The Program Assistant Attends L.A. Hacks

by Christopher Harnois, IWP Program Assistant

So, you might be wondering, where does a writing program like mine, Northern Arizona University’s Interdisciplinary Writing Program (IWP), have a role in a computer programming conference? I set out to discover where the IWP’s four pillars of research, design, presentation, and writing play a role in software development, and where those four skills are integral. Besides that, I aimed to break through traditional boundaries set by disciplinary expectations, and I uncovered that even English majors can play a role in the world of tech.

Despite what the name implies, a hackathon has nothing to do with breaking down cybersecurity barriers in an attempt to gain illegal access to databases or an internal network. It’s a dedicated period of time, 36 hours in this case, where programmers, in teams of up to four, are asked to develop an application or piece of software. They aren’t allowed to bring in any code or hardware they have prepared themselves, but they are allowed to use open-source code (code that is posted online for the public).

Before the hacking began, the keynote speaker set the tone and theme for the event by covering his thoughts on the state of the internet, saying that static HTML-based pages are no longer the norm, and that the internet is becoming a network of software, or apps, where people desire functionality and convenience when searching for information (Google is a great example, specifically their expansions into Cloud services, e-mail, maps, etc.).

Research and Design

LA Hacks Pavilion Floor

The main workspace.

The event began on Friday, at UCLA in Westwood, Los Angeles, CA with a false promise of food upon arrival (the food was late and there more participants than expected).

After starving our way through several opening speakers, dinner was served, and the hacking, or project development, began at 11:30 PM, 30 minutes behind the planned schedule. And once I re-fueled, I hopped into the frenzy myself.

I walked around to the different sponsors and asked “where does writing play a role in the software development process?”, “how do you utilize writing in your position?”, and “Where does software development start?” You might think it begins when a programmer has an idea and executes it, but that’s not always the case

I learned from a Microsoft representative (the event had huge sponsorship) that it often begins with the end user. Companies take into consideration what people want to see, or what they think they want, and develop software to meet those needs. It’s market research. In this process, it takes a mediator between the end user and the engineer, or programmer. Sometimes, that same mediator will draft a basic interface, including text, for the new app and leave the programming and functionality up to the programmer and engineer. There are also tech writers responsible for creating manuals and instructions for new software and hardware products. A representative from Cisco (a networking, data management, and virtualization company) informed me that they outsource their tech writing to a company that specializes in it.

In the case of start-up companies, like Reddit or SnapChat, the development process is the opposite, where they perceive a need in the market and fill a niche creating something the user didn’t know they wanted or needed in the first place. In the case of the participants in the hackathon, they take the start-up approach, where they see a need amongst themselves, or their peers, for a particular product.

NAU's workspace

NAU’s workspace with Tara in the foreground.

In either case, after refining the initial concept developers then have to decide what programming language is best for the execution of their idea. After that, they can gather their open-source resources, including APIs. API stands for “Application Programming Interface” and the best way I can explain them is through an example given to me by a Mashape representative. Google Maps is an API. Programmers are able to incorporate all the power provided by the Google Maps service by referencing two lines of code provided by Google for exactly that purpose. So, instead of reinventing the wheel, location-based services like Yelp are able to take advantage of a powerful tool that already exists.

Speaking of development, NAU was shunned into the stadium seats because the event organizers anticipated a higher drop-rate from the total of 3,000 people that registered.  We didn’t mind though, we kept our morale strong.

For the remainder of the time after the initial research, developers then focus on writing code and constructing their software. After the first build, they test and debug, and re-test and debug more until their project is useable. The process isn’t necessarily linear, it’s cyclical; if the designer thinks of another feature they want to add to their build, they might need to repeat the process from the beginning.

Writing and Presentation

Home base.

Lisa and I attempting to build a website with temperamental wi-fi.

Another aspect of writing in the tech industry mentioned in the conversations I had with the sponsors was website copy., a start-up focused on connecting people with local businesses that deliver through online ordering, decreased address entry errors on their website by 70% by changing the text associated with the entry boxes. Another company, Mashape, increased registration on their website by 30% by changing “sign-up” to “get started”. Unlike larger companies like Microsoft and Cisco, writing is expected from the developers themselves in smaller companies. At Flipboard, a mobile news magazine app, programmers are expected to update notation and instructions whenever they alter something in the project they’re working on. Concise and on-demand writing is a necessary skill.

I intended to practice my own web-writing skills by constructing and submitting a website with my friend, Lisa.  Unfortunately, the wi-fi in the stadium was temperamental all weekend and we did not have ethernet cables.  For the rest of the NAU group, however, ethernet cables were provided and they were able to move forward with their own projects.

The Hacking Completed

On Sunday morning, Hacking stopped promptly at 11:30 AM. By this point, energy drinks and stale pizza were easier to find than bottles of water. Participants were required to submit their projects by the deadline and submissions included a short summary of their product and images displaying their interfaces. Optional items included promotional materials, like short videos demonstrating their work. Concise writing was critical in their summaries because their posts were public on the LA hacks website for voting by all participants, and they’re still viewable here. At stake were thousands in prizes provided by all the different sponsors.

After submission, the ‘hackers’ were asked to leave the pavilion floor so the organizers could prepare for the exhibition fair.

That’s right, the already exhausted developers now had to talk about their projects to their peers and the judges. Seven projects were then selected to present on the main stage and presentations included promotional material and a demonstration.

Alexis Ohanian

My friends and I got to meet a co-founder of Reddit, Alexis Ohanian.

The speeches delivered by these groups were nothing less than extraordinary; they were elevator speeches presented with enthusiasm and conciseness, with articulation and practice. Even in their brief talks, they made their projects feel necessary to the audience.

The one I remembered clearly was called Wormhole, designed for Windows 8. It allows a user to sign in to any computer and have access to all of their files, their documents, and even their own desktop. It makes any computer into a personal workstation as long as access to the web is available. At the end of their brief talk, they even promised future versions would be available across platforms.

Part of the hackathon included “Tech Talks” provided by different figures in the tech world.  My friends and I attended one with the co-founder of Reddit and he spoke about entrepreneurship and accomplishing personal goals.

Goodbye Hackers

These students were driven. They were passionate about computing and revolutionizing the way we work and interact with technology. The prizes helped, but given the nature of many of the sponsors and the tech talks (I attended one with the co-founder of Reddit presenting), they wanted to create their own companies and define the newest trends in tech development. Even the closing speaker focused on entrepreneurship and achieving goals through defining the goal and developing tactics for attaining them.

Beyond the IWP’s four pillars of writing, research, design, and presentation, rhetoric is utilized in the tech industry, especially Bitzer’s rhetorical situation. Companies are responsible for defining an exigence, or a need in the market for a new program or app. From there, they define their constraints, which includes competition, potential compatibility issues, and generating a product that can be used across platforms. From there, they create their solution.

After we left Los Angeles and returned to Flagstaff via an eight-hour long bus ride across the Mojave and up to the Colorado Plateau in the shadow of the San Francisco Peaks, I asked one NAU student, Tara Planas, what she thought of the event. She summed it up concisely by saying, “LA Hacks was an eye-opening experience jam-packed with opportunities for learning and networking. Demos included 3D printing, electric scooters, and augmented reality projects. The exposure to those things along with talking to people and making new friends inspired me. I gained experience in teamwork for a coding environment. The adrenaline rush was never-ending.”

I couldn’t agree more. I also wondered if there might be a chance for my program, the IWP, to host an interdisciplinary hackathon where different majors are asked to collaborate on a project of their own design. A group of chemistry majors in cohesion with mechanical engineers could create a safe design for tailings ponds and toxic waste disposal. Computer science majors teaming up with environmental engineers could develop programs designed to increase efficiency in power grids. And English majors could provide technical documentation, abstracts, and grant proposals for the above projects.

I see big prospects in the IWP’s future, accompanied by pizza, energy drinks (or coffee) and disc golf in the pines.


One response

  1. Hi Chris,

    I love to see the role of rhetoric in the most unlikely of places. Through this program, we get to ask questions that most people never consider the answer to. A simple, “How do you use writing?” often leads into a complex conversation that ultimately comes down to communication. So glad to know that you enjoyed the conference (once you were fed). The program is lucky to have you!


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