As you may or may not know, Startup Weekend is a weekend where business developers, coders, and designers get together for one long weekend and try to create a startup project from idea to production. This may seem strange to the general coding population where timelines are measured in months, but with the right idea and enough motivation, things can happen.
I’ve personally gone to two of these outings in Chicago and will be going to my third on November 12-14th. It’s right across the river from Union Station this year, so it’s easy to get to. Oh yeah, and it’s a place where coders are forced to interact with artists and MBAs.
Hey! I saw that. You’re reaching for the back button. You’re thinking that you deal with those types 5 days a week. Or maybe you’re having a panic attack just thinking about talking to someone who has never taken a side on the vim/emacs holy war (by the way, vim is clearly superior). Well don’t worry, everything is going to be okay. It may even be… *gasp* … fun.
Well, there’s a few things a programmer has to think about before stepping into the building. If you think about these things before hand, it will help you be successful at your first startup weekend.
1) This is a social event
Yes, it’s a social event. Sure some ideas become products, and possibly a few may become successful startups, but you’re here to mingle. This is what the first night is all about. For the first hour or so, everyone gathers around and just talks. Here you can ask people what they are (biz dev/designer/coder), what they do for a living, etc. Just small talk. Find some people who you wouldn’t mind working with or just someone to follow on twitter. A lot of these people will have blogs, be active on twitter and facebook, and are just plain social. Use this to your advantage. People will come up to you. Be friendly and social.
2) Ideas are free, as in freedom
Everyone has an idea for the next big thing. You’ll probably hear 50 or more during the pitch session. Don’t be afraid to tell people your million dollar idea. Hey, this is your chance to find some people to help you actually finish that project. Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.
3) You are a rare commodity
Sadly, there aren’t a ton of coders that show up to these events. You’ll find that people will keep coming up to you. Every project needs programmers, sometimes more than one. There are just not enough to go around. Ideas die quickly when a group can’t find coders. Use this to your advantage and pick the idea you really like. Chances are they could use another developer.
4) This is a social event
Yes, again. I know that we all didn’t follow this career path because of our interpersonal skills. I know that sitting behind a keyboard with your headphones on for hours a day doesn’t exactly make you an extrovert. I know this because I’m like you. But, for this event, you have to try being social. If you get caught up in a long conversation, just tell the person you’re looking forward to possibly working with them and ask for a business card so you can stay in touch. You’re here to make contacts. Oh yeah, bring business cards, even if they just have your blog on them. $20 buys you 100 cards, more than enough to pass out over the weekend. I just ordered a few from overnightprints.com.
5) It’s a long weekend…
Yes, it’s a long weekend. Food is usually covered, but everything else is on you. You won’t have a lot of personal space. Actually, you’ll probably have someone come up to you every few minutes asking how things are going. Be prepared and have your headphones with you for when you need that heads down coding time. Tell the people you’re with that you need a half hour of uninterrupted time to get the next feature. If there’s a special drink or food that keeps you going, make sure you’re stocked up. You’re going to need the energy.
6) Ruby on Rails is king
Just get over it. Your Java skills won’t cut it. Your late night hacking on the Linux kernel won’t give you much help this weekend. Ruby and Ruby on Rails seems to be very popular at these things. The one thing that rails gives you that other frameworks don’t is the fast scaffolding of an application. Python junkies can still be useful as a few groups will go towards the Django/Pylons/etc. route. You can even go as the sole developer in a group if you find yourself better than average at another MVC framework.
Also, that windows laptop really won’t cut it. I hate to say it (as I’m typing on my Windows 7 laptop), but Ruby on Rails sucks on Windows. No worries though, just download VirtualBox and the latest copy of Ubuntu and go wild. Installing Rails on Ubuntu is a breeze if you follow the simple instructions. For those still inclined to stick with windows, you can follow those instructions instead.
7) Have fun
This is supposed to be fun. There is a competitive side to it, but mostly people are there to socialize and have a good time. Don’t stress about adding that last minute feature. Don’t stress over the quality of the code. Just get things done and have fun. Remember, this is probably the only time you get to prototype something and actually throw away the code and start over if you move on to production. There won’t be any managers telling you: “It looks great, when can we release it.” Pointy haired bosses need not apply to this domain.