Thursday 18 July 2013

Jamming

Emma Mulqueeny Emma Mulqueeny

Emma Mulqueeny started out as a writer and editor, went on to work within government as a digital strategist, and from that experience developed the concept of ‘hack days,’ a business problem-solving initiative that seriously took off. The hack days became a company called Rewired State, which spawned her passion project Young Rewired State – geared towards getting kids into programming – landing her on multiple Top 100 lists. Today, as well as running the two Rewired States, Mulqueeny is a writer for The Guardian and The Telegraph, a consultant and speaker, and one of Imperica’s interesting people to profile in the run up to the Silicon Beach 2013 conference in Bournemouth, September 5-6th, where she will be presenting.

 

Hack days have become something of a buzzword concept among business and developer communities in recent years, but Mulqueeny is ready for the term to evolve and “grow-up,” which she says will be the subject of her talk at Silicon Beach.

For those who don’t know, a hack day is when a company or organisation brings together a group of developers to brainstorm one or several business issues.

 “I would say a hack day is the equivalent to a musical jam session,” says Mulqueeny. “So you get a whole lot of people in a room who can create either code or algorithms or apps or anything. But when you get this kind of random group of people that have never worked together, the same way you get musicians who have never played together, (...) the things you get out of it are usually completely new.”

When she talks about the need for hack days to “grow up,” Mulqueeny explains it’s about moving on from merely trying to entice random developers into a room with the offer of pizza and beer – and the expectation that out of this, something revolutionary will emerge. The process requires thought, strategy and yes, money, but nowhere near as much as businesses would traditionally spend on R and D.

“It’s not going to be beer and pizza, or hundreds of thousands of pounds, it’s going to be somewhere in the middle, but at the end of it you have three or four amazing products and a hacker community that are engaged. (…) We spend a lot of time beforehand working out what the point of the hack day is, what the problems are we’re trying to solve.”

Mulqueeny says Rewired State has introduced ‘modding days,’ where several of the prototypes that come out of a hack are carried through by the same group of developers at a later date.

“It’s very difficult for a client to take a prototype that comes out of a hack day, hand it to their (work) team and get them to build on it, because they won’t know all of the component parts. You really need that original group of people to come back together (...) So we now run a series of modding days where we bring the same teams back together and we get them to take prototypes they’ve created, have an iterative process, and then take that all the way through to product.”

Rewired State is made up of just over a thousand developers aged 19 and above, and another 1000 under 19. Mulqueeny says 50 per cent of the developers brought into a hack day will be experts, immersed in the particular topic at hand, and 50 per cent will be new to the topic.

“By putting those two groups together you get some real innovation but also innovation that works.”

Mulqueeny also strongly advocates the need for bringing young people into the mix. She’s currently spending most of her time immersed in Young Rewired State and can’t stress highly enough the need for kids to be taught coding, an educational area that has been strangely neglected over the last two decades.

“We’re in crisis at the moment. We’re having to outsource all our development work. The people we’ve got in this country that are able to do all the work available – and there’s a ton of it – are overworked. There’s a need, there are empty jobs sitting out there.”

She is adamant about the need to make coding mainstream – no longer restricted to something reclusive, something young geniuses teach themselves in their bedrooms.

“I think what’s going to be really interesting over the next few years is when apps, websites and algorithms, are built by kids who are mainstream. Who have not experienced isolation. Who have grown up with a community of their peers, and been supported. It just won’t be the kind of people we’ve typically had the last 50 years.”

The youngest coders at Rewired State are just six years old.

“The things they’re going to choose to tackle on their own... they’re not going to be things like travel and crime and solving social problems, because that’s often the focus of the kids that have been isolated and bullied and all the rest of it, and I think that’s going to be really fascinating. I think that’s going to be fascinating worldwide.”

Last year, Mulqueeny went on something of a crusade to try and attract more girls into programming, an endeavour she now calls a “fatal error,” for in drawing attention to the issue, she unwittingly made it appear non-mainstream and “scary.” As a result, she lost many of the girls she had. Mulqueeny has since learned that if you leave gender out of it, the girls will naturally come, something she happily observed when she recently ran Young Rewired State in New York.

“Without even trying, we had over 50 per cent female attendance,” she says. “One of the best programmers there was a girl who was 15 and completely mainstream. She wasn’t particularly focused on code, she was into all the other things girls are into, she just happened to be a genius programmer. So that was really lovely to see.”

Mulqueeny herself grew up with a dad who was a mathematician and a computer scientist in a house littered with the latest technology, so for her, the idea of learning through programming seemed completely natural – although it wasn’t something that particularly interested her at the time. Coming of professional age as a writer and editor in the mid-90s, Mulqueeny automatically found herself immersed in the job of adapting written content for the web – the next big thing. Soon she was an something of an expert in online communication and she eventually went into government – which is where she had her career-making revelation not long after the expense scandal hit and everyone was scrambling to provide open data, while at the same time shying away in terror from its unchartered territory.

“I started running hack days just for the ministers so they could see it’s not scary,” she says. All they’re going to do is build something useful, and that was the best thing I ever did. Every time they’d come to it they’d go running away from the hack to go and find bits of data to send over. I used to get micro fish – ‘there you go, can you do something with these?’ (…) And then they did data.gov.uk a few months later.”

And as the old saying goes, she never looked back. Before long the hack days became her full-time job and Rewired State was born.

“You know you’re doing something right when everything just starts working.”

Yet still, to this day, after huge success and countless, invaluable business revelations, people still ask (usually not to her face, mind), “but what’s the point of a hack day?”

“The point of a hack day is to bring into the heart of an organisation and a country, the people who are going to be able to keep us secure, as well as keeping us innovating and kick starting the economy,” says Mulqueeny. “I think by bringing those people right into the heart of it, by understanding them, we’re going to do far more to actually take on the world that we’re living in at the moment, survive and grow.”

Catch Mulqueeny’s presentation at Silicon Beach, which runs September 5-6th. For info on conference line-up and to receive a special Imperica discount code, click here.

Clare-Marie Grigg

Clare is the Managing Editor of Imperica.

www.imperica.com/

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