Friday, 16 March 2012


What’s A GiveCamp? 
I spent the weekend of 21st-23rd October last year working for charity at GiveCamp. What’s a GiveCamp? Givecamp is an event where technology experts give their time over a weekend to build projects for charities. It’s funded by corporate sponsorship, which means it’s free to attend for both the charities and the volunteers. The concept originates from Microsoft in Texas in 2007 – since then over $1m worth of time and consultancy has been donated. In 2011, GiveCamp UK was the first GiveCamp to be held outside the USA. I got involved through knowing the organisers; many of my friends from the UK Microsoft programming community were also there. 

How Does It Work? 
We assembled at UCL’s Bloomsbury Campus on the afternoon of 21st October, where there was a chance for a cup of coffee and a gossip with people while we waited to find out where we needed to be. At about 5pm we all trooped into a lecture theatre, where representatives from a set of charities each delivered a short pitch about their charity, and more importantly, the project they wanted people to tackle over the weekend. In the main room, there was a chance to speak to the charity reps again to get more detail on their project, and everybody gradually organised themselves into teams. 
I chose to work with a charity called Scene And Heard , who run playwriting courses for children – the plays the children write are then performed by volunteer professional actors. The project that Scene And Heard pitched for was to build them a ticketing system. As we got into the detail of their requirements, we all realised that rather than building a system for them ourselves, we could set them up with an account on EventBrite, which is a website that provides ticketing services for events. And EventBrite wouldn’t cost them anything to use. Score! And even better, at that point the catered dinner arrived! 
Having such a quick and easy win for us was a great boost for our team, and, fortified by yummy sausages and mash, it meant we could go back to Scene And Heard and say ‘what else can we do for you?’. It transpired that they were managing their lists of volunteers, plays and performances in a set of Excel spreadsheets and, in their own words ‘a car-crash Access database’. This, then, would be our project for the rest of the weekend – to meld all these elements into a single, web-based database. We started to explore some initial options using a new Microsoft technology called Lightswitch up to about midnight on Friday night. 
On Saturday morning we arrived back at our table in dribs and drabs, but were greeted by a cornucopia of bacon sandwiches, sausage sandwiches and pastries! I found I’d made exactly the right decision to stay at the Premier Inn round the corner – some people had elected to take the ‘camp’ part of GiveCamp quite seriously and there was a large room full of tents and sleeping bags, however it seemed that one of the campers was an epic snorer, and there were several bleary-eyed developers to be seen. 
Fuelled by the aforementioned breakfast and endless cups of coffee and tea, we were all back at our table and working by 10am, however we were all starting to struggle with problems with Lightswitch, in part because none of us had used it before. After a lunch of delicious burritos, at about 2pm, we had a stand-up where we reviewed the progress we’d made and discussed the problems we were having (a stand-up is a short project status meeting (that is held standing up to remind people to keep the meeting short)). 
The various problems we were having with Lightswitch were killing our productivity, so we took the decision to throw it all away and switch to a different style of web development. This meant we would be up against it to get things delivered, but crucially the switch meant we could all be much more productive and we started to see the benefits almost straight away. We worked into the night, stopping only for pizza and the odd bottle of beer, but by 2am we were all flagging badly and agreed to call it a night. 
Sunday morning was the home stretch – the cutoff for all teams was midday, which was probably just as well as otherwise we’d all have kept going until UCL kicked us out. We still had loads to do however, and I was back at our table at 8am, typing with one hand and eating a pain au chocolat with the other. We continued to make steady progress and integrate the different pieces of work we’d all been doing, right up to 12, and we agreed to continue to work on the project after the weekend in our own time to complete the parts we’d been unable to finish. There were a couple of hours to decompress and chat to other teams to see how they’d been getting on, before we all trooped across the road into a lecture theatre so each team could present on what they’d been doing. (You can see Dan Elliott’s presentation on the You Can Hub project through the medium of interpretive dance at Our new friends from Scene And Heard were thrilled with how much we’d been able to accomplish in less than two days – ‘you’ve changed people’s lives’ was their reaction, and there were several people with tears in their eyes. Not me, I just had something in my eye. Honest. 
All the projects were seriously impressive, everybody had worked flat out all weekend and many people had learned on the spot things they’d never needed before, from integrating YouTube into a website, to using EventBrite like us, to building a CRM system in a weekend. There was a prizegiving ceremony - many companies had donated prizes to be given out, and courtesy of the Charity Technology Trust everyone received a brand new solid-state disc drive for their laptop – before it was time to say our farewells and head home for some much-needed sleep. As GiveCamp was held over a weekend, I was able to use my WSP volunteering days to take two days off afterwards to recover! 

What Did I Learn? 
As well as picking up some techniques for recording and managing project requirements and measuring progress, my biggest takeaway from GiveCamp was the importance of flagging up project concerns early. Our decision to try Lightswitch cost us over half a day, which in a time-critical situation like this was time we couldn’t afford, when I’m not sure any of us was absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do. My other takeaway is how much can be done in just two days; for an individual, it’s difficult to achieve anything substantial in such a short space of time, but a team of highly skilled and motivated people working together for a couple of days can deliver impressive results. I’m already looking forward to seeing what we can do at GiveCamp 2012.