The horror of hack days

It’s not that bad, by the way. It can be pretty good, to be honest. With the right people, in the right place, in the right environment, with lots of encouragement and open doors and good coffee, it can be incredibly fantastic. But there are reasons why I spend a lot of time avoiding hack days. And I’m beginning to wonder if I’m really the only one.

There was a time when people called me a hacker. It was in the late 1990s. I jobbed as an undergrad in the computing centre of the university. Our mission was to maintain a messy university-wide Novell network of machines running Windows 3.1, Windows NT and Windows 95. You can’t run a proper, secure network with these systems. Everything was a hack. There was no other option. And our hacks had to be better than the hacks of the people abusing our computers. We outhacked the entire university. I spent all my free time in an climatized machine room, alone, surrounded by dozens of servers. They were humming and blinking. Our boss called us hackers. I started to believe it, although I didn’t really know what the word meant.

While I was in high school, I learned the Commodore Amiga inside out and wrote stupidly complicated programs in Assembler. At age seventeen, I sold them to a company for a few thousand Deutsche Mark. I was an assembler god, and a Turbo Pascal god. I was the first in my district to graduate from high school with an exam in computer science. I was the prototypical computer nerd, like, you know, Murray from “Riptide”. Socially awkward, with ugly plastic glasses, corduroy pants, and zero friends. A cartoon drawing in my highschool yearbook shows me shaking hands with a computer. I spent all my free time with machines. My room at home was in the basement, far away from the rest of the world, buried underground. The walls were covered with dark splotches from all the big spiders that I had killed over the years. With a shoe. I was very scared of spiders.

They didn’t have hack days back then, obviously, because nobody wanted to spend time with us hackers. A hacker was an outcast, a person who was at the fringe of society, socially isolated. And for a good reason. We were not particularly fun to be around. There was no internet either, no community, no collaboration, no stackoverflow, no twitterfeed. I was really, absolutely alone with my machines, on an island, very alone. I might have been terribly lonely and depressed, or maybe not, I don’t remember. Maybe I was happy. In hindsight, it must have been wonderful. Memories are great.

At some point in the early 2000s I stopped hacking computers. I stopped being a coder. I became an astronomer instead. As astronomer I started to use high-level software products that do most of the boring computing jobs astronomers need to do. Reducing images, measuring fluxes, fitting coordinate systems, manipulations of numbers, tables, and arrays. These software packages were called IRAF and MIDAS, high-level products written by other people. Operated from the command line and through slow, ugly scripts. I wrote scripts for IRAF and MIDAS, instead of code in actual programming languages. I wrote scripts and tied them together with more scripts. I left the system administration to the system administrators and the coding to the coders. I lost track of the computer world. I lost track of many things. I didn’t even notice.

Credit: Courier Dundee

In principle, this is still how I work today, except that I exchanged MIDAS for Python. It works. Sometimes I miss coding, when I want to solve a problem that doesn’t have a Python solution yet. These problems are not so easy to find anymore. When it happens, I start fumbling and fidgeting and flailing. Sometimes I miss coding when I stumble into a situation that might be best addressed with a database or a dynamic website or an app or, beware, a soldering iron. I can’t do Javascript, SQL, Ruby, CSS, Perl, R, shell scripts, D3. But then I typically find someone else who can. I’m not getting paid to code anyway. I’m getting paid to teach astronomy, to conduct observing campaigns, to write papers, to give talks, to write grant proposals. Sometimes I give introductory Python lessons to first year students and try to find the person who is like the 17-year-old me. The person who would embarrass me today with his or her skills. They are hard to find. Maybe they are over in computer science.

And then hack days came into my life. To my knowledge, hack days didn’t exist in astronomy before the dotastronomy 2 conference, in autumn 2009 in Leiden. I was at the inaugural dotastronomy meeting one year earlier in Cardiff and became a huge fan of the conference. Dotastro 1 didn’t have a hack day or unconference sessions. Its format sort of imitated all the other tedious conferences I usually go to. But there was a vibe about it, a flow, an energy, that was completely new. Dotastro is a heat source. A beacon that shines a light into the dark recesses of academic research. A community that embraces silliness and celebrates seriousness. A idealistic movement that says that things can be different, that systems can be changed, that the frustration can be overcome, that flaws can be eliminated. An open space that provides safety, peace, and hope.

It only made sense that dotastronomy adopted a new format, a format that reflects the nature of the meeting. Instead of a strict schedule with talks, coffee breaks and poster session, the conference is now flowing. It moves in and out of rooms. Topics come and go. Groups find together, break up and join again later in the pub. Collaborations emerge out of nowhere. The conference happens in real spaces, but in parallel in the virtual world, on twitter, on Slack, on Github, in Google Docs, in emails and blog posts. It is as if dotastro creates too many ideas for the real world, and it is spilling over into the internet.

The hack day is the epitome of this revolution. While I was watching dotastro grow from afar, the hack day became the buzz of the conference. Every hack day produced amazing tools, beautiful visualisations, and fantastic interfaces. Hack days spread through the astronomy world, to other conferences and to summer schools. It is obvious why this makes sense. We spend so much time talking about what we do, but we never talk about how we do it. We never talk about the workflow, and we never show each other the tools. We share results, tables and plots, but we rarely share dirty workarounds and skills, the real secrets of the trade.

A hack day changes the character of the conference entirely. It has a very different rhythm than normal conference days. At dotastro 8, the most recent iteration, back in Oxford, I noticed it physically. On Tuesday through talks and discussions I was blown away throughout the day, like being on cocaine and watching action movies at the same time. The hack day on Wednesday had more focus, more work, more frustration, but also more satisfaction at the end. At 11pm half of the conference was still up and around, shouting ‘damn it’ or ‘I got it’, sometimes simultaneously. People at work. It was absolutely beautiful. Although I didn’t directly collaborate with anyone, it felt like being part of dozens of projects, all over the place, an organism with fifty brains and limbs that reach all around the planet.

Maybe this is the most important function of a hack day — to break the monotony of conferencing, to provide a relief from talks and sessions, and to create real and virtual co-working spaces. The hack day has to be in the middle of the meeting, not around the edges like in many conferences today. And everybody has to be part of it, not just the cool kids. It has to be the pulsing heart of the conference. Dotastro is getting this absolutely right.

And yet. And yet the hack day is extremely intimidating. It is terrifying. In the morning I pitch my idea, to the entire group. Then I work. The next morning, I present the results. That’s it. Go forth and hack. Everything is in the open. Openness implies a loss of control and therefore a threat. I cannot not share what I am doing. My process, my secrets, the intimate environment I have built over the years to be creative and productive is out in the open. My skills are exposed, my ideas are exposed. My lack of skills, my lack of ideas are exposed as well. What if there are no results? What if there is no idea? What if nobody needs me? What if I don’t have the ability to integrate in a group so quickly? What if I don’t share the overwhelming enthusiasm that the hack day generates? What if I want to retreat into my room and make it all go away?

Of course, in reality it doesn’t matter if I have all the skills. I can learn on the fly. It doesn’t matter how big or small a hack is. I know that I don’t have to present anything. But the group pressure doesn’t go away just because I know it is okay, or because someone tells me that it is okay. It still appears as if the hack day is a race for spectacular results. I know it. Next morning, most people will present something amazing. And we are all going to applaud.

What am I doing here? Why am I intentionally going to events that make me feel useless? Am I really that bad at what I do? I’m pathetic. Even if it is in fact totally fine to spend the day staring out of the window, even if nobody minds that I am only there to watch. Feeling useless in a sea of excitement is no fun. I am again the outcast at the fringes who doesn’t know what to say, what to do. Except that they have also stolen my unique label. Now that hackers are everywhere, I’m not one of them. At least I’m not afraid of spiders anymore. Spiders are cool.

The hack day is a socially very challenging format. I spend a lot of time in my job preparing social interactions. In the structured academic environments this works very well. At normal conferences, I know exactly what is going to happen. Most of the day we just sit there and listen. I can plan my conversations, prepare questions and reactions, and flowchart my way to the possible outcomes. I can gameplan. The hack day, by its nature, is unpredictable, which makes most of my elaborated social strategies useless. I feel exposed and vulnerable. I’m longing for structure. I can’t believe I’m longing for talks. Hell, I’m longing for giving talks. What a mess.

Credit: Robert Simpson

Of course hacking is not just the same as coding. Not anymore, at least. But inevitably, most hacks end up being coding, in one or the other way. Most people think that hacks are code, hence, most hacks are code, hence, most people think hacks are code. It doesn’t matter what the intention is. The moment you call it a hack day you attract people who do software or hardware. Worse, you attract people who do that and are socially skilled, collaborative, confident, amazingly talented and great people. I admire them a lot, but they also scare me. I don’t really know how to handle so many of them in one place. Worse, some people might think that I belong to them, just because over the years I’ve become quite good at pretending. Maybe I’m part of the problem after all. I’m walking around, impostering being a hacker, while at the same time envying the people who appear to be real hackers. Maybe they are impostering, too. It’s hard to believe that I’m the only one.

I don’t have a solution. Renaming the whole thing might help a little, but I don’t have much hope. What are you going to name it? “Maker day” sounds just as intimidating, and it doesn’t make the awkwardness go away. “Data surgery” is a nightmare of a name. Who goes into surgery voluntarily? Hackathon sounds like marathon, and most people find the idea of running a marathon not particularly attractive. My own personal solution is to avoid hack days and to visit dotastro only every four years. I can handle this once every four years. And it’s too great to miss out entirely. I want to be part of this, after all. Maybe social anxiety is the price I have to pay. Or maybe I have to find a hack for hack days. Maybe I will prepare my hack in advance, then spend the actual hack day faking hard work, before taking the prepared hack from the memory stick. Like a cheap cooking show. “And then we mix everything together and, abracadabra, here is the cake.”

What is the hack day? Is it social training, like a playdate, or skills training, or both? Can hacks be more diverse? Astronomers are not just coders. We all are observers, visualiser, educators, advertisers. Some of us are manager, organiser, engineers, supervisors, artists, politicians. Let’s bring all of this to the hack day, the entire range of skills. I want to see a hack day where people draw cartoons, write short stories, make boardgames, make noises, and design outreach initiatives. I want to see a hack day where people think about their jobs and the flawed political systems their jobs are tied to, and then come up with ways to game these systems. Not just idealistic scenarios, how it should be, but ways to get there. Hacking the universities and the funding bodies. I want to see more life hacks, more radical hacks, and fewer convenience hacks. I want to see hack days that are fully online and stretch over weeks, months, years.

And most of all I want to see hack days where projects fail. Where pitches fall flat and don’t go anywhere, for whatever reason. Where hacks are nothing but a waste of time, and are presented as such. Sometimes they fail spectacularly, which at least makes people laugh. But mostly they fail in an indignified, awkward, and embarrassing way, like most things. And then we just shrug and move on with our lives.