“Coding for Charity” at New England GiveCamp

New England GiveCamp 2014 CAKE This past April 4-6 saw me pitching a new tent in the hallways of the Microsoft NERD Center near MIT in Cambridge for New England GiveCamp, where around 100 developers of all stripes joined forces with their designer and marketing brethren to give 24 of New England’s most interesting non-profit organizations a big boost to their website and digital content management in a 36-hour no-holds-barred hack-a-thon.

This was my second time at GiveCamp, having been introduced to it in 2012 by area tech maven Kelley Muir, who with her husband Ian are two of New England’s great promoters of positive-minded social geekery in the tech community around Manchester. They are also part of the team that organizes New England GiveCamp every year as one of many similar conferences loosely affiliated with the world-wide GiveCamp organization. Like many of the “camp-style” tech conferences, the event structure is comprised of two groups of people: the organizers who arrange for the venue/food/sponsors to make the event possible, and the participants who provide the expertise and willingness to participate. Unlike a more formal event, a camp-style tech conference is largely self-organized and fluid, which can be very surprising the first time but quickly grows on you. Although I understood the concept intellectually, it really took me five years to understand how it worked on a deeper level. I needed to replace my hermit-like social proclivities with a far more adaptable and heartfelt set of rules, and I am a better person today because of this.

New England GiveCamp 2014 Sunday MeetingNew England GiveCamp 2014 Main RoomNew England GiveCamp 2014 Hallway But I digress. At the heart of GiveCamp is the idea of gathering together and pitching in to help those who are helping others. A large percentage of participants are web and software developers, some of them affiliated with the non-profits that they are helping. This year, I decided to participate as a designer instead as a WordPress developer, though I declined to lead a team because I wasn’t sure that I would have the energy to do it. Kelley had mentioned before that GiveCamp often doesn’t have as many designers available, so it seemed like it would be an interesting experience for me to try to fill that role. I have historically been reluctant to call myself a designer, but I figured I could suck-up my anxiety and risk failure for the good of the overall project. And, as I reminded myself, I was in the company of people who were doing the very same thing. This year, as in previous years, developers offered their weekend to take on technical work that was unfamiliar to them, learning-on-the-fly. It’s a very supportive environment, which isn’t surprising because the kind of people who volunteer for GiveCamp are by nature generous people. The spirit of pulling-together and helping ensure that every project gets done means that there’s a lot of resource sharing. It’s pretty awesome to be in a huge crowd of can-do, competent nerds with a penchant for lending a hand.

New England GiveCamp 2014 Night

The Experience

The event runs for two days and two nights, starting on Friday afternoon with pizza, registration, and final team assignment check-in. Each participating non-profit introduces themselves in the big room, which is pretty exciting as there are many interesting non-profits that you haven’t heard about. One of my favorites conceptually was Project Laundry List, an organization that promotes clothesline drying and fights to get cities to allow it so people can reduce their energy needs. We also are introduced to the schedule, the raffle, and hear from the sponsors who are on-site.

On the first night, the teams are very driven to figure out what they can do over the next 36 hours, and the first of several “team lead check-ins” occurs on the very first night. To keep things moving, the team leads are each asked whether they are “condition green, yellow, or red”, and whether they need something or have some extra capacity to pass along; the goal of GiveCamp is not just to get your own project done, but to get ALL the projects done. The meetings go very quickly.



At night, people start to wind down. Some people leave the premises to sleep on real beds at home or in hotels, but quite a few of us stayed in. “Tent Alley” is filled with tents with gently snoring techs inside; earplugs are highly recommended, as are eye covers. Some people brought inflatable mattresses, while others made do with whatever flat surface they could find. I had purchased a tent just for the occasion, and found it remarkably comfortable. It was a little sanctuary that I could escape into at the end of the day, but I found myself hanging out in the main room into the wee hours just sitting at one of the team tables and enjoying the late-night work vibe.

Meals, snacks, and beverages are all provided for by the GiveCamp sponsors. There were quite a few of them, and they provided a very solid array of food. Plentiful Monster beverages, sandwiches from Whole Foods, coffee and facilities provided by Microsoft, books from O’Reilly, cakes and cookies and S’mores and ice cream sundaes from night-to-night. We did not want for food, and vegetarians and gluten-free diets were accommodated. I can’t think of one bad meal…it was better than what I usually eat at home.

New England GiveCamp 2014 FoodNew England GiveCamp 2014 ParticipantsNew England GiveCamp 2014 Organizers Most of the non-profits were looking for improved websites, and in some cases improved organizational workflow. As I was a “floating design resource”, I wasn’t assigned to anyone in particular so I followed one of the other designers, a 7-year veteran of New England GiveCamp, to see how it worked. I got assigned to a team who wanted a bit of logo work done, and then also got tapped to do a little WordPress training for one of their developers who was new to the platform. WordPress was the dominant platform at GiveCamp this year, though there were a few Drupal-based sites I believe. Not everyone was familiar with WordPress, so there was a lot of learning-on-the-fly and impromptu workshops given by the experienced developers, who gave tirelessly of their knowledge. It was very inspiring. It was also inspiring to see many of the non-profit executive directors on-site, actively learning about WordPress and working closely with their teams.

After the day’s work was done, a few people played board games, but largely people were there enjoying the work and the camaraderie of their peers. I ran around taking pictures (see the Flickr set) when I wasn’t drawing logos, and helped a few people with their WordPress questions when I could.

On the very last day, I got assigned to a team that wanted to develop a mobile app (Project Laundry List), and needed some design help, so I drew a quick UI mockup. Unfortunately, there was no time to actually implement it, so I have to finish the design work this week, but it should be pretty cool and I’m seeing it as an opportunity to develop some improved process for myself. I am increasingly being drawn into web development these days for my own work, so I might as well get good at it! There will be opportunities to share what I know in the future.

There was also cake! This year’s cake was in the shape of a lighthouse on an island (as the logo of NEGC is a lighthouse) with a tent next to it, and it was delicious.

The event ended around 3PM on Sunday, when every team gives a short 5-minute presentation on what the challenge was and what they did. After the last team presents, there is a raffle drawing for prizes; this year it was a Kindle Fire, a Kindle Paper White eBook reader, and a $75 American Express gift card. Then, it was time to go home. I got trapped in a detour on the way out from Boston and ended up driving through my old neighborhood in West Cambridge, out through to Route 2 by Alewife Station and on toward home. Then I slept for 12 hours.

It took me all day Monday and most of Tuesday to just pull myself back together; while GiveCamp is loads of fun and doesn’t feel like work, it IS pretty draining. On top of that, it appeared that I didn’t drink as much water as I thought I did, noticing only when I got home. Next time I should bring a big water bottle, as I was trying to avoid caffeine and sugary drinks and ended up less liquid as a result.

I can’t wait till next year! Truly one of the best events I have attended! Much thanks to the sponsors: APEX Systems, Bluefin Technical Services, Blue Metal, Catching Joy, Equity Office, General Assembly, Meltwater Group, Microsoft NERD, Monster Energy, NBI, Oomph, Pragmatic Works, SQL Saturday, and Whole Foods.

New England GiveCamp 2014 Participants See you next year! MANY THANKS to the hard work of the organizers whose names I caught: Jim O’Neil, Kelley Muir, Ian Muir, Rachel Morris, and…the rest!