Monday, February 9, 2015

What my kids' Hackathon experience taught me about triathlon

Grant and Spencer watching the awards

Spencer and Grant competed in their second 36-hour "Hackathon" this past weekend at VT Hacks. Hackathons are immersive events where mainly college-aged programmers and developers come together in small teams to create projects from scratch and compete for prizes. Last year Spencer and Grant won a prize. They displayed a great work ethic, teamwork, and were the only middle-schoolers at the event. This year it would be tougher to stand out.

After much thought, the brothers (now in 7th and 9th grades) came up with the idea for a cloud-based clipboard that allows the user to copy a string of text or whatever from one device (laptop, android, etc) and then paste it onto another device. They had the idea, the name - CloudBoard, the skills, and the belief that they could do it.

Friday night they set to work, amidst hundreds of other programmers from all around the east coast.

They did accomplish their goal of creating a working prototype. They did not win one of the many sponsor prizes. I thought they might be disappointed, yet at the end of nearly 48 hours at this event, they were anything BUT disappointed. They could not have been happier, more energized, or more motivated for the next project. Their heads were brimming with ideas and excitement and they were practically bouncing off the walls.

Spencer and Grant fine-tuning CloudBoard for judging

The weekend was a giant success for them. I asked them about how they felt and why, and as we talked, I realized the roots of their satisfaction are pretty universal and apply to triathlon racing too. 

They had a clear achievable goal going in. They knew what they wanted to accomplish and could name it! Their goal was to create this app, not to win an award. (In triathlon this translates to goals like a negative split run or strong swim start rather than a certain finish position.)

They had belief and trusted in their skills. Despite the inherent uncertainty of a project like this, they had strong belief in their coding knowledge, ability to problem solve, and teamwork. (We can't know our race result in advance, we can only trust in the training process and preparation we've put in.)

They went there to learn. The kids said during the group formation phase of the Hackathon (for those who need groups or group members) the organizer said to think in terms of what you are there to learn, not what you already know. That resonated with Spencer and Grant and me too! (Great approach to races - don't race from a place of fear, take a chance and see what can be learned.)

They pushed through the hard parts. They ran into a number of tough technical problems but never gave up. (Accept that the tough parts come with anything worth doing and that one can move through them.)

One of the demo areas

They had fun. They enjoyed the programming, but more importantly they enjoyed the whole event. They played Super Smash Bros and League of Legends and broke up the work with fun. (Find what makes it fun and keeps it light!)

They did not define their success by the judgement of others. They had internal satisfaction knowing their personal goals were met. (Don't define success by others! Race your own race and focus on your individual goals.)

They remained flexible and adjusted their plan as needed. When a Mac specific issue could not be overcome they switched to the PC side for their project.  (Not everything in a race will go according to plan. Accept the unexpected and adapt.)

They used the results as a stepping stone, not an endpoint. They are already thinking about next steps for CloudBoard and new ideas for future Hackathons. There is continuity in their journey. (A race does not define us, we are the journey not the waypoints!)

They received and gave help. A new set of eyes gave them a fresh perspective that allowed them to debug and fix problems. (Encourage others and that will come back many-fold.)

They drew energy from the community. As Grant noted, there was "not a jerk in the whole group", and everyone there shared similar interests and had an ease of interaction. (The race field is there first and foremost to help bring out your best!)

The awards and finalist demos

If you want to finish a race and feel as amazing as Spencer and Grant did after this event (and believe me, you DO), then follow their lead. I plan to - particularly the part about the "what can be learned" approach.

And while I do sometimes wish the kids and I had a bit more shared passion for swim/bike/run, what matters most is that they DO have a passion for something that drives them to learn, explore, take chances, and see the value of consistent work. Their passion is teaching them about who they are and who they want to be and shaping them into very cool people.

Similarly, triathlon drives us to learn, explore, take chances, and see the value of consistent work. And even as adults it teaches us about who we are and who we want to be. Hopefully it's shaping us into better versions of ourselves too!

Have a great week!