The People Behind the Code: An Interview with Tom Hart

You may know Tom Hart as an avid participant in local hackathons and staple at Syracuse Tech Events. But did you know he’s also a board member for the Invisible People organization, a former independent consultant and a self-taught developer who is currently a software engineer at Terakeet? We took some time to ask Tom some questions about himself and his experiences at Hack Upstate events.

How did you learn to code? Are you self-taught or did you go through a program?

I’m completely self taught. I was very fortunate to have access to a computer from a very young age and started experimenting with the computer around the time I entered school. In the beginning it was pretty lightweight, and I mostly had help files and old computer magazines to go on. Once I had access to the internet, again fortunately early, it completely opened up the world of what I could learn and do.

What languages do you know/prefer?

I’ve worked professionally (sometimes very briefly) with Javascript, PHP, Java, Visual Basic 6, Ruby, Python and SQL. Ruby is my hands down favorite. The creator or Ruby describes it as optimized for “developer happiness”. It’s very easy to work with and rarely gets in your way, which I can’t say for most of the other languages on that list.

How did you first become aware of Hack Upstate?

A friend of mine attended the first and invited me to go, but I declined. Total facepalm now of course. Fortunately I agreed to attend the second (Fall 2013 if I recall correctly) and I’ve attended each one since.

Have you taken home any awards or prizes?

Fall 2013 I won the Dwolla prize for my solo project “Not Just Improving Me”. Spring 2014 I also won the same prize for my solo project “Buskio”. Fall 2014 I participated in team “Board Swarm” which did not win any prizes but was a super fun project led by Colin Pugh. Spring 2015 I won first place for my project “Slices” on which I led a 3 person team including Kiva VanDerGeest and Betty Wu.

Is there a project you worked on that you were particularly proud of?

“Not Just Improving Me” for a few reasons. It was my first hackathon, and I found the idea and myself unexpectedly as a solo team 4 hours into the event. I managed to stay up for the full 24 hours, complete the project despite going the completely wrong way about it, and still earn the Dwolla prize.

It was also a self improvement project designed as an idea to help people quit smoking, which is more honorable than any of my other projects (not that there isn’t honor in good pizza).

My goal during the first hackathon was also to find a full time job, which I was able to do in the middle of the crazy 24 hour push.

What is your favorite Hack Upstate story?

This story happened at the most recent event, but I’ve told it many times since then. This was after I had been pretty deep into coding for a while and decided to take a break and meet some people. I found Mitchell Patterson talking to a person I didn’t recognize. Only after introducing myself was I informed that the person I didn’t know was actually Zachary Feldman, one of the judges whom I had spent at least a half hour talking to at the start of the event. 6 hours of coding had blanked it from my memory temporarily. He was very kind about it, and obviously wasn’t too offended as he must have given me some points in the judging stage.

Is there a project that you saw that sticks out in your mind as creative or memorable?

Most of the field every year would fit this bill. Hardware hacks always fascinate me as it’s an area I don’t understand well. One year a team implemented the HTCPCP (Hyper Text Coffee Pot Control Protocol) allowing a coffee machine to be controlled as a web service. The original spec was written as an April Fool’s joke I believe, and I think that type of project embodies the hackathon spirit extremely well.

What do you think makes a good hackathon project?

It depends on your goals. If the point is to have fun, just build something you think is fun. For the record this is the approach I most often recommend.

At the last event I specifically went with the goal of placing well, and I had the following in mind going in to the project. These are generally good pieces of advice, but are tailored towards being judged well.

It had to be simple. In the past I’ve run into complexity problems late in the hackathon that nearly killed the project. It’s much better to execute a simple idea really well. You only get 5 minutes to demo anyway, which is a lot less than you think. The first event I only demoed about 20% of what I had built, which wasn’t even the polished part.

It had to be demo-able. I knew a memorable demo would work in my favor, especially if it had a bit of a wow moment. In previous years projects that involved audience participation really caught my interest, especially those where the audience could pull out their smartphone and interact with the project.

It had to impact a lot of people. Audience participation and a memorable demo only worked if it actually applied to a majority of the crowd. I’m always a fan of maximizing impact over effort in any case, but it was especially helpful during the demo.

What are your tips for demo-ing your build?

Allow the final hour at least for practice, tech checking and catching your breath. The demo is the culmination of a lot of very focused very high energy work, and you will be drained. Make sure you’ve eaten breakfast and tried to get at least a couple hours of rest overnight. Other than that try to relax, try to get a laugh, and try to get the audience involved in some way. You only have a short time so make sure you’ve practiced with a timer as well.

Where can people find you to connect? (though there’s basically nothing there, you’ll find me on twitter @myrridin)

Has Hack Upstate benefited you in any way?

I’m not sure I could even count every way it has. I’ve met dozens of amazing people, got a great job, won some cool prizes, explored my personal limits of creativity and marathon coding and ate a lot of free pizza. That’s not everything, but it ought to be enough to convince anybody to give it a shot.

The goal of Hack Upstate is to connect Upstate NY developers. Do you think they are executing well on that goal? What would you improve?

I absolutely do. My anecdotal experience proves it many times over.

There’s always more to be done, but I think Hack Upstate has been an amazing force of unification for upstate’s dev and creative community.

There’s two things I would improve, and they’d both probably require magic.

It would be great to have a more even mix of experienced professional developers mixed in with the students. It’s not overwhelming, but I think the mentoring that could be happening would be amazing. Of course it gets tougher and tougher to both find the time and the endurance to go through a 24 hour hackathon, so it’s understandable why there’s not more of us there.

I’d also like to see time dedicated to socializing with participants, but this has its own challenges. You can’t do it during the event as most teams will want to focus on their project. After the event you’re lucky if you can talk to the people you came with you’re so exhausted, and before the event you’re still in the getting comfortable stage that wouldn’t be conducive to meeting new people.

Final thoughts?

The one thing I always tell everybody is just go. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a developer. It doesn’t matter if you’re not experienced. It doesn’t matter if you’re in high school or over 40. It doesn’t matter if you have an idea when you show up or not. You will meet awesome people. You will feel more creative energy than you thought possible. You will not forget it, and I hope to see you there.

Want to attend the Hack Upstate and see for yourself what Tom is talking about? You’re in luck; the next event is coming up October 3rd & 4th. Get your tickets here.



Advancing Upstate New York's tech community through events and education. &&

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