22 September 2015

Hacking in Canada

I'm back from a weekend in Canada (specifically the University of Waterloo ON, at Hack the North). Two 1/2 hours on a bus, then several hours at Chicago-O'Hare, then a flight from Chicago to Toronto, several hours chillin' at YYZ, then a bus ride to Waterloo followed by thirty-six hours of hacking, and then reverse the sequence and I'm back home.

The bus ride from Madison to Chicago is uneventful. It's a trip I've taken many times, so there's really nothing new to see. There's a moment of anxiety transferring buses in Janesville WI, but that's just making sure I get on the bus to O'Hare (where I'm flying out of) and not Midway (which is the wrong airport). Just to be sure, I always ask the driver to make sure I'm getting on the right bus. I like sitting in the far back of the bus, because there's usually a little bit of extra leg room and I don't have to deal with people bumping into me as they pass by. Unless the bus is full, I'm also usually sitting alone at the back of the bus, which is fine by me.

Chicago O'Hare is, well, Chicago O'Hare. There's construction going on, so the bus stops at the Transit Center instead of the terminal, and the bus driver spends several minutes explaining this. I've spent the night at O'Hare before, know the Transit Center (and in face the entire airport) well, and for me the explanation is just an annoyance. As soon as the bus stops, I'm headed towards the terminal. Two people from the bus remark that I look like I know where I'm going, and they follow me.

I've tried to check in online, and even tried to check in at a kiosk, and I can't convince either to produce a boarding pass. I talk to an Air Canada agent, who says there's a computer system issue. Once Air Canada agent leaves the counter to go I know not where, but when she comes back the computer system issue is fixed. She prints me a boarding pass, with a free upgrade to Economy Plus for having to wait. I liked flying Air Canada even before this, but I'm impressed.

The TSA checkpoint is insane; the wait was almost an hour. Several full Delta flights are trying to get through the same checkpoint as I am, and for whatever reason the line is moving slow. I know security is important. I try to take some deep breaths and that helps. I say good morning to the TSA people, some of whom return the greeting and some of whom do not. Me, and my stuff, pass through without question, and I'm headed down the concourse to find some water, because I'm dying of thirst. I pay $2.95 for a bottle of Diet Dew, which is equally insane, but after that I feel a little better. O'Hare is busy in the morning, and there are a ton of people moving around. I'm sitting where I can see outside, talking to the cleaning crew for a few minutes when they come by, and I'm watching the ground crew working. Airports are amazing machines.

On board the plane, as soon as we're at cruising altitude I'm watching a movie on my phone, Good Will Hunting, and filling out the customs form that says I'm staying for three days and not carrying anything that customs cares about. Since I'm watching a movie, the time goes by quickly and then I'm on the ground at YYZ, which like many airports is actually outside the city it's named for (Toronto). I was here almost exactly a year ago, and it hasn't changed. Customs goes very quickly-- I've waited longer for a value meal at McD's. Then I'm actually in Canada, headed for the nearest Tim Horton's, which is exactly where it was a year ago. I chill. (YYZ is, for the record, a pretty boring airport.)

After a while, my Hack the North teammate arrives. Moments of hilarity ensue when she lands at a different terminal, and we figure out how to get her from where she is, to where I am (and where the bus to U of Waterloo is leaving from). Once we figure out she's in a different terminal than I expected, things get smoother. The bus ride isn't anything to report on, other than the road signs look funny because the symbols are different (especially the ones that look like crowns).

At Hack the North: 1000+ hackers from all over North America, and probably a few other places. It's the same building as least year, so once I get my bearings I'm all right. The sponsor table/expo area is full of people with backpacks, so there's a lot of jostling around as people try to get to the tables. It's loud. People have to shout over each other. I've been to enough hackathons now to know that this is a difficult point; I hate being jostled, I hate really loud places, and this involves a lot of both. There are certain sponsors I want to talk to, at this point just to say hi and let them know that I'm there.We'll talk more later when things are settled down. I grab swag-- stickers, t-shirts, etc. Then it's upstairs to find a place to sit and hack. I skip the opening ceremonies, which also tend to be very loud and not a little triggering.

Later, supper. Then hacking begins. From here on, it's kind of a blur of me trying to get a Spark (Particle) Core board working with an Arduino and a Seeed Grove board with breaks for trips to the bathroom and trips to the tent outside for meals and snacks, interspersed with stops at sponsor tables to talk to some people I know from meeting them at other hackathons. I take walks outside, too-- especially at night, it's cool outside, almost crisp. Fall isn't yet in the air, but it's not far away either.

Meals are a fustercluck at hackathons in general; hackers tend to attack the food line as if they haven't eaten in 30 days. Occasionally, they run, and of those that run, someone often runs into me. I don't move, I stand my ground even if I see them coming. (I may have mentioned this before; when I play softball, I play catcher. Go ahead and run into me. I dare you.) There's a PTSD moment when one of the volunteers won't give me supper because I don't have my wristband (but I do have my lanyard/participant badge). I opt out of that meal and go for a walk instead, checking out a couple of the other campus buildings. After a while I'm settled down enough to get more work done.

Hacking: a classroom in an engineering building, perhaps about 50 people. Noisy. People moving around. Lots going on, and of course hard for me to concentrate. I'm getting a little bit done, and once people start taking naps I get a little more done. Taking breaks helps, as does remembering that a hackathon isn't my ideal work environment. I try to give myself some credit for getting done as much as I am. I'm working with some hardware that's very new to me, so I'm having to learn as I go along. The lights are smart lights after a certain time of night, and they turn off at seemingly random times when they think the room is empty. This, of course doesn't help. I catch myself barking at people for turning the lights on and off until I realize it's just some microcontroller trying to save electricity's fault.

Somewhere in all of this, I try Soylent. (Make the next version taste like Diet Dew and we'll talk.)

I talk to almost every sponsor, and give my pitch: I'm an Air Force vet, hacker, computer science major, and I'm looking for a job in California next year. This is one of the things on my list of things from Prolonged Exposure therapy-- at hackathons I've so far shied away from really engaging potential employers. Now I'm in full on job hunting mode, or at least trying to be. I shake hands. I make eye contact. The overwhelming response I receive is that they're interested, that being a veteran is a very positive attribute. More than one asks why I'm not out in California yet. I ask them to be candid, and several agree that yes, I'll encounter ageism in Silicon Valley-- but they also say that I should under no circumstances let that stop me. Many of them say that they know veterans in their companies that are among the best employees.

I also get to meet and talk to Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky, during an appointment set up by Y Combinator. My teammate is both female and an older student, and I'm a veteran and older student, so we both have questions about getting established in Silicon Valley. He's an interesting guy to talk to, and the twenty minutes we're allotted goes by quickly. I'm left with the feeling that I'm not so crazy, doing what I'm doing with hackathons and my personal projects, and learning on my own. I've been looking for some sort of validation, an opinion that says I'm doing the right things, and it's easy for me to look in the mirror and tell myself that I'm right. It's another thing entirely to have the CEO of the company whose smartwatch I'm wearing tell me that I'm on a good path.

Through Saturday night, we keep hacking. The hardware I'm working on doesn't exactly do what we need it to do; after several iterations, it's just not happening. Somewhere in the very early hours of Sunday morning, my part of the project is doomed. Still, I've learned a ton about making a Particle Spark Core do things and now I have ideas for other projects. We pitch the project to several sponsors who provided APIs that we used, hoping to win a prize there, and then the official pitch to the hackathon judges. Our project, a silent car alarm, gets good reviews when we pitch but we don't win a prize.

Sunday is a bit of a mess; my flight leaves Toronto at 1915, which is later than the recommended leaving time of 1915 but not by much. Hack the North arranges taxis for those of us who are flying out that early, so we can get to the airport with enough buffer time to get through security. At 1430 I'm in a taxi. An hour later I'm waking up at the airport, having not slept (except for a short nap) since Thursday night. Things are less of a mess once I get to Chicago; US Customs was handled in Toronto, so I get off the plane and get supper before I get on a bus back to Madison. I'm asleep before the bus leaves O'Hare, and then I'm back in Madison. A short walk, and I'm asleep at home.


This weekend's trip, apart from just being something fun and exciting to do, was for me a direct assault on my PTSD. I simply resolved that I wasn't going to let it get in the way. In prolonged exposure therapy, I made a list of the things that I'm trying to face head on-- the idea being that the more times you expose yourself to situations that trigger you, the more the PTSD symptoms will recede-- and for the most part, did those things over and over again all weekend. I talked to other participants about their projects, and mine. I saw and talked to people I knew from seeing them at other hackathons. I especially talked to sponsors, told them about myself and that I'm making the move to California, and made contacts for interviews. I tolerated the noise and commotion that a hackathon is as much as I could. I also got a lot done, even if what I did didn't end up in the final demo version of our project.

There were times when I'd had enough, when I needed to go outside in the middle of the night and walk around U of Waterloo avoiding people as much as possible. There were times when I just needed quiet, and these times came often. There were some really difficult times when it was really hard to keep going. Today (Monday) I slept all day and I haven't really been worth much this evening; I'm exhausted, physically and mentally. It's going to take me a couple of days to really recover. I pushed myself, hard, all weekend and I'm now feeling the effects. Zzzzz.

Still, I learned a lot about some new-to-me hardware, and APIs from several companies that I hadn't seen before. I got a lot of practice talking to sponsors about me, what I'm doing and where I'm headed-- I especially got more comfortable explaining that I'm a veteran, that my life has been shifted around a bit, that I'm better for it. People-- hackers and sponsors-- remembered me from a year ago, and were happy to see me again, so perhaps I'm making a decent impression on people. I might even have a couple of interviews coming up at Silicon Valley companies.

Most important of all, over the course of the weekend I felt like a hacker and not a guy who spent two years homeless on the streets of Madison who is trying to overcome a disability and succeed in spite of the... well, you get the picture, right? I felt a little bit normal again, and it felt quite all right, mostly.


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