GiveCamp UK 2011 – A Retrospective

I spent this last weekend at UCL’s Bloomsbury campus in London, with a hundred or so charitable geeks, at the first UK GiveCamp. I came away from it amazed – at the generosity of the volunteers and sponsors alike; at the sophistication of some of the solutions that were delivered within a single weekend, and at the reactions from the charities involved when we presented our projects on Sunday afternoon. It was a wonderful experience, and one I’d happily do again, but in the spirit of agile and continuous improvement, here’s my own personal retrospective on GiveCamp UK 2011.

What went well?

  • The project. I was lucky enough to be working with a team who were helping Scene and Heard, a mentoring project based in north London that arranges for children to work with volunteer theatre professionals to write and perform plays. Simma , their Head of Development, showed up on Friday with a great pitch, obvious enthusiasm, a wealth of knowledge about the domain, and a “wish list” of projects and ideas for us to investigate. Top of the list was a ticket booking system – and I was immensely heartened when our entire team of coders – you know, people who like to build stuff – unanimously agreed that the pragmatic solution would be to hook them up with EventBrite. By 8pm on Friday, we’d drawn up a backlog of requirements, made sure EventBrite would actually deliver what they needed, and a couple of the team were already working on the integration. This left the rest of us free to start looking at some of the more blue-sky ideas on Simma’s list… and somehow by Saturday afternoon we were building a full relational database, MVC web front-end, and a set of data migration and normalisation routines to import their data from a collection of Access and Excel sheets into SQL Server. It’s not quite live yet – we’re having some problems getting the Entity Framework config code to work with AppHarbor’s SQL Server databases – but by the end of the week we hope to have it online, hosted, and handed over to them, for immediate use, or as a solid platform for future development.
  • The venue. The power worked. There was ample desk space and seating. The wi-fi was pretty solid – for most of the weekend we were actually using their wi-fi network for all our database access and development, as well as simple web browsing & e-mail, and other than an occasional IP address change, it worked.
  • The catering. The food was excellent, there were ample supplies of drinks, snacks, awesome tea thanks to Teapigs, fresh fruit and enough Haribo to keep you wired and coding well into the small hours. Result.
  • The wrap-up. Without Paul & Phil imposing a strict code cut-off, we’d have happily coded until they threw us out – but in retrospect, having a hard deadline with plenty of notice really focused our efforts towards the end of the project.
  • The platforms. We used Github for hosting, Trello for organising our backlogs and a whole lot more besides; EventBrite solved the ticketing problem, and we’re in the process of deploying to AppHarbor. All fantastic, powerful tools – and all completely free.
  • The swag. 80Gb SSDs for all the attendees? Best. Swag. EVER. Plus a hugely generous range of licenses, software, books and ebooks. Check out the list of sponsors at – I’m hugely grateful to every single one of them for making this amazing event a reality.
  • The people. Everyone was helpful, cooperative, collaborative and enthusiastic, and I hope everyone learned as much working with each other as I did working with them.
  • The demos. I was really, really impressed at what the teams delivered. From discovery to implementation to – in some cases – deployment onto a live website, in under 48 hours… as Ben Hall put it, it “makes you wonder what we normally do all day…” I am also not at all biased by how genuinely delighted Simma and Jasmine looked when we showed them our work. Honest.

What could have gone better?

  • I thought the Friday start was too early. Lots of people – including several of the charities and one of the organisers – were held up in transit and missed the opening pitches and kick-off. The only downside of a venue as wonderfully accessible as UCL Bloomsbury is that at 5pm on a Friday it’s smack in the middle of the worst rush hour in the country. Just an idea – but I’d suggest next time a preliminary session, maybe earlier in the week, with the team leaders and the charity reps? A solid couple of hours capturing requirements and understanding the domain. We’d have been up to speed much quicker if one or two of us had had the chance to think things over ahead of time.
  • That’s actually the only criticism I have of the event itself. The rest are memos to myself and the team for next time:
    • Bring an ergonomic keyboard! By Sunday afternoon my arms were starting to seize up… I’m not a laptop coder by choice, and having one of my trusty MS Natural 4000s would have made a *huge* difference. Plus a proper mouse. And a second monitor.
    • Stick to what you know. This is not an event for trying out new technology – unless someone on your team knows it well, don’t go near it. We spent a good half-day investigating Visual Studio Lightswitch before concluding that we just didn’t have the expertise to tailor it to our requirements… it was gone 3pm on Saturday when we finally settled on ASP.NET MVC 3 with Entity Framework, and an hour later we were absolutely flying.
    • Get a Skype chat or IRC channel set up ASAP. You’re going to be sharing lots of addresses, API keys, URLs – stuff that’s time-consuming to read out loud or write on paper.

In conclusion – wonderful event, I’m really pleased to have been part of it, and I hope the rest of our team will be at the next one because I’d love to work with them again some time. And huge thanks to Paul Stack, Rachel Hawley, Phil Winstanley, Kendal Miller and Dave Sussman, who all looked absolutely worn out by Sunday evening – it wouldn’t have happened without you!