Fusion chats with HackTheMidland’s Tom Goodman
How are you?
Pretty good, much more relaxed than I was middle of October time! We’ve survived 2020 and here we are!
How did you find 2020?
It was an experience, which I think is the diplomatic way of putting it. The last five/six years of my life have been spent around running events, chatting to people, and making connections, and then all of that got turned on its head. I have never spent so much time in my house that’s for sure!
So what has got you through the last year?
I set up an office in the living room rather than in my bedroom. It meant I had a separation between working and relaxing. Keeping a routine was so important as its really easy to fall into the trap of not going to bed early and waking up late. Also having the kitchen next door meant I wasn’t taking breaks, so I started actually having breakfast and lunch away from my screen and not taking breaks at my desk.
Lots of lights too!! I’ve brought a light therapy lamp actually which has been great!
That’s a great tip!
So moving on to Hack The Midlands…
We saw you and the HTM team take on the challenge of running the hackathon virtually!! First of all congratulations, it was a huge success. The collaboration between teams was amazing, the submissions were so strong and so well thought out. How did you find it all?
Absolutely knackering!! The week before was the hardest because we were working 14/15 hours days, to get set up, make sure the stream was running. The last day was also really intense as we had to do all the judging and film the closing ceremony and stitch the sponsor videos together – all things you don’t need to think about when you are doing it person.
Rightly so, we don’t trust tech, so it was easier to have recordings rather than live streaming. With there being so many people involved there was lots of different elements to juggle doing it virtually.
What was the biggest challenge running HTM5?
There were two main challenges we faced.
Trying to transition the skills we have as a team to running in person events, which is a completely different beast to running it online. The second challenge was maintaining the same community feel. Something that’s key to HTM is this welcoming community that makes people feel like they are a part of something during the event, because it wouldn’t be hack the midlands without that. Trying the keep that community feel existing within the online context was definitely one of the biggest challenges.
We started planning HTM5 in October 2019 and by the following March we had to switch things up due to lockdown and had to start thinking about ways we can make it delightful for everyone, and make everyone feel like they are a part of it all. How do we maintain the community feel? How can we go above and beyond to make sure people have a good time and feel included? It’s really hard to emulate the in person events, where you have a really cohesive community.
There is such a huge emphasis on community at HTM, as well as collaboration, skills transfer, learning from peers etc. What sort of solutions did you come up with to keep that going?
We kept all engagement within the Discord server rather than having separate chats on MS teams, Zoom etc. Charlie and the team built a great bot, where you can create channels so can interact with your team in the server. That obviously came with its own challenges!! We accidently made 100 channels and spammed the discord with them!!
We also took an idea from Hack Quarantine where we created check points so people could chat about what they’ve done each day. Another thing I encouraged people to do was to drop into chats to see what everyone is doing and offer help. I think having that extra communication really helps, and it encourages people to talk in Discord community channels.
Discord was great shout Tom, it worked so well!
Its such a flexible platform, being able to write a bot allows you to get creative. Having the mix of text and voice chat too was great, and the ability to have multiple meetings going on at once.
Are you getting paid by Discord for Advertising?
I would shill for Discord purely based on how useful it’s been…I say wearing a discord t-shirt!
Something you want to tell us Tom? Are you starting work with them next year?
I wish! Discord if you’re reading this interview, feel free to chuck us some money or some nice clothes! Is this how product placement works?
Over the HTM years, what would be your favourite submission of all time?
That is one of the hardest questions you could have asked, there has been so many amazing submissions. There was one called Dance Auth – where you danced the password. You would train it a dance move and by the user completing the dance move correctly would gain authorisation.
We could have a lot of fun with something like that!!
So any Tom Goodman plans or HTM plans for 2021?
Well, we’re coming towards the end of my PHD which is terrifying!
HTM wise it’s not clear whether by October will we be able to run in person events, but we might start planning to run one online again. By the time that we know that we can run events in person, will we have enough time to work that out. Its hard to judge. The main thing for us was protecting our attendees, our community, and the wider society. It can be really easy to think online is easier as you don’t have physical logistics, but then actually when we got into the meat of it there was a lot more work putting HTM on line that any of us had anticipated. However, now we have that knowledge, we not only have the infrastructure to do it again, but we also know what we can improve on.
How long did the planning take Tom?
Ages! We tend to start planning the next HTM straight after the one we’d just done, which is not exactly healthy, but it gives us the most time. We had everything sorted for last years to physically go ahead by March, and then we had to start all over again. So, we started online planning in March, it was bit slow as we had a lot of deep discussions about how we can preserve the feeling of HTM online. It took a lot of discussion, lots of brain storming, we had to work out how can we carry on the same way, how will out reach work? How will we get sponsors? We got a lot done last year considering – new website, the Discord server, a high number of attendees etc.
Whilst its not the same as running an in person event, and once we get the chance to go back in person, of course we will, given the curveball we were thrown in March it went really well.
There’s an element of HTM that we really love, which is encouraging people who don’t have experience to come along and get involved.
What’s the best tip you have for a tech newbie, for someone who wants to get involved in tech?
That’s exactly the position that was in in 2015. I was in the very fortunate position that I had gone to University and there was a really great society president Jack Weardon who took me under his wing and took us to hackathons. The biggest thing for me was chatting to people, and the more people you get to know the more part of the community you feel.
The best advice would be to go to events like HTM, or check out SoC, Hackference (note to self, bully Mike Elsmore to run this again). Chat to people and ask for help or direction. You do not need to have prior experience, it’s not about building the most polished incredible project and winning, but you can equally win by coming and showing that you learnt lots of great stuff. The most important thing is learning, and now everything is online, sign up to events and there’s lots of free ones too! Have confidence in the fact that people do not expect and huge amount from you when you are new and if they do, they are dicks.
My advice to people who are already in the community and have experience – be patient, be the person that is encouraging those people to be in tech, take them under your wing, point them to events! They are at the start of their journey, help them along because you were once in their position. If we are not those people, then people won’t want to get involved, especially people from underrepresented groups and disadvantaged backgrounds who currently don’t have as bigger place in tech, and that is a real shame.
That’s great advice to finish on Tom, and some really key points there that people of all ability levels can take on board.
Once again congratulations on the success of HTM5 and thank you for all the work you put into the Birmingham Tech community.
We’re looking forward to hopefully seeing you this year for a coffee, IN PERSON!!