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Crashing an all-night hackathon

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For a journalist, an all-night hackathon can be a pretty intimidating undertaking. I was sure I’d be way over my head sitting with professional programmers as we built and programmed as Raspberry Pi at the Hack ‘Til Tomorrow: Hands-On IoT Hacknight event as part of Red Hat’s DevNation conference last night. I wasn’t completely wrong, but it was much easier to muddle through than I thought it would be. I learned a lot, gained a fair deal of confidence and even made new friends.

I got the idea to go when my new conference buddy “Dutch” let me know that DevNation attendees taking part would get to keep the supplies for the project –  a Raspberry Pi and a few assorted accessories. So I thought to myself, “Stay up late, free dinner, drinks and snacks, and on top of that, free Raspberry Pi to play with later… Where’s the downside?”

Then 9 a.m. rolled around, and I started to have my doubts. I sort of felt like chickening out, but I had registered online, and I wanted that Raspberry Pi, dang it. So I hitched up my big boy pants and endeavored to persevere.

When I entered the hackathon space, I was struck by how long the line was. There was a queue of developers snaking back from the supply desk in the corner. It went back nearly to the very back of the room and moved very slowly.. As I got closer to the front of the line, I read the list of items we needed to gather for the project. I was worried I might not know what these things were.

• One Raspberry Pi – I know that one – it’s why I’m here
• One power source – not too intimidating
• One motion sensor module and one temperature gauge – I don’t know what those look like, but I bet they’ll be easy to find (and I was right)
• One resistor – I actually remember that from college physics
• One micro SD card – another easy one
• Three male to female connectors and three female to female connectors – A point of pride here, I was actually able to tell the difference between the two and help out one of my neighbors.
• And finally a thumb drive if I didn’t already have one – which I didn’t at the time.

All good! I see Dutch sitting at a table near the doors, so I sit there. I bumble through some of the tasks, but I think I’m passing. And then I have to access the Raspberry Pi with my laptop to see what’s going on. I successfully found the machine’s IP address and fed it into my browser, but that didn’t work.

“Oh no,” says one of my new pals,” you have to SSH in.”

Uh, oh. I know SSH is a way computers connect but I have no idea how to make it work. “So… how would I do that?” I ask sheepishly.

“Do you have PuTTY on your machine or something like it?”

Now I really have to admit that I don’t know what’s going on. “I don’t think that I do,” I say – hoping to sound casual and nonchalant.

And then it happens. A third friend brings up the elephant in the room.

“What are you doing at a developers’ convention?” he asks. At first I think it sounds like an accusation. This is it, I’ve been caught, and I’ll suffer the consequences of my fraud. I’ll just admit my flaws as a lowly journalist and throw myself at the mercy of the court. “Oh, okay!” he said. “That makes sense. Let me show you how to download and setup PuTTY real quick.”

Wait, what? That was it, just… mild curiosity? No harassment, minimal teasing.

This was a learning moment for me. People who value learning and sharing knowledge foster acceptance and diversity. It’s important to try things that you don’t feel prepared for. Sometimes you get the pride of success, other times you learn from the frustration of failure. Either way you win.