Oulu Open Hack

I spent a couple days last week in Oulu (a city in Northern Finland) helping out on a hackfest. For more on the what, who and why, check out my previous post (Why we Hack). This post is to thank the sponsors and share how it went.

What always amazes me with these type of self-organizing events is the quality of the output. There were only four people volunteering in our spare time to put this together but we managed to pull it off. All the entries were good quality and I’m pretty sure everyone had fun.

Things kicked off with Kristian and I giving a brief overview of the ground rules and history of hack. We then stepped away to give the floor to Ivan Kuznetsov from HeiaHeia who came in on a night train from down south to join us and help get people inspired about their API. HeiaHeia is a cool concept. Kind of like a Foursquare for health where you check-in your workouts and receive praise (or jeers) from your friends.

Next, the UBI-Oulu guys showed us their platform which connects to 40+ interactive monitors around town. Each monitor has a bluetooth and gps sensor as well as a camera and they all talk to the UBI Platform which can read data from the web. With two huge projectors also running all night (nights are long during the Winter too) throwing images up on the side of the opera house in Oulu Harbor, you can let your imagination run wild on what you can build. If you think you have a good idea, I’d encourage you to submit it to their challenge by the end of November because the folks at UBI are granting 7000 – 10,000 EUR to the winning proposal.

Things hummed along and teams quickly settled into their groove. The one thing, in retrospect that I regret, is that we skipped over a round of introductions to get some cross team communication going. People did eventually chat with each other but, as a chatty American, I sometimes forget that it’s helpful to break the ice a bit to get things going.

The one highlight of the night (for me at least) was when I stepped outside to get some fresh air to wake me up a bit. I had an electronic key for the front door that I had been using all day but, unbeknown to me, this key no longer worked past midnight. All the people for whom I had a phone number had left so when I discovered that my key no longer worked, I tried to figure out what I could do. I tweeted using the #ouluopenhack hashtag to see if I could get the attention of anyone upstairs but, of course, they were all busy hacking.

So let me paint the picture. Oulu is North of Iceland, North of Fairbanks, Alaska, basically way the hell up there. In November it’s getting dark at around 3pm. By midnight, the time I’m standing there figuring out what I’m going to do, it’s pitch dark and very, very cold. It wasn’t quite life or death, I was dressed for the weather and I could have called a cab back to the hotel but I’m sure everyone upstairs would have been like, “What the hell happened to Kennedy?” so I resolved to figure out how to get back in but time was ticking.

Snow was on the ground but I luckily found one pebble and took at look up at the windows up on the second floor, the only ones lit, and and tried to imagine the room layout. I picked the one 2 feet x 2 feet window that I remember was next to a table with some guys working and threw the pebble, my single chance to get some attention. I lucked out and hit the window and two scruffy guys peered into the darkness to see me waving frantically and shortly afterwards padded down in their socks to pop open the door.

All the world’s technology at my disposal and I had to resort to communication technology made famous by Shakespere’s Romeo. Those that know what I’ve been working on at Nokia now know that my prototype now has a real-life use case!

I went back to playing with some Nokia APIs before moving on and fiddling around with the Twilio API to make a hack that, would allow someone to leave a message that would get transcribed by Google Voice and emailed to the Oulu Open Hack mailing list (just in case I got locked out again). I think I finally finished up and headed back to my hotel around 2am.

Prizes, we had three

One for the best app using Qt or QML, one for the best UBI hack, and the overall favorite by popular vote.

Alexander Savin won the Nokia C7 with a cool QML app which connected to HeiaHeia to visualize your workouts and automatically upload them to the service.

Ville Alatalo and Jyrki Laurila won the UBI hack prize with their 4squbi app that used the Foursquare API to show you tips from around each UBI screen and who was checked in nearby.

Jason Brower won the overall with his very ambitious hack which sensed the rhythm you shook your phone to a playing song and played it back to you via the phones vibration engine. The final application is so that people could share vibration-enhanced ringtones.

All the hacks along with videos are listed on the Oulu Open Hack wiki.

Shout Outs

Kristian Luoma (CasCard) managed to score a high-quality venue with free bandwidth and good lighting (and a zen rock garden to boot!) from the University of Oulu’s Center for Internet Excellence. I can’t think of a better place to host a hackfest and we all thank them for bearing with our 24-hours of streaming random tunes from our Spotify channel and the use of their staff kitchen refrigerator where we chilled our cans of energy drink.

Thanks go to Jyrki’s company Codemate who paid for the t-shirts and very professional badges and lanyards for everyone.

Also, thank you Forum Nokia for paying for the pizza and drinks (I’ll be sending you my receipts!) and tossing in a C7 phone as the prize for the best QML hack.

Ville did an amazing job on the designs for the shirts, website, and posters. I think in all Kristian, Jyrki, Ville, and I put no more than 10-15 hours total work towards organizing the hackfest but it was due to Ville’s artwork that we managed to look more professional than we actually were! Ville also captured the video on a hacked up N8 and spliced up all the demo videos and created a highlight reel below. (update: lost to the sands of time)

Why We Hack

Reposted (with modifications) from ouluopenhack where I’ll be tomorrow.

It all starts with an itch. Something that bugs you. It’s some kind of “pattern” that you identify. A manual task that you find yourself doing over and over again that you want to automate. Why is the color  printer always default to printing in black & white? How can I patch the OS on my phone so that it pauses the music player when the headphones slip out of the audio jack? Software engineers are inherently lazy and are always looking for ways to optimize the world around them, automate menial tasks. This itch is motivation to hack.

To back up, “hack” is not, what Hollywood tells you. It’s not about breaking into a mainframe to steal data or wreak havoc. No, the modern term for “hack” is the software equivalent of duct taping some things together to try out an idea. You know that site There, I Fixed It – it’s kind of like that but with software. Definitely not ready for prime time but it gets you thinking of what’s possible.

Why Oulu. Why November. Who’s behind this anyway?

This all started when I  joined Nokia and found myself in Helsinki posting to an internal mailing list about this thing called Hack Day that was a fun thing they did at Yahoo to let off steam and try out new ideas. Kristian Luoma bit and he and I worked together to put on the first, internal Nokia hack event in Oulu which we called a “Hackfest” in November of 2009.

A follow-up event was held in Helsinki the following year and then Kristian left Nokia to work at his start-up and I got busy with other projects. With the gentle nudge of Ville Alatalo, Jyrki Laurila and others from the original Hackfest in Oulu, the project was brought back and because 11-11-10 is a nice pattern falling conveniently on a Thursday, Ville, Jyrki, Kristian, and I set the date for the 2nd Annual Oulu Hackfest and got to work.

Slideshare presentation of previous Nokia Hackfests

In order to involve the greater Oulu community (why keep all the fun to ourselves?), we decided to open up the event to non-Nokia people for a greater exchange of ideas. While no one knows really what to expect at these events, like any good dinner party, we all look forward to making it come together as we go along and making sure everyone has fun. Who knows what ideas will be dreamed up and tried out? What problems will the group tackle? What is broken in our world? How can we make things better?

live free, hack, unite

The fun starts on November 11th at 11am on the Center for Internet Excellence campus in Oulu and find out. If you just want to drop by at Noon for the final demo presentations, join us at Noon on November 12th. For all the details, follow the links at ouluopenhack.org. or tune into twitter at #ouluopenhack.

“We can’t control the puppets”

Success on the internet is not a zero sum game. New activity can come from any corner and audience and attention often expands to meet this demand. Much has to do with the spirit of “giving back” which is one of the principles upon which the internet is founded. Take what you need and when you can, give something back to make the online world a better place for the rest of us.

This same spirit is what drives the Hack Day efforts at Yahoo. “Mash up or Shut Up” was one of the early mottos for Hack Day. It encapsulated the idea that grumbling about a shortcoming or missing feature is a waste of bandwidth. Tackle the problem yourself and lead the way. Be resourceful, lead by example, show us how it works. Sell your idea with a prototype, not a powerpoint.

This past weekend Yahoo opened its doors to outside developers, invited them to pitch tents on the grassy commons. We showed them the knobs and levers they could use to make the world a better place. Many Yahoos cleared out their busy schedules to welcome people from all over and show them around. I was working the tables at registration and it was really great to meet people from as far away as Canada, Chicago, Florida, and New Jersey. No one really knew what to expect when the weekend started but we were all pleasantly suprised.

When Beck was first pitched to play at Yahoo (through a skateboarding connection!) the organizers were thinking it’d be cool to have him play a few tunes on acoustic guitar while sitting on a stool in our cafeteria. Not only did Beck say he’d be happy to play to a crowd of Yahoo hackers, he countered that he wanted to bring his full stage show. Another pleasant suprise.

Wonderful things happen when you let your audience participate. Yahoo understands that we are defined by the people that use our services. If we give them the tools to participate, both with Yahoo and with each other, we will all be pleasantly suprised by what they give back. The world will be a better place and audience attention will expand to support what gets created.

Hack Day was started to let Yahoo engineers in the search group scratch an itch and show off their coding chops to their colleagues. With each successive Hack Day, the group of participants grew so now anyone, regardless of location or business unit can be part of it. It only made sense to continue this inclusive trend and open it up to outsiders. Expand the pool and raise the bar. Isn’t that how evolution works? I am so proud that Chad, Bradley, and the executives at Yahoo followed through on their intuition and made this event happen. It was a risk that they didn’t have to take. The standard developer’s conference is usually more structured and shys away from marshmallow guns.

We do things a little differently at Yahoo and I think our approach will pay us back in many unexpected ways for years to come. The barriers to participation are lower than they’ve ever been, the only thing holding you back is your creativity. Come on by and help define the world you live in.

Selected Coverage:

How to Create a Thumbnail Blogroll, a 20-minute hack

Yahoo! had one of its internal hack days [1] today and while work kept me from devoting enough time to work on an effort on the scale of last time, an email at 9am this morning did give me the chance to show at least something at today’s show-n-tell.

I’ve been thinking of picture-in-picture badges for a while now and like the concept of a blog’s sidebar acting as a portal to your editorial view of the world. Match this navigational concept to the fact that badges are becoming more and more like the online equivalent of wearing a branded t-shirt and colleague Cody Simms thought was there’s an opportunity for a badge which showed a collection of websites you liked.

So when I got an email from FavoriteThingz (no longer in service) that they have opened up their service to allow you to create multiple badges of just about anything you could think of, neurons fired off on a way to update the tired-looking plain text blogroll.

Faces of people you read like those you see on MyBlogLog (which is totally rad for its own reasons) don’t really work in the context of a blogroll when it’s faces of people you don’t really know. Japanese salarymen have a saying that your business card is your “face” and in much the same way, your blog is “your face” on the internet.

It’s not really a hack (more like a “hand-cranked mashup”) but it’s a cool concept just dying for a little scripting. So here it is, in five easy steps:

1. Go to the webpage thumbnail creation service, webshotspro.com, and enter the URL of a blog on your blogroll into the form on the page.

2. Right click on the 400×300 pixel image and save the image file locally.

3. Go to favoritethingz.com (no longer in service) and create a new badge. Click “add thingz” and “add items manually” on the next page.

4. Select “custom” from the dropdown and enter the blog’s title, URL, and “browse” to select the image file you just saved. Click “save & add another”

5. Repeat.

There you have it! Generate the code for the badge and copy it into your sidebar or anywhere else on your page for a cool looking interactive widget which is way more interesting than a long list of text links. For an example, check out how it looks on my blogroll page. (Favoritethingz, the service that hosted this hack is no longer in service.)

[1] Thank you Leonard & Chris Plasser for organizing a bang up Hack Day. I think I’m safe in saying that my hack was by far the least technically spectacular of the bunch. I had to leave early but did get the watch a few of the demos via the live feed and have to say that the hacks (over 100 by my count) this time around were even more impressive than before. The theme seemed to be, “simple yet revolutionary” – it’s amazing what you can do with a few lines of code these days.

Open Yahoo Hack Day

There is another Yahoo Hack Day for Yahoo staff coming up next month. Last time was a blast and our hack continues to live on with a recent mention in BusinessWeek. I fully intend to participate and am already thinking about a few ideas but am even more psyched that we’re opening things up to the public for an open Hack Day on September 29th.

Rather than keep all the fun to ourselves, we decided to let the unwashed masses come in and try their hand at stitching something cool together at our first public Yahoo Hack Day. This is what it’s all about – why limit creativity to just a pool of 10,000?

If you think you have a better way of doing things, right on! Come over to the Yahoo headquarters in Sunnyvale on September 29th and show us the future as you would define it. Give something back, bank some karma and make them internets that much kinder & gentler.

Developer workshop on Friday followed by 24 hours of hacking capped with demos MC’d by Mike Arrington of TechCrunch and then a blowout, Yahoo-style pah-tey! For details and a sign up (hurry! space limited!) go to hackday.org. Should be a blast.

PS. If you can’t get past the “cyphertext” on hackday.org, let’s just say that’s our first intelligence test.

Yahoo Hack Day

Nice write up over on TechCrunch on a hack that I worked on with a team of seven other Yahoo’s spread out across the US.

Every couple of months groups of Yahoo’s band together to work on simple prototypes to work out a new concept or feature. Most are simple extensions of existing Yahoo products that extend them in new and original ways, some just use API’s in a way to poke fun and get a laugh, and others are full-blown software or hardware wizadry that blow your mind with their creativity and flash.

The rules were simple. Teams have from noon on Thursday through to noon on Friday to take their project from a concept to a working prototype that can be demoed in front of a panel of judges in 90 seconds or less.

Recruiting for the team took place in the weeks leading up to hack day and as we got closer we had a rough idea of what we wanted to do and emails were traded on how to break up the tasks at hand. We found out that having two members from NYC helped us out b/c the time difference meant that the West Coast team could hand off to them in the early morning and catch some sleep while they carried the torch and picked up where we left off.

I learned many things at Hack Day and am really happy Yahoo gave me the chance to participate. I would argue that I learned almost as much about Product Management in those 24 hours than I did in two years when I was product manager at Factiva.com. 24 hours and a 90 second demo do wonders to focus your attention to the absolute core. What company would give their employees two half days of to scratch an itch and then give you a chance to get in front of folks like the CFO, co-founder, and Head of Product Strategy to let you state your case? What a cool company.

There were lots of highlights, unfortunately I can’t write about most of the hacks themselves but there were some great flashes of personality too. Chad bought a sound level meter to measure the cheers & hoots which were many and supportive. We were all running on fumes so all was forgiven. My favorite demo was the poor man’s karaoke machine (lyrics on the screen set to associated flickr images) which croaked on the flickr image part and just ended up being 90 seconds of Jeffery Bennett singing while he waited for his demo to work.

Jeff’s voice is not half bad either!