Congratulations to all the contestants in the Hack Like Heck competition. It was the most intense contest ever held on element14 and the contestants really stepped up with massive efforts and spectacular projects. I thought it would be interesting to share some of my experiences with the event, particularly the non-technical aspects. I'd bet anyone who considered entering this competition had to answer a lot of non-technical questions when deciding what to do. I definitely struggled with the non technical aspects of the competition.
I'm sure most people suspected Ben was leaving when they started talking about a new name for the show and it was even more obvious that nobody wanted him to leave, but when it finally came, the announcement wasn't a great surprise. The competition format to replace Ben was a bit of a surprise, but it was in keeping with the forum's style, and served well to generate publicity and awareness. I didn't think about it much or have a better way, I just didn't anticipate this format.
The first thing I thought when the competition was announced was WOW – free material and a free hand to build whatever came to mind – those are some powerful motivators, I have never enjoyed those benefits in previous jobs and it really sparked my imagination.
Just like every other element14 competition I started thinking about what it would take for me to compete and whether I wanted to compete. As attractive as the technical benefits were, I immediately ran into some major dilemmas:
The first question was: is this job better than the one I have?
I still don't know the answer to this question, but I thought it would be interesting to find out. To do that I had to enter the fray.
The next issue was: this is a very public job competition - how will it affect my current job when they find out I'm competing for another job?
This was a very tricky question to deal with as I have a great job already and my company went to a lot of trouble to recruit me. I may touch on this topic again later.
The third issue that cropped up was: I'm not enthusiastic about the image and ethics of hacking.
I have no problems designing, building and hacking anything for my own use, but it is difficult to maintain an ethical image when publishing hacks of other designers work, even if the activities are all legal. (Ben did a good job of it) For example, I don't own any of the game software for Nintendo, Atari or Sega that the Retro-Pi will run. That was one disincentive to getting the system working, although I may have been able to scrounge some legal games somewhere. Maybe I could change the name of the show to something other than Hack.
The fourth issue that I struggled with was the location of the job.
I think it might be great to live in Madison, but there are so many strings attaching me to my current location, relocation would be highly problematic. It was not clear that the winner would need to move to Madison, but I would like to see it turn out like that. I would hate to be the cause of breaking up the rest of the team.
The fifth issue for me was my mediocre presentation skills.
I am poor at thinking about more than one thing at a time (I have a one-track mind) which means I'm not a good typist – it is tough to think and type at the same time, I can't think and talk at the same time and I never drive with the radio on. This doesn't mean I'm a bad driver (I've won car races and motorcycle races) but I am not usually comfortable giving speeches. On the plus side my one track is a nice wide highway – I can visualize and work out a complete design in my head. I just can't talk about it at the same time.
The sixth issue was timing and schedule.
I had lots of problems with the competition schedule and my myriad other commitments, but those would almost always be a factor for me as my schedule is always tight for months into the future. I'm sure everyone else had schedule issues as well. These particular 2 weeks were extremely busy and would have involved at least one all-nighter even without the competition. However I actually like the fact that it was a short schedule, normally I'm good with tight deadlines.
So how did all these issues play out in the contest?
I knew that it would be an extremely long shot for me to win such a competition as there are some great hackers out there and their spectacular entries prove it. It was also an extremely long shot that I could resolve all the other issues just discussed, but I would never find out without trying.
I submitted an entry proposal video to at least keep my options open as I tried to resolve some of the issues.
Then the video was selected to be a kit-sponsored entry, so I resolved to attack the build for 2 weeks to see if I could pull off something reasonable in the time I had available. To some extent I also felt obligated to make a good effort since there were others who would have liked to win the kit. Unfortunately I can't say this was full commitment on my part – if I was pulling out all the stops, I would have started the design the day the competition was announced, maybe even taken a couple of days of vacation. But I also felt there was some merit in showing what I could do with a strict 2 week build schedule. I also would have used a method of implementation that would fit the schedule - I would have at least had a backup plan if the PCB did not arrive in time.
Although I was spending every spare minute on the project, I still didn't submit the declaration of intent until the last day allowed as I was still struggling to resolve the non-technical issues. Fortunately the declaration statements were not so binding that they would put me in an unethical position. However I did have to have a frank conversation with my boss about the whole competition.
Why did I enter if there were so many issues?
Issues are just more challenges to see if you can solve. I don't mind stretching to explore the full extent of my capabilities, even when there is a low probability of success. I learn a lot from such attempts and I improve my abilities.
Did I get what I wanted out of the event?
Not completely, I got most of the technical experience I wanted and had fun designing a portable Pi, but I did not discover if this job was better than my current job. Getting the job was not something I had decided I wanted, (I did not have enough information to make a decision), so I wasn't too disappointed on that front. I still like my design choices and I'm not second guessing them, which is a good indicator. Overall I was happy I participated.
Would I do this again?
Maybe, if the opportunity was attractive enough, but I would not do it the same way again. I would learn from this experience and ensure I had a higher probability of success and perhaps a more complete motive without so many unknowns.
Will I complete my build?
I intend to complete the build since I have a complete design and all the parts, but it is no longer a top priority. I first have to clear the backlog created by the contest, which parachuted into an already busy schedule.
I'm sure there are a lot of contestants still soaking in a metaphorical hot tub, trying to regroup and recover after their explosive and obviously passionate efforts. Members of the HLH club will understand what I'm talking about. Writing about it is sometimes my way of stress-relieving. I have to do something because its time to get back on the horse.
This was a valuable one-time experience, only available at this point in time, never to be repeated in the future. It was intense and satisfying to be in the thick of it with the rest of the HLH club - the kind of unique experience you don't forget.
All the great talent that surfaced at the big reveal constituted an extraordinary singularity of technical creativity with multiple facets and unique approaches.
My hat is off to all the superb contestants who mastered the issues and created outstanding devices.