Home Building Web Apps Really Fast: Why Developers are Drawn to Weekend Code-a-thons

Building Web Apps Really Fast: Why Developers are Drawn to Weekend Code-a-thons

What is it about a weekend that makes you want to create a web application from start to finish? Most people would probably think it insane to try cramming design, development, testing, and deployment of a web app into a single weekend, but a growing number of events are encouraging people to do just that. The latest is Montreal, Canada’s Blitzweekend, which will take place over the first couple of days of March.

Blitzweekend is inspired by similar efforts like Startup Weekend and Rails Rumble (our coverage) and is set up as a BarCamp. The idea is simple: small teams of developers, designers, and entrepreneurs will converge in a single location for 48 hours with the singular goal of creating web applications from start to finish.

Unlike Rails Rumble, Blitzweekeend isn’t a competition and everyone will be in the same place, and unlike Startup Weekend, each team will be focused on their own app, rather than everyone working together to create one web application. But each of these events, and similar gatherings like Yahoo!’s Hack Days or, to a lesser extent, SuperHappyDevHouse, share a common thread and we started to wonder why anyone would want to attempt to build an entire web application in just 2 days.

As far as we know, this is relatively new phenomenon in software development: organized ultra-rapid development weekends. In order to figure out why anyone might want to take part in what I imagine must be a fairly nerve-wracking event, I decided to talk to my friend Kelli Shaver. Her team created Admiteer, and took home third place at this year’s Rails Rumble.

What made you want to participate in Rails Rumble?

There were a couple of things that made me want to dive into a Rumble project. First of all, I’d wanted a chance to work with Jack Canty and Ryan Bates for a while. I’d long admired both of them for their Rails abilities and they’re both wonderful people, so when they invited me to the team, I jumped at the chance. Second, I’d wanted learn more about Rails but had always found getting started to be a little difficult. This seemed like a good way to learn and to really get my hands dirty. Fortunately, my teammates were more than willing to take me under their respective wings and they both taught me a great deal over the course of the weekend.

It must have been really nerve-wracking trying to put together an application under such a tight deadline. How did you manage the stress?

I don’t know about my teammates, but I ran the gambit of emotions, from excitement, to stress and worry and hopeful optimism, and finally a great deal of pride and satisfaction. We were pretty fortunate. We had a rough timeline of when we wanted things done by and, for the most part, we met or exceeded those milestones. Things naturally did get tight toward the end, as we were polishing up our app and putting in the final details. At times, when the stress would get to be too much, one of us would wander away to catch a cat nap, take a walk, take a shower, anything to clear our heads. We also laughed a lot. We joked around, and had entirely too much fun with the emoticons in Skype — a product of little sleep, no doubt. All in all, we supported each other and we all understood that we’re only human and no one expected perfection.

Do you think the time constraint helped focus your development at all?

I think it did. I think it certainly helped keep the momentum going, and it kept us focused on only including the features that we saw as absolutely necessary, which probably lead to a slimmer, more streamlined app. It kept us all pretty excited and engaged as well. There wasn’t time to let things drag out and become tedious.

You mention that doing a Rumble project seemed like a good way to learn more about a programming language. Was it the environment of the weekend coding project or just that it forced you to actually start working on a real world app that helped you learn more? Or in other words, would you have gotten as much out of it if you were just working alone some random weekend forcing yourself to code?

If I’d sat down myself to learn it in a weekend, would I have gotten as much out of it? I’ve had weekends since then where I’ve learned just as much or more, but at that point, probably not. I don’t think I would have had the motivation or determination. I realize this is not necessarily indicative of every new Rails developer out there, but for me, personally, I think I needed a weekend like this to kick-start the whole process and get myself back in gear.

I think it was a combination of those things. For one, it was a two day ordeal in which I knew I would be pushing myself. I would have to step it up and learn, for the benefit of my team. I can be pretty competitive at times, and I didn’t want to let these guys down, so I would definitely say the environment and constraints of the contest were a large part of it. I couldn’t allow myself to get frustrated and give up. Also, I was working with two people who were very competent Rails developers already. I was able to ask questions, which they eagerly answered. It meant that I got to pick apart their code as it was written, so I could visualize how everything worked. This made it much easier to understand the app’s inner workings, and the Rails code itself.

Overall, what do you think you got out of it?

I made a couple of good friends and I learned a lot. That alone made it worth it. When Rails Rumble rolled around, I hadn’t done any development work in several months. I’d been primarily designing small print runs and making icons. I’d gotten a bit burnt out after years of developing web sites and had sort of shied away from it. The chance to work with Jack and Ryan excited me, though, and it gave me some much-needed motivation. RR also served as my jumping-off point for learning more about Rails and how to use it. I’ve continued to refine my skills as a RoR developer since then, and I’ve loved every minute.

Would you participate again?

Definitely! I hope to team up with the guys in 2008 and build another great application. If that’s not possible, then I’ll be doing a solo app (or possibly pulling random code monkeys off the streets).

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