Murrium standing outside Github headquarters.
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A Canadian GIS Technician Story: Attending FreeCodeCamp hackathon on crutches

I flew out to San Francisco to attend a hackathon led by FreeCodeCamp whose syllabus I had been pursuing in my spare time. As a GIS technician, I find that many job descriptions coming out today require us to learn more than just basic digital cartography, we are required by profession to be accomplished coders, web designers, database administrators and surveyors.

The description of a GIS technician has become so varied that one cannot simply depend on their education to provide them with all the skills required. I ventured to become more versatile in my skill set in my spare time whilst also working full time with the New Brunswick Government. Attending this hackathon would provide me with a much needed sense of community and competition. After all, being competitive is a very healthy part of the human condition. 

Starting my journey to California

Travelling from cold Fredericton, New Brunswick which is on the east coast of North America to sunny California on the west coast would have been an adventure if I had not dislocated the patella bone in my knee a month prior. Flying on crutches at an airport is an experience, in of itself. I found that whilst the kindness of the airport staff was amazing, waiting around for someone to be collected feels dehumanizing. The inability to climb stairs whilst having the pilot and an air hostess pull you up was very destabilizing to say the least. I have no idea how people who have been injured for a longer period of time have the resilience or patience to function on a daily basis. I can only tell you that, having been injured for four months opened my eyes to how fortunate I have been my whole life and I hope that in the future, I can do more to assist those in need.

People waiting in line to start the Hackathon

People waiting in line to start the Hackathon

As I arrived at the San Francisco airport, I took a few minutes to catch my breath. The sound of beeping and busy motors caught me in a trance. I am so far removed from the city life that I grew up with in the slow-paced province that I currently live in that I didn’t realize how much I missed the daily grind of cars rushing to get to their prey. The night sky glistened as I downloaded the Uber app on my phone to try to find a ride to my hostel. The Uber pool driver being in a horrible mood because of a previous infraction decided to drop me off a few blocks away from my destination. This would not have been an issue but the hills in San Fran are quite steep and being on crutches with my backpack filled to the rim, I endeavored to climb uphill. The streets were crowded because it was Thursday night and there were hoards of people around looking ready to enjoy the evening.

The Hackathon

FreeCodeCamp Hackathon competitors working on their projects

FreeCodeCamp Hackathon competitors working on their projects

Finally, the first day of the much anticipated hackathon arrived. I took an Uber to the GitHub headquarters and found it amusing that several other competitors also chose the same method of transport. As I stood in line to wait for the doors to be opened, I met several people who all seemed incredibly pleasant. The hackathon was a dream-like affair with the founder, Quincy Larson, personally taking the time to inquire after my health.

In order to get a ticket for the hackathon, I actually had to hack through the challenge provided on their website and the amount of tickets were limited. 

I introduced myself to four passionate individuals who were great programmers and incredibly nice. We brought our own laptops into the space and huddled around a certain table and claimed it as our territory. As part of the competition, we were asked to create an application for public use using as many APIs as we could. Our team consisted of Brian, as well as Warren, Perry and Tia. We all worked together on a vacation app.

My Project a Vacation APP

Murrium's team mates sitting at a table. From left to right; Warren; Brian; Tia; Perry.

My team. From left to right; Warren; Brian; Tia; Perry.

I worked with Tia to put the vacation packages that we offered as part of the app together. Brian, Warren and Perry worked on the back-end. Using Github to merge my edits to the back-end failed the first few times but eventually my changes went through. 

On the last day, after we submitted our project for consideration. Here is the link to our vacation app that I submitted:

Find My Getaway App

Our application did not make it to the semi-finals but we were all very proud of the product that we put out. The application asked the user to submit a photograph which would be processed by the Clarifai app and then using the information provided. However, the working product was incomplete as we ran out of time. There were still a few kinks in the app that needed to be resolved. We were competing against some of the brightest minds in technology and when I didn’t win, I did not feel defeated.

The Winning Team

The winning team can be seen in this Youtube video presenting their final product at 1.27 which shows that they had a working product that also garnered great interest.

They built a mapping game show application on the web that allowed for users anywhere in the world to compete. The premise of the game show was that a photograph was shown to the user and they had to guess where in the world that photograph was taken. Gabriel Greenfield was kind enough to share his experiences with me: 

Winning a hackathon is never something I thought I would accomplish. It was just a perfect-storm for all of us on team WITworld. We met each other just standing in line for breakfast and instantly bond from the very beginning. Within 30 minutes of meeting each other, we had formed a team and had 3 or so ideas of what we wanted our project to be. We chose witworld because it was such a fun idea and we felt was very attainable through the JAMstack. So I think knowing what we wanted to develop early on and getting organized early helped us build a simple architecture to be able to build everything in 2 days. We had Tadas building JavaScript logic into our create-react app, I was working on hasura building out the database and GQL queries, Jeff working the CSS, and Tyler working netlify hosting and our serverless functions. We delegated the tasks out to be worked efficiently and when one of us was stuck we would call out for help and the entire team would come together to unblock the given task. Once we had built everything, presenting it was pretty nerve-racking. […]

Gabriel Greenfield of the winning team

Gabriel Greenfield of the winning team

Winning the whole thing still seems like it was just a dream. Since winning I felt the sense of imposter syndrome as a developer melt away and like I really am capable of great things in software development. I also really wanted everyone else feel like they could be a developer and the JAMstack really lowers the difficulty for development. So after coming home from the event and looking to join a JAMstack community, my friend and I started the JAMstack Denver meetup that’s been going strong for almost a year now.
The entire event was incredible. To be in San Francisco and experience a little bit of the tech culture, especially since we were in GitHubs headquarters, really made this hackathon an unforgettable experience.

Conclusion

Sometimes, I feel like San Francisco is the city in which magic happens. I found it in myself to keep going despite not winning the hackathon, I felt that it is not about the final destination but having the courage to make the journey. If you pursue coding in your spare time, I strongly encourage you to attend a hackathon. Here are a few opportunities for you to sign up for:

HackSC 2020

ConUHacks (for students only)

Hack the North

Brainhack Toronto 2019

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