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How Startup Weekend Made Me a Better Developer

Zone leader Sam Atkinson reminisces on his experience in Hong Kong for Startup Weekend, and how that weekend of no coding made him better at his job.

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When I attended Startup Weekend in Hong Kong I was expecting a rapid hackathon where I’d get to stay up late programming and build a cool little system. Instead, I ended up writing zero code whilst exhausted from running around a giant 20 floor shopping complex. I also think I ended up much better at my job.

What is startup weekend? Inspired by the lean methodologies which are so thoroughly in vogue since “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries was released, the concept is simple; in 72 hours, create a viable, real startup from scratch to present at the end of the final day. Some teams end up with their first sales before the weekend is over. This is not about crafting fanciful powerpoint presentations and pitching hollow ideas but about creating the start of a real product.  

The attendees are made up of three types of people (and entry ticket); “Business” tend to arrive with ideas for new startups and are full of ideas for sales and marketing but no idea about how to implement. “Designers” are the ones who make things look pretty and can put together mock ups and design conceps. “Developers” are the most coveted; there are a lot of business people with ideas and they don't know how to find developers.

On the opening night anyone with an idea can pitch it in 60 seconds (irrelevant of whether they’re business, design or dev). It’s a great chance to practice succint pitches in front of a big group. The ideas are voted, and the top few (depending on how many people are there) are 

Self Forming Teams

If you’re interested in a pitch you go and talk to the owner to find out more and see what skills they need. They need to sell you on their vision so you buy into the idea.  If it’s a fit from both sides then you’re in the team!

This was the first of my main lessons from the weekend. Self selecting teams are amazing. The collective group of randoms from all over the world and career spectrum that formed our team turned out to be universally excellent and commited. Everyone wanted to succeed and do well and to help each other out.  I learnt quickly that if someone has actively chosen to go work in a team then they're already invested. They want the idea to excel. Having seen how well this has worked I’ve applied it to teams at my day job. If a developer wants to work on an idea, and he wants to work with certain people, he or she is going to be happier and more productive as a result. This is the reason companies like Valve and Google allow developers to select their teams and projects.

Fleshing Out the Idea

So you’ve got an idea. Now what? The nexus of any good startup idea is that it provides value that someone will pay for. Startup weekend is, at its core, about deciding that value and finding a way to test that people will pay for it. You come up with a hypothesis and you go test it. For my team, that was a mixture of:

  • Throwing up a sales page to try to get people to buy the product (which didn’t exist yet, but they didn’t need to know that)

  • Going around the shop owners of a nearby shopping warehouse to pitch them the idea and see if they’d use it

An idea is worth nothing until someone has given you money for it after all.

As devs, we are traditionally introverted. Give me my keyboard and desk over going and talking to the stakeholders any day. But one of the key mantras of Startup Weekend is to “get out there”  and it really was great! I had to pitch an idea I believed in to get someone to give me money. And as much as I thought it would be embarassing it turned out to be fun. People didn’t bite. We got great feedback so we could pivot the initial idea (which it turned out sucked).

I’ve taken this very much to heart in my regular work I try to spend as much time with the stakeholders now as possible, partly so I’m accesible to them to ask questions and so they can build trust in me, but also so I can be sure whatever I’m building them provides the best value. You don’t get that from a list of requirements. I now regularly have conversations where I grill the business to find out why they want a feature until we figure out we can do something much quicker that would get them 80% of the value.

Understanding that the coding I do should be directly attributable to a value provided (preferably monetarily), as opposed to being taken from a list of tasks without question, has made a big difference to the way I think about my programming.

Pivots

After speaking to a bunch of people we realised our idea needed to change, and dramatically. Fortunately, we figured this out without having written a line of code, drawn a logo or built a website. It was cheap and it was fast.

As an industry I like to think we’ve all pretty much reaslised waterfall doesn’t work, hence the advent of agile. Nonetheless I was really impressed with how much value we managed to get without writing any code; in agile we normally spend an iteration, get feedback and then iterate. Lean shortens that feedback loop and the work needed to be done to get it. Having a conversation with a whiteboard can often eradicate or completely change the shape of a piece of work. Working with co-workers to figure out what the quickest, easiest thing we can do to provide value can often remove a chunk of work once we discover the quick way is “good enough”. One of the most interesting things goes against a developers normal love of automation: trying out functionality manually to prove that it's useful before we actually build a proper solution.  

Pitches

At the end of the weekend all of the teams pitch their ideas to a panel of experts, showing how they’ve validated their ideas and what the next steps are. I was incredibly impressed with what people can achieve in 72 hours. Some people had validated their ideas and managed to build functional prototypes. Others had discovered gaps in the market potentially worth millions of dollars.

How to apply this in the 9-to-5?  Internal startup weekend! The people in your office are full of incredible ideas and they know your systems. They know where there are inefficiencies and potential new product ideas.  As amazing as regular old hackathons are, why not try running your own startup weekend to see what new ideas and products people come up with?

Comments or questions? Follow me on twitter via @SambaHK

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Topics:
startup ,startups ,hackathon ,career

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