john mcnamara

writing, gaming, inventing, hubby and daddy = me


February 2014

An IBM Hackathon? Don’t mind if I do…

IBM Hackathon.

Perhaps it sounds a little like an oxymoron..?

But, it happened nevertheless. I can witness. I was there. In fact, I was one of the brave souls that kicked it off in the first place. And you know what? It was hilarious. Rarely have I met so many great people, been so inspired by innovation, had so much fun. So, before I forget, if you are thinking of organising one of these bad boys, be prepared for some hard graft, but also be prepared to be astonished by the people you work with, and the people you have yet to meet in the execution of this activity.

So what was this Hackathon thing we did?  And why did we do it? Did it end without injury?

Well, before we get to the Hackathon, a bit of background. One of the nice things about working in Hursley, is that we often get the chance to try out ‘stuff’. A little while back we had a play with using gamification as to tool to educate large volumes of people on the use of software.

That was tremendous fun. The education ‘entity’ took a life of its own and escaped beyond Hursley. It  spread out over a number of countries, eventually even reaching Australia. It’s still going strong now, moving, growing virally, happily educating thousands of IBMers all over the place.

Well, that was a while ago, and it was time for something new to play with.

So, back end of last year I was looking at ways of creating collateral that developers outside of IBM would find engaging and fun. We wanted to encourage technical people to play with our toys, let us know what they thought. We really wanted to engage with the external developer community. Also, I had been inspired by a number of Dev meetups that had been orchestrated by the epic James Governor, namely Monkigras, Thingmonk and ever so recently, Monkigras again.

I loved them.

Rarely had I had so much fun. Especially at Thingmonk. It was such a fantastic format. I played with wonderful contraptions, made them do things like bleep, flash and send tweets, while hooking them up to MQTT,  NodeRed and MessageSight. Then we listened to some inspirational stories about how this tech’ was used to solve real world problems. And of course we consumed lots and lots of wonderful food and drank weird and wonderful things. Most importantly though, I was able to chat to developers about the things they were up to and the problems they were trying to solve. And how they were solving them.

So as a result, I was very much inspired.

I am also very fortunate that my job brings me into contact with some truly epic people. I was chatting with Ben Mann (who runs a blog ‘a desk in Hursley’), Joshua Carr, James Bennet and Nick Downs over a coffee, after our top trip to ThingMonk.

“Why dont we do a Hackathon?”, says I, ” Our developers would compete to create innovative and fun collateral with our software. And external developers can reuse it to solve problems and have fun too.”

I began to stare off into the middle distance…

“In fact, we could have a multi-Lab hackathon, get all the IBM locations in the UK and Ireland to join in. It will be great!”, I said – still in post Thinkmonk euphoria mode. “Hoorah!” we collectively cried. And that was that.

The next day, the reality of the situation dawned. I needed to create a Hackathon and it was going to involve lots of IBM locations all over the UK and Ireland. I wonder how you do that?

I was chatting over the events that had led to this question, to a coffee drinking buddy, the awesome Emma Lewis, plots were hatched, plans were forged and before we knew it…

The Great Cluster Code-Off was born!

It was to be a hackathon between anyone and everyone who heeded the call in the IBM UK and Ireland. Although I now had the ability via Emma to reach the Labs in our Geo – I needed to actually create the event itself.

Firstly, we needed a theme. I put a shout out.  “What about a Robopocalypse?”, someone cried. Everyone seemed to like that. “But what about Zombies?”, someone else cried. Everyone seemed to like that too.

We now had two themes. Robopocalypse and a Zombiepocalypse. We decided, in the interest of engaging as many people as possible, that we should keep both of them. Anyone who wasn’t utterly charmed by the idea of either fending off a Robopocalypse, or a Zombiepocalypse, wasn’t someone, in our opinion, who had any interest being a developer.

So, after creating a community using Connections, we announced the theme(s), the technologies to be used (MQTT, NodeRed and MessageSight) and set a date. I then sat back and wondered if anyone would be interested. We didn’t have to wait long. After a couple of days the entries started to pour in. Team after team, submitted promising projects! I breathed the enormous sigh of the unbelievably relieved…

And the battle commenced.

The hackathon was to take place over the course of a few weeks, culminating in a day of demonstrations of the finished projects to a crew of motley hardbitten judges from the world of messaging. Those remote from Hursley would demonstrate their goodies via Google Hangout (I really like that technology) and be judged according to a set criteria.

a. Innovation

b. Use of technologies

c. Ease of replication

d. Fun

The demonstration ‘Day of Judgement’ was hectic, with last minute preparation and getting folk setup as they arrived. All being professionals, the competitors were pretty relaxed and ready to have judgement administered upon them. I ran about for most of the day, ensuring everyone had everything they needed. Some lessons learned of course. Don’t do a Google Hangout, in a very busy room full of loud people doing demonstrations, with an omnidirectional microphone. Also, when a large proportion of the entrants had a mobile app’ element – ensure your location has decent mobile data reception. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

So how did it go? Well, to borrow a phrase, it very much went all right on the night.

The first team – The Big Blue Line, did a really cool point-to-point race app, which allowed anyone to view progress via Google Maps. Presumably, to help us evade detection by the hordes of Robots.

Here is a video of the app being demonstrated…

and here is a piccie of the team talking through the imminent Robopocalypse and their means to defend us against it, to Messaging Director Gerry Reilly.


A team from York (The Soggy Bottoms!), submitted a fitness app’ entry which used MQTT, IBM MessageSight and NodeRed, and was very reminiscent of Ridge Racer from the mid 90’s. Do you remember the racer, where you competed against the ghost car of the person who did the fastest lap? Well, the app was similar to that, it allowed cyclists to race against each others times on a certain route. The app would display a ‘ghost’ of the other cyclists to beat, and show your pace along side theirs. Awesome stuff. And clearly, the team had our best interests at heart, by keeping us fit enough to deal with whatever the Robo/Zombiepocalypse threw at us.  🙂

Here is a video of their amazing fitness app… which held an honourable third place in our hackathon!

Way up in Aberdeen, a team from CICS constructed an epic entry using an arduino as well as MQTT, and MessageSight. Here the awesome Andy Armstrong put together a device which provided an early warning system (clearly useful in a Robo/Zombiepocalypse) which in this case was focused on monitoring his build system. Here is a video of the man in action, talking about his entry…

Now, we come to the entry that took second place in The Great Cluster Code Off. Here was a true Robopocalypse device! The Mostly Armless team had created a fully instrumented arm, which was sensored up to the hilt to provide feedback on its movements, while allowing anyone to control it with a simple web/mobile interface.

It’s other use (the primary one being for the Robopocalypse) was to help teach kids to code. A hugely laudable goal!

Here is a video of the arm in action…check out the funky soundtrack.

This project brought crowds of people – from new, wide eyed starters to IBM all the way to the new Hursley Lab Leader Rob Lamb


We come now to the winners of the competition – pipping The Mostly Armless team by only six points to the finish, The Something, Something, Liberty team!

Here the team used MQTT, NodeRed, IBM MessageSight and Liberty to devise a mobile and virtual paintball game (clearly to sharpen our reflexes for the robot onslaught). Here is the video that shows how its played…

And the response was awesome! Here are a few piccies of the delighted judges, along side Alex Pringle and Liz Maple


More delight…this time featuring Gary Chapman, Dave Waddling, Alex Pringle alongside Rob Lamb


A great day! Now, as soon as the teams are rewarded and loved, the collateral from this awesome hackathon will soon be made available via DevWorks and the IBM Messaging GitHub pages (yes, thats new…more on that soon!)

You will be able to download the technologies, the projects, start playing  and constructing your own apps in no time.

Stay tuned for details!


Monkigras. It’s a Tech conference Jim,

…but not as we know it.

It is now, I am delighted to say, my second time at the wonderous Monkigras. This is thanks to the generosity and foresight of my colleagues, the legendary Duffy Fron, the epic Kelly Smith, the awesome Heather Huffman and the inspirational Fabienne Piot, who very kindly furnished me and other Hursley folk with tickets to go.

It is fair to say that we had quite the time. Myself along with Jezz Kelway, Josie Messa, Laura Cowen, Alex Pringle and a cast of stars from the Lab all popped up to Shoreditch for a couple of days. Here we listened to some inspiring talks, ate great food, drank really interesting things and made friends with some great developer folks (you know who you are – but especially you, you social media tsar Jeremy Jarvis).

There are lots of things I like about Monkigras. Yes, the talks are varied, awesome and ‘meta’, but it’s how they are given which for me is the most interesting thing. Lot’s of places you go, especially to conferences, it’s very common to the hear the ‘automatically awesome’ talk. Effectively, this is the ‘we did this and it was awesome the end’ session.  These sorts of talks always end up making me feel either highly inadequate, or deeply suspicious. Then with a wave and a smile the speakers are promptly encased in carbonite and wheeled away, before anyone can ask them any really interesting questions. This isn’t the case with Monkigras. People here have proper stories to tell. These would be real life stories of triumph, but punctuated with real learning experiences.  The model is very much a ‘Yes, we did this and it worked, but we had to learn a few lessons along the way, here are those lessons so you can learn from them too.’

That’s a talk I will to travel to London to  listen to.

That theme however, isn’t confined to the talks. It is found throughout Monkigras. For example, while I listened to the talk by Rafe Colburn on how his team tried several approaches before succeeding with their bug challenges,  I watched one of the barista’s  in MacIntyre Coffee discard some very carefully crafted espresso’s on the grounds that it was not quite perfect, and so could not be served. Discard and start again. This was down to the changeable weather conditions and the effect it had on the consistency of the coffee they were using. The end result though, was when you finally did get a coffee, you were in no doubt that this was the ultimate, primary Platonic form of coffee, of which all other coffee’s were mere imperfect copies.  Keep trying until you get it just right, was the motto.

Now, Rafe’s talk was a proper story and it hit a chord with the audience, unsurprisingly. How do you deal effectively with bugs, while keeping people interested and motivated? The initial plan seemed reasonable. Let’s take a well proven process for dealing with bugs (rotation – so others can see code they have never seen before and so keep levels of engagement up). then turn it into a mandatory process. “Boo!”, said the service team as nothing happened, and  the bugs stubbornly remained on the backlog. But in a magnificent display of their ability to adapt and overcome, the  team experimented by making the process voluntary and re-focusing on some of the more high priority bugs. Suddenly, the service team engaged and the bug numbers started to fall. In the words of FPS Doug – ‘Boom! Headshot!’ Or in the words of  Private Hudson ‘It’s a bug hunt!’

During the coffee break I introduced Jezz to ‘Sexy Man Pose’ and while he sat agog, I waited patiently for the next talk.

One thing you can certainly say about Monkigras, is that the talks are varied. We had just finished a pretty technical talk, and in stark contrast we moved on to a talk given by a wonderful chap known as The Gentle Author. Now, James Governor maintains that he didn’t know who The Gentle Author was, but was so impressed by reputation and blog, he invited The Gentle Author to speak at Monkigras. This was a heart warming talk. It was filled with tales of craft and quality in the Shoreditch area, very reminiscent of the awesomely inspirational  Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It was also a tale of the worrying trend of large high street names, pushing out the family owned business’s  that have supported Shoreditch for generations and squeezing the character and community out of the area. Thankfully, it was also a tale of The Gentle Authors battle against this trend and inspirationally his victory over them, armed with nothing more than his blog.

During Lunch I had the joy of chatting with Ed Moffat, who revealed an amazing skill – check this out…


Ed’s notes of the conference no less! Simply epic! Sometimes, it strikes home just how talented a great many of the people I work with actually are.

We had the pleasure of listening to Phil Gilbert’s talk on Design. It was an interesting talk, as Phil had also spoken one year ago at Monkigras 2013 on his vision for Design for IBM and it was time to give an update on what had been achieved so far and the trajectory for the future. Phil released some little known facts into the wild about the secret origin of The Muppet Show and it’s weird yet wonderful link to IBM.  He also gave some awesome facts about the numbers of IBMers who were coming through the doors of the new Austin Design academy and gave an insight into its funkiness. A really interesting talk, but mainly it was comforting to see that Design and Design Thinking were managing to do well in other parts of IBM.

The evenings entertainment demonstrated that James really understands his audience. We circled the square for a while, before heading next door and to be greeted by a man who’s garb would have made the most ostentatious boxing promoter jealous. We entered and found wonderful craft beer, and sensational sushi and quite simply the biggest collection of cheese that I have, or will ever see again in my life.  No bland sandwiches and stewed flask conference coffee to be found. Another triumph for Monkigras and James’ extraordinarily talented team.

There will be a Prezi and very likely a hangout, where we will chat about Monkigras and the ways in which the awesome talks can be applied to make life better in IBM.

More of that soon.

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