people did with them. History abounds with accidental inventions that the creator ignored because it wasn’t what they had set out to do, only for someone else to recognise the value of their idea, albeit for a different purpose. While I haven’t had any world changing ideas yet, a similar experience for me was publishing some software, for free, for teaching kids how to code by making games you could play using your body. At least, that’s what I thought it would be used for. Instead, medical researchers in Taiwan used the software to treat children with cerebral palsy by turning their boring exercise regime into a stretching game. Chinese special needs assistants used the software to teach autistic children how to safely cross the road. An Italian retirement home made simple games for the residents that they could play from their armchairs. I didn’t have any of those great ideas, but I enabled them by creating the software. My one small idea implemented adequately allowed diverse and fascinating ideas to grow, even though they weren’t in my discipline or previous experience. Perhaps executing well on one small idea, and becoming a platform for bigger and stranger ideas, is enough for this engineer.

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