Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Don't think too much, just do it!: Filippo Bovo's story

It is 5.45 in the morning. The alarm starts ringing. Normally I would extend my arm searching for the snooze button on my phone, but today is the Hackathon day! The excitement breaks the routine and in no time I am ready to go. 

First stop: the University train station. Some of the people joining the event are already there. We know each other since yesterday, when we met for the first time and did some planning. It turned out that this is the first Hackathon for most us. The only thing I know is that a Hackathon is an event where you think of something and bring it to life using various tools, the favourite being programming. The topic of this Hackathon is ‘Helping the Homeless’. With this in mind, we have some ideas in our heads and laptops in our bags. Oh, we also know that Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder, is going to give a talk!

Pictured: Filippo Bovo (second from right) with Steve Wozniak (centre)

Second and last stop: Manchester. The Business Rocks Hackathon is close. After I guide everyone in the opposite direction for ten minutes, I call Uber. Five stars to the driver and we are at the Hackathon! Disco music played by a couple of DJs on a corner welcomes us by getting louder and louder as we walk under the big red and white BUSINESS ROCKS 2016 sign up on the face of the building. Just after shouting “This is awesome!”, I start wondering what a theoretical physicist could possibly do at a practical Hackathon in a business event.

This brings us back to a few weeks before, when I received an email from the University of Birmingham Career Network advertising the event. I don’t usually go to these events, probably because I am not used to them. But, “What the hell!” I said to myself “I’m gonna try!”. The fun fact is that at the beginning the Hackathon was supposed to be at the University, in video conference with Manchester. It turns out that, due to some issues, the video conference could not be hosted and we were offered a fully paid trip to Manchester, the tickets to the wider event and a night to a really good hotel. At that point a friend of mine, who is also a physicist participating at the event, said: “This is what business people, like my girlfriend, do: they just do things, without thinking too much, and then they get lucky!”. I guess he was pretty right! :)

The disco music vanishes as we enter the part of the exhibition building where the stands are. As we walk towards the place where the Hackathon takes place, we get a taste of the event: a shiny Tesla Model S electric car, virtual reality sets such as the Oculus Rift, BBC tech and many others. The Hackathon zone is already active, with two homeless people talking about their life and how we can bring ideas into helpful tools. Finally, we start to hack, what we are there for! The idea is to build a website that connects charity organisations and homeless people. At this point you may wonder: “How can a website be helpful to someone who does not even have a phone?”. Well, it turns out that most homeless people have a phone and access to free wifi and computers in libraries, and I wonder: awareness is another big problem.

Second fun fact: most of us don’t even know how to build a website. And again, business approach: we don’t think too much, just try! During the following day and a half, Google is our best friend and we get to build the website. Not only that, but we get the chance to listen to talks by business-tech people, meet the representatives of many companies, try the Oculus Rift and other virtual reality devices (pretty cool!), have a pretty picture with Steve Wozniak and play Street Fighter II on an old SNES connected to a massive 4K display!

We work all day, till evening and during the next morning too. The website, called, is up and running and the result is actually good! The winner of the contest, however, is another team that did something very similar to what we did. All in all, I am pretty happy! I went there without knowing anything about hackathons or website design, and everything worked out! But, the part that is really worth it is that, while doing all these things, I met a lot of interesting people: two homeless people, two hacktivists, and a lot of interesting personalities in the business and tech industries. As we approach the exit of the building, the loud buzz of the event leaves space to the noise of a quiet city, and we walk satisfied towards the train station.

Looking back, I think about all the times I read about an event and I readily turned it down by labeling it “not interesting” or “not worth the time”. This is most likely because I got used to a certain routine, hard to break. But breaking it was the most useful thing I have done in a while, and the Nike campaign finally makes sense: Just Do It!

Filippo Bovo, PhD Physics & Astronomy (Year 3)

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