Welcome to the tech community!

As an admin of the Cleveland Tech Slack group and historically an active member of the local tech scene in Northeast Ohio, I get to field quite a few questions from new, budding programmers looking for a community to connect themselves with as they continue to grow. While my answer may change a bit from person to person in regards to what they are trying to get out the experience, it normally boils down to the following resources:

  1. Cleveland Tech Slack
  2. Launch League
  3. Local Meetup Groups
  4. Additional Resources

Cleveland Tech Slack

Located at https://cleveland-tech.herokuapp.com is a self signup form to get added to what I believe is the best resource for people in Northeast Ohio looking to build their technical network. There are channels dedicated to different technologies, a #jobs channel for finding opportunities for local/remote-friendly jobs, and works as a nice way to converse with someone who may happen to work at a different company.

Launch League

A great network of energetic entrepreneurs,  developers, and designers this is a great resource to tap in to the Akron, OH communities. While their focus is more directly geared towards entrepreneurs, they have a wealth of specialty user groups that they help to manage. You can sign up at http://www.launchleague.org for free which will give you access to their Slack group with another collection of wonderful channels.

Local Meetup Groups

If you’re interested in connecting with people, nothing beats getting out there and saying introducing yourself. This is how I got my start over a decade ago networking with the amazing talent this area has to offer. You can create a free account and search for groups related to Ruby, Go, entrepreneurship, and more at https://www.meetup.com.

Additional Resources

If you’re interested in perusing local companies, services, and resources there’s a great list at https://github.com/mrfright/cleveland-tech.

 


Those four items are a great way to get started with our local tech scene and to start building the relationships that will help you build your career.

One more piece of generic advice is to try and find a person who can help guide you through the troubled waters of technical and professional decisions. There is a #mentor channel in the Cleveland Tech Slack if this is of interest to you.

Flight Midwest Startup Conference 2017

I recently had the opportunity to attend the second annual Flight conference in Akron. Put on by our friends at Launch League, this was a great event promoting and enriching startups regionally. Experienced founders and supporters shared their experiences on a variety of topics, and there were high quality panel discussions as well.

It was refreshing to attend Flight not as a presenter or sponsor but just a regular attendee. It was a useful change in perspective to allow myself to get immersed in the day without being preoccupied with other tasks. One thing that I thought was much improved over last year’s conference was the scope and focus of the the programming. The inaugural conference was very broad with speakers talking about everything from design to dev ops. This year it was honed in on startups and their concerns. I thought this helped with expectations and just made everything feel more organized and coherent.

Heading into the John S. Knight center for the conference

When selecting which presentations to attend I forced myself to go to things I wouldn’t normally go to. I’ve been to enough design and development talks that they really need to be a specific niche or topic to pique my interest. This turned out to be a great strategy though, as I pushed outside my comfort zone and had some great discussions.

Two of the presentations in particular I found really useful:

Mark Weisman from Navidar opened up by explaining that his company works as an technology-focused investment bank; which neither invests anything (in a traditional sense) nor functions as a bank. It was a great start to add some levity to what could be a very dry topic. He explained that their primary service is to work with companies who are entertaining buyout/acquisition offers or seeking them to try and get the best price (and the most offers) possible. There were some great stories of work that they did, and the kinds of details that most people wouldn’t even think could affect deals or valuations.

While we’re not pivoting into the finance industry, it really resonated with me how they only work with companies at a certain point in their lifecycle. It’s something we’ve done as well; we work great with teams who need to build an MVP, or need front end and design help to assist their small back-end staff. How we might better position ourselves that way and options for further defining our best clients were in my head all day after hearing this.

Ryan O’Donnell from Sellhack talked about strategies and tools for a sales process. As someone who’s always been on the creative services side of businesses, I’ve tried to stay as far away from ‘selling’ as possible. But, Ryan’s talk was fantastic and made me consider diving in headfirst to help out. His products Sellhack and Replyify help you build upon some LinkedIn strategies for finding ideal clients for your business, contacting them, and following up in an organized and efficient way. It never felt ‘sales-y’ at all, and he shared some great stories and examples of the things he actually uses day to day. We’ve always focused on passive marketing efforts, using speaking and our work relationships to find new potential clients. As we look to grow though, we’re looking at starting some more legitimate sales and content marketing efforts.

Overall, I had a great time at Flight and look forward to see what next year brings.

Hack N Akron 2.0: A Continued Story of Community Involvement

On Saturday, April 22nd 2017, the second iteration of a hackathon series called “Hack N Akron” took place at White Space Creative. The goal of the event was to use community volunteer time to build creative solutions for civic problems that the organizing team, myself included, discussed with the city prior to the event.

This is a 12 hour event that starts at 7:30am with a public opening ceremony at 8:30am that included speeches from:

Hack N
Group photo of the Hack N Akron opening ceremony. Photo Credit: Meghan Goetz

After the opening ceremony, volunteers quickly disperse to meet up with their project managers so they can be briefed on their project background, figure out what their deliverables look like, and start working on tasks.

Teams working during the hackathon
Focusing on skills-based volunteering, your role will match what you’re best at. Above we have Mori and Roger working on long term strategy while the rest of the team builds today’s application in tandem.

I’ve had a number of meetings directly with the mayor and his staff to figure out what sustainability looks like for these projects. The city of Akron has been incredibly open and willing to set aside some of their budget and effort to actually begin using a lot of the solutions that are being created from scratch at our hackathons, and even donated their time and infrastructure to host and maintain the more technical solutions. More was done during the hackathon, but the technical solutions that we were involved in include:

  • An Open Data API that allows software developers to gain access to city economic development data. This allows them to search and parse data as they see fit, coming up with trends, patterns, and correlations the city may not have thought of previously.
  • A “City Health” dashboard that gives non-technical users a visual look into charts and graphs that show the economic development data we were able to put into our API.
  • An application that allows a user to search for land based on its current use.

We’re always excited to be a part of events like this. In fact, we had all three of us involved in one way or another:

  • Jon Knapp: Team leader and participant of the Open Data API team.
    Open Data API Team
  • Eric Browning: Team leader and participant of the Open Data Dashboard team.
    Open Data Dashboard Team
  • Byron Delpinal: Co-organizer of Hack N Akron and project manager for the Open Data Innovation team. (Not pictured because someone had to take the photo!)
    Open Data Innovation Team

At the end of the day, participants have the ability to get about 10 hours of work in. With a volunteer attendance of around 50, this is approximately 500 service-hours of time. This equates to $11,495* of value in one day that is donated by local professionals to help better our city in one way or another, and does not take into account the countless planning meetings, sponsorship dollars, and space donations given for the event.

In short, we were happy to be a part of such a great event!

*Volunteer value calculated using the Independent Sector Volunteer Time Value.

Sharing What We’ve Learned

We try to give back to the web community and help others learn (as well as enriching our own skills) in a variety of ways: speaking and attending events, sponsoring things we want to see more of, and trying to participate on social media and in local community discussions. One thing we haven’t haven’t been able to do is mentoring.

We still haven’t really invested in mentoring, but we had the opportunity last week to take a baby step and worked with some new developers on some job shadowing.
Our guests came to us via Akron Women in Tech’s new Code Epic. This is a fantastic program; taking the idea of code schools and bootcamps and making it available to people who can’t afford to quit their day jobs and/or pay the steep tuition.

The developers we worked with had enough experience that we could dive right in and start walking them through our daily routines. We talked through a morning standup meeting, and then went into detail about one of the projects we’re currently working on.

All of us share an overlap of interest/skill in front-end development, so we talked through the tools/projects/frameworks we’re using, and why we made the technology choices we did.

One very interesting exercise was to look at our list of technology involved with the project. We talked through everything, and then went back and added markers by the tools that we knew prior to 2 or 3 years ago. We also made other marks to signify which technology this project is using that didn’t even exist 2 or 3 years ago. The underlying message here was that learning how to learn efficiently, the fundamentals of development, and making informed choices is easily more important than simply trying to master any specific language or environment.

After that we talked through a small feature we need to add, and discussed the pros/cons of different ways we could tackle that problem.

We wrapped up by trying to answer any questions the Code Epic grads had, and we also talked a bit about the pluses and minuses of various work arrangements: consulting or agencies, large or small, in house/product, freelance, etc.

Overall we had a great time. It was really refreshing to talk to some new developers, and learn from them as we shared a bit about what we do and what we’ve learned.

Improve your Work by Leveling Up Your Baseline

It’s not often discussed, but it’s easy to be disheartened working as a freelancer or in a small consultancy in this business. More times than I can count, I’ve been to a conference or watched a presentation where someone describes a project they worked on with large teams, long deadlines, and tons of resources. They might discuss how they leveraged a user testing lab, or their findings after a full 508 audit (link), or how their focus on performance sped up their app and increased revenues.

You come home energized and inspired, but then it quickly fades; your projects don’t have the timelines or budgets to accommodate much of what you learned, and pitching accessibility like that to your existing clients makes it seem like an optional piece that can be opted out of. The reality is that unless it’s your niche or you’re known for specializing with it, people aren’t coming to you for a project with a heavy focus in something like accessibility.

Does that mean you abandon what you learned and mope around? Of course not! You should continue to educate current and future clients; they’re hiring you to be the experts, so don’t be afraid to share what you’ve learned and what you’re striving for.

However, there’s a way to start improving your work right now, and that’s simply to level up your baseline. The best example I can think of this is building responsively. A few years ago it was a big deal, or worth calling out (and trying to get client buy in) for building things to adapt to different screens. Now though, we don’t even think about if a project will “be responsive” or not. It’s simply the right way to build things, and the default way we approach all projects. Media queries, scalable assets, and a mobile-first approach are just the way things are done.

There’s no reason we can’t apply a similar approach across the board to our work. We can apply techniques that are new to us, or possibly just new period in bite sized ways, making them part of our default workflows.

Let’s take design and feedback for example. You might not be able to stage multiple design reviews or whole-team critique sessions, but you could probably take a couple hours midway through a project and conduct an interface audit. Once you get used to it, it shouldn’t take too long, and you’ll have a great new tool baked in to your process.

Similarly, you might have learned about improving web performance but you don’t have the time to go all-in and focus on it (like Pinterest has done. But, you can familiarize yourself with the basics of web page test, and run your project/site through it once a week to track your progress (or to highlight areas ripe for improvement). You could identify one area to try and improve, and focus on that as your work progresses.

Accessibility is another area where many of us could improve our defaults. You may not be able to make it a large priority of any given project, but you can take the time to run your text colors and sizes through WCAG tools for contrast and legibility. You can also grab a browser extension like WAVE and check the hierarchy of pages and views your working on, to keep things usable for screen readers and other assistive technologies.

Piece by piece, you begin to level up your defaults you use regardless of what you’re working on. This is a powerful technique to not only help you grow, learn, and implement current ideas and technologies, but should improve the output of any projects you’re working on. You may not have the perfect project or client to do everything you want to do, but if you keeping growing and refining your defaults, each project along the way gets better and better.

2016 Cleveland GiveCamp Recap

Waking up the Monday after GiveCamp is always the most relaxing morning of the year. It’s juxtaposed with the two preceding days where sleep is hard to come by and each morning you are reminded of all of the work that needs to get done that day.

What is GiveCamp?

Cleveland GiveCamp is an incredibly well-organized event that takes place in Cleveland, OH every year that benefits non-profit organizations in the area. The basic flow of events is this:

  1. A local non-profit needs a problem solved through technology but does not have the personal or financial means to solve it themselves.
  2. They apply to GiveCamp to have volunteers solve said problem for them.
  3. After a very long weekend, they leave GiveCamp with a (hopefully) working and maintainable solution to their problem.

Every year the event has ~200 volunteers who handle everything from design, development, implementation, and copy writing, to food, setup, and cleanup.

The event is a time where you can meet like-minded people, make meaningful connections with others, and do some good in the world.

What did Coffee and Code do?

We proudly play many roles in helping GiveCamp become the successful event that it is today. Did I mention that it’s the nations largest and most well-sponsored GiveCamp event?

1. Sponsor

GiveCamp Water Bottles

Photo by Stuart O. Smith, Jr. @sos_jr

We were more than happy to become one of the many sponsors of this event, helping to ensure that it had the funds it needed to make sure every team had the supplies they need to succeed.

2. Organizer & Fire Extinguisher

GiveCamp Team Y Group Photo

Photo by GiveCamp photographers

Jon Knapp, founder of Coffee and Code, is a recurring organizer for GiveCamp as well as a member of Team Y. Call them all-stars, fire extinguishers, or red-shirts, Team Y was the group that you called when something went wrong. They are seasoned members of the community that are veterans in flipping a train wreck into a smooth delivery.

3. Volunteer

GiveCamp Team M Group Photo

Photo by GiveCamp photographers

Byron Delpinal, developer at Coffee and Code, is a second-year volunteer and member of Team M. His team helped the Northeast Ohio Voters Advocates better show their goals to a wider audience through a newly branded and designed website. This allows them to showcase who they are to a wider group of people. They now have a mobile-friendly site and can even take donations online!

What’s the weekend like?

A weekend at GiveCamp takes roughly 400 hours to complete in the minds of those that attend. In reality, it’s a 72-hour weekend.

Day One: Plan and Begin

Site Map and Priority List
Volunteers arrive and check-in Friday around 5PM where they are assigned a team. Each team is a single letter. At this point, the volunteer doesn’t know which non-profit they’re working with, or who their other team members are. There is a 30min opening ceremony , and then its off to dinner. Oh my gosh, dinner. The food at GiveCamp is so top-notch, seriously. I can’t say enough about it. At dinner, you are assigned an eating / working area where you finally meet your team and non-profit all at once. This is a meet and greet where you get to find out what work you’ll be completing and who you’ll be completing it with.

After dinner, the project manager starts assigning tasks and it’s off to the races! Teams work hard to start gathering the resources they need and syncing up development environments. Day one usually starts winding down after the last stand-up at 11PM, but teams can be seen working on the boat until very early in the morning. At the end of this day, you should have mapped out what this project looks like and how you’re planning to tackle this.

Day Two: Collaborate and Work

Task List on Post It Notes

Photo by Anna Kiss Mauser-Martinez

On Saturday, breakfast is served at 7:30AM. Teams eat and begin working around 8. At this point, the team usually has a fairly good understanding of the direction of the project as well as what each members role in that will look like. Task lists are created and teams go to work on their collaborative solution.

Depending on how large your project is, Saturday can become anywhere from a 12 to a 20 hour work day. This is where the real magic of GiveCamp happens, and most of the work is done. The organizers of this event do an amazing job of making sure that whatever it is that keeps you going is there to support you. Whether you work best on low-carb energy bars, fruit, coffee, donuts, cupcakes, or chips, there are snacks and drinks available 24/7. The planned meals, again, are on a league of their own.

Day Three: Finish up and Present

Waking up Sunday is a very different experience for everyone. Some projects have been finished and are writing documentation for their non-profits while others have three members from Team Y in their work space. No matter where you are on that spectrum, don’t panic. Sometimes things happen that aren’t ideal and that’s ok, remember that everyone is there to help. This year there was a 100% project success rate, which only happens when you truly have a community that is focused on helping others. Egos are put aside, frustrations are calmed, and everyone does whatever is necessary to get the projects completed.

Closing ceremonies are at 4PM where each project is presented to the group. This is when you can finally relax your mind and enjoy the fact that no matter which project you were on, you helped someone that needed it. Regardless of your stress level throughout the weekend, you leave with a big smile and a feeling of satisfaction.

The Role of Books in a Modern Tech Company

It’s cliché, but the one thing that never changes in the tech industry is that things are always changing. As of writing this I’ve been out of college about 10 years; the devices, environments, and technology I learned are so wildly out of date now that if I hadn’t continued learning, I’d have virtually nothing to offer a client.

We try to make learning and growing a priority at Coffee and Code. We love attending (and speaking) at conferences, and we’re always discussing the latest blog articles and industry news. But for a deeper understanding and more thorough levels of discourse, books are often the answer.

Anecdotally it seems like books have a love/hate place in the tech world. We like to praise authors and retweet new book announcements, but when push comes to shove many of us turn to quick answers on Stack Overflow or social media and blogs almost exclusively. Books seem to be a nice luxury for a company lounge, but not truly essential to our work anymore.

In order to explore books more fully and take our learning as a company to the next level, we started a book club. The rules are simple, choose a book as a team then break it out into reasonable chunks. Set dates to have discussion on the most recent section. The simple act of splitting a book up into sections and discussing each as a group has been refreshing. Peer pressure is an amazing force to leverage to keep yourself accountable (diet and fitness social apps lean heavily on this).

We’ve learned a few things along the way I wanted to share:

Picking titles is hard, but worth spending time on.

Choosing books that suit multiple team members, but also push your team outside their comfort zone is a tricky balancing act. Inevitably a book will probably be below someone’s skill level and likely above someone else’s (and possibly not even in their interests).

If you have a diverse group, trying to alternate between different subject matter is a solid approach. Part of the appeal though is being forced to read something you might not otherwise.

We started out with Git for Humans by David Demaree. Git is something we all use, but have very different backgrounds and proficiency with. Choosing broad topics for the first few books is a good way to get used to the format and the schedule.

Strive to accommodate format preferences.

Some people (I’m one of them) just aren’t fond of longform reading on a computer screen (or tablet/phone). This means paying the extra to get physical copies, or making sure your team has access to e-readers.

Be reasonably aggressive with your schedule.

Everyone is busy; especially in our industry. There’s always something to do, and the pressure to go ‘above and beyond’ is constant: speaking and presenting, blogging, attending Meetups, contributing to open source projects; it all adds up quickly.

It’s easy to set super long deadlines for each chapter or section, but pushing yourself a bit keeps the pressure on and helps you get through each book quicker.

Embrace honesty and have a little fun.

Nothing is set in stone here, if your team misses a session or everyone is a bit behind their reading nothing is going to fall apart. If you haven’t read the section, be honest about it. A little friendly shaming might help a team member who is behind, but remember this is all to help each other grow and learn.

Similarly, if your book discussions veer off on some tangents, that’s fine too. Learning isn’t always a linear process, and inspiration and growth can come from unexpected places.

Codemash 2016 As a Designer – Pushing Yourself to Learn and Grow

I will admit that I had some trepidation about registering for this year’s Codemash conference. I wasn’t worried about the conference overall, which is always wonderfully organized, presented, and planned but rather the content of the presentations themselves.

I’m a designer; user-focused design is what I do daily (and occasionally nightly) for clients at Coffee and Code. Codemash, as you can guess from the name, is a developer focused conference. Last year there were a good number of talks geared towards designers and front end developers; I learned about animation, illustration, and style guides. I was even fortunate enough to give one myself on a modern design process. This year though the talk abstracts seemed to fall more squarely in the coding realm and anything related to design and UX was more of an introduction for developers.

My teammates convinced me to sign up; they made the important point that any concerns over the content wouldn’t matter when you consider the value of such a large conference that’s so close to us and so accessible. We want to support Codemash and the community, and worse case scenario… I could hang out by the waterslides drinking Kalahari Sunrises!

As I looked over the schedule and planned out my days, I took the opportunity to see some truly wonderful talks; most of which had nothing to do directly with design.

Some highlights were:

How Do We Solve for XX?

There was an excitement in the room before this talk like none of the others I went to. The (wonderfully diverse) crowd seemed very eager to get started as the lack of women in the web/technology field, with the alienation and attrition of those that are our coworkers, is a huge problem for our industry.

Kate Catlin (@Kate_catlin) was a wonderful speaker, really more of a leader for this interactive session. Her energy and boldness helped take this beyond a typical “we need more women” discussion and toward “what can all of us actually do?”

She began by discussing her background, and some shocking numbers regarding female tech workers.

The amazing moments came as we were split into groups; each trying to tackle one step of the pipeline problem, from young girls being discouraged from STEM interests to existing women feeling isolated and excluded in their careers and workplaces. We brainstormed ideas and everyone shared their experiences. Women, men, native English speakers and not, those from traditional tech backgrounds, and those who switched careers later in life.

It was eye opening to listen to all the experiences and be exposed to some of the privileges that are so easy to be unaware of. The great thing though was that it wasn’t a complaint-fest, there was a hopeful tone throughout and some great ideas to try and actually implement in our own communities.

This session was hugely beneficial to me in the form of empathy. As a designer there are few things more important than that.

A Web for Everyone

I’ve often approached accessibility in web projects the way I think many others have; follow basic best practices… and hope for the best beyond that.

Dylan Barrell (@dylanbarrell) led this discussion, sharing what he had learned leading accessibility studies and audits over the past few years.

What was brilliant about this presentation was a blindfolded walkthrough of some sites using screen readers. Far more powerful than reading a spec and following guidelines, it was eye-opening to experience how visually impaired users consume the things we build.

The other “wow” moment in this talk came from a first hand demonstration of the way a visually impaired – but not blind user used the web. She doesn’t use a screen reader, but instead relies heavily on magnification tools and context hints like color and contrast. It’s incredibly easy for us to assume accessibility == screen readers, ignoring users who have different levels of vision and possibly additional challenges, perhaps auditory, cognitive, or physical dexterity. Building in an accessible way is a complex challenge, but also incredibly important and one I hope we can make more of a priority moving forward as an industry.

Finally, a Voice for the Enterprise!

“Hey Alexa, tell me how our servers are doing.”

Voice command interfaces like Siri, Google Now, Cortana, and Amazon’s Echo are growing every day. It’s entirely conceivable that soon “interfaces” will be far less visual than I’m used to building, and voice and other tactile inputs will be how we work with them.

William Klos (@williamklos) led this session, which was as much real demo as it was discussion. He contrasted the different systems available today, and talked about the roadmap for new developments.

This presentation showed what we can do right now; customizing the Amazon Echo to run custom code, complete tasks and interact with users. There are a number of pitfalls and shortcomings, but it’s clear that leveraging technology like this is only going to be more widespread. How you work with the APIs, and how you structure your voice interactions was really illuminating – it’s interface design, but much different than what I’m used to doing.

Conclusion

The overarching theme to all of this was that I learned the benefit of thinking in a different way and becoming a more well rounded learner. I could have easily gone to a different conference and learned about Atomic Design, or new prototyping tools, or new type systems but instead I pushed myself in interesting ways and came away a better designer and human. Couple that with good times with friends, board games, and an indoor waterpark and I couldn’t have asked for a better Codemash.

How to be a Good Developer

I was fortunate enough to be asked to talk to Wadsworth High School students again at today’s High School Career Day. It was a very well organized event and I was proud to be a part of it. I have had quite a few role models that helped shape my personal tech journey and I like to give back when possible.

While last years talk focused on a mixture of entrepreneurship and tech, this year I wanted to talk more about differentiating yourself in an industry that’s attracting more and more people everyday. The following are a few of the topics we covered in case it’s helpful to someone else.

Do What You Love

I’ve found the easiest way for me to learn new things are do to the things that interest me, and constantly learning new things is very important to your development as a developer.

Thankfully my desire to program on the web turned into a pretty good career as well.

An important thing to remember is that at some point in your personal development you will reach a point where you become stuck. The amount of knowledge you have yet to achieve will leave you confused about where to go next. I’ve found that focusing on the things that interest me and not the new and shiny worked quite well. One thing will lead to another in tech, but you should never get discouraged with the expectation that you should learn it all.

Speak Out

I owe a lot of my company’s growth the local special interest groups that I found through sites like meetup.com. I ended up with an entire network of amazingly smart and helpful people that have allowed my business to spread word of mouth.

We grew together, learned together, and helped each other meet our career goals.

For me, giving a talk at meetups led to speaking at conferences which were an excellent way to be viewed as a subject matter expert. You’ll need to back up your words, but if you’re constantly learning new things that’s not a problem.

On the Job Experience

Nothing can beat actual on-the-job experience. I encouraged all attendees to take advantage of co-op / internship programs to find out more about how their desired industries operate in the day to day. Find out if you’ll enjoy programming for the rest of your life as quickly as you can to avoid a costly change down the road.

Outside of working for other companies, you can do things to showcase your aspiration and talent by tinkering on side projects or even contributing to open source development. As you learn more about programming languages, libraries, and frameworks you’ll be introduced to an entire world of opportunities to show off. Take advantage of it.

Finally, feel free to reach out to the company’s you admire and ask if you can learn more about how they work. You may even be able to hang out and shadow them for a day to learn more about what skills they are looking for so you can direct your own personal education.