Softwire Blog

Coaching open source contributions with Codebar

20 June 2017, by

Codebar are an organisation that run weekly events to help get people from groups who are underrepresented in tech into coding. And for the past two years they and Ladies of Code have jointly run a day-long workshop in December as part of 24 Pull Requests, where more experienced devs volunteer to help people to make their first open source contribution.

Lightning talks at the Codebar 24PR event

Photo by @codebar

I coached at the 2015 event, which was a lot of fun. For 2016, Softwire also sponsored the event as part of our drive to support diversity in tech, so as well as coaching, I got to tell a diverse audience of people about why they should apply to Softwire!

There were several lightning talks about open source during the day, including ones from Andrew Nesbitt (who started 24 PR) and Charlotte Spencer (who runs @yourfirstpr).

But most of the day was spent coding. In the morning, the coaches were paired up with students according to what languages we knew or wanted to work with. JavaScript was by far the most popular, with a few people using Ruby or Python, and one person who wanted to write some Java.

I paired with Anna and Bybreen, who were just starting out with learning HTML and CSS. Git was the steepest learning curve, because neither of them had used it before, so we started out using the GitHub desktop client to make things a bit less intimidating.

Writing open source code at the Codebar 24PR event

Photo by @binusida

It was quite tricky to find issues to work on (which is one of the hardest things about 24 Pull Requests in general), but someone suggested taking a few open issues on Prepare to Code, a website which provides beginners’ guides for setting up different kinds of dev environments. The issues were just typos and broken links, but it was perfect for us because there was no dev environment to set up. Once they’d got into the swing of things, I hunted around for more things that they could fix on the same site. Hooray for buggy code!Between them, they made six pull requests, which is pretty impressive for people who were completely new to git. And we hit the 24 pull requests goal as a group.The day wound down with some drinks and a group chat about the things we’d been working on and what we’d learned.It was a really good day. Everyone there was so enthusiastic about learning or teaching (or both), and it was great to be able to help people see open source (and coding in general) as more approachable.


Volunteering at the Full Fact hackday

13 June 2017, by

Full Fact are a British independent factchecking charity who check claims made in the press, in parliament and in televised debates (e.g. Question Time). They’re currently in the process of implementing tools to enable automated factchecking (note that they’re not looking to do this in a machine-learning sense of “automated”, but mainly building tools to enable humans to check facts significantly faster).

They recently ran a hackday for the first time, which I volunteered at. They had a few problems which they wanted to tackle via the hackday:

  • Wrapping a reverse-search library in a service, so that they can integrate it with their systems (and use it without learning Java, they mainly use Python)
  • Implementing a way of finding claims of the form “X is rising” (e.g. “GDP increased by 5%”)
  • Implementing a way of canonicalising numerical parts of speech (e.g. “three thousand and fifty” goes to “3050”; also needs to handle things like “few thousand”) so that claims made e.g. in Parliament are in a suitable format to potentially be automatically checked against an appropriate source.

I ended up volunteering for the first task, which in retrospect was definitely the least challenging (so I didn’t learn much) but was probably where I was most useful for Full Fact.

The hackday had quite a wide range of participants, from committers to apache-solr to developers inexperienced with the Solr, along with a special guest representative from the Argentinian fact-checking organisation Chequeado. Good progress was made on all three tasks, although I definitely feel there was a case of too many cooks on our task, along with some various set-up issues which caused the day to be quite inefficient for some volunteers (Java versions, IDE issues etc.)

I gave them feedback on these issues – this was the first hackday Full Fact have run, and they’re now looking to make use of everything that’s come out of it before coming up with lots more problems they need help solving for (potentially) a next one!

Softwire’s Inaugural Charity Auction

6 June 2017, by

In March, we held a new big fundraising event at Softwire: our first ever charity auction.

The idea was born in a CSR meeting where we were brainstorming ideas for fundraising, and our director Phil and I (a developer) were both very keen to organise this.

We wanted to get donations from lots of different sources: clients, local businesses and employees. As we are a Software company, few of our clients have products that are suitable to be auctioned off, but we managed to get a very generous donation from David Lloyd and also a lot of tasty donations from our various kitchen suppliers.

To get local businesses involved, we sent small teams out to various streets around Highgate Studios, to speak to business owners and see whether they’d like to contribute. I was overwhelmed by the response – we got donations from nearly 40 separate businesses, ranging from vouchers to meals to Escape Room tickets.

Finally our employees offered various promise based items. Examples include delicious cakes, a gig by our director’s cover band in your own home, our chef offering to help you prepare a gourmet dinner party and many more…

On the day of the auction, we made sure to thank all of the businesses who had contributed on our social media, and we also sent them letters after the night telling about how much we’d raised. Hopefully they’ll remember us if we decide to host a similar event in future, as the varied items they donated contributed so strongly to the success of the evening.

The night was held in our offices, for employees and friends. We had delicious food from local restaurants (who kindly gave it to us at a reduced rate as we told them about the charitable aspect) and Phil as compere.  There were nearly 60 items to be auctioned off, with some smaller value ones being part of a raffle. What I had hoped to be a pleasant evening that would raise between one and two thousand pounds, turned into an extremely entertaining night which raised a staggering £5500. It turns out that the excitement and fun of bidding (a lot of it down to Phil’s excellent hosting), and the fact all the money went to a good cause, motivated people to be very generous with their bids. A highlight of the night was an item offered by Softwire itself – the right to name a new meeting room. There was a fierce battle between the football and Smash factions, that was ultimately won by the latter – who paid a mind-boggling £1,300 pounds to be proud room parents.

Because of Softwire’s generous policy of matching certain fundraising events, the total amount donates was actually doubled to more than £11,000 in total. The money was split between Ashanti Development and Home-Start Camden, two charities we at Softwire feel very passionately about.

The night was a tremendous success and also a lot of fun, but also a big organisational challenge. I do hope we can repeat it at some point in future though – and who knows, we might raise even more.

The power of play at work

1 June 2017, by

HSL_2017_softwireDSC_9797_smallWhat if you worked in a place where you are not only allowed to play, but encouraged. It’s a trend that’s emerging in many organisations, especially amongst technology and start-up businesses. High profile examples include Google, Pixar and IDEO. More importantly, they instil a culture of play – not as a distraction from work, but as a benefit to it. For years the worlds of work and play have been seen as separate and distinct; that play is inferior and takes away from ‘real work.’ In fact, many of us have been taught to think of play in the work place as inappropriate and a waste of time.

What if play at work is really a benefit? Let’s be realistic. People get bored. People get distracted. People get frustrated. It happens! Whether it’s just the monotony of routine tasks that demand our attention, or the root of a thorny problem. What employers want is a more positive, energized problem solving workforce. Employees want to enjoy their work, and have permission to do it. Wouldn’t it be great if all employees were having fun while at work? in collaboration with Harvard Health Publications have said, “Success at work doesn’t depend on the amount of time you work; it depends upon the quality of your work. And the quality of your work is highly dependent on your well-being.

“Taking the time to replenish yourself through play is one of the best things you can do for your career. When the project you’re working on hits a serious glitch, take some time out to play and have a few laughs. Taking a pause for play does a lot more than take your mind off the problem. When you play, you engage the creative side of your brain and silence your “inner editor,” that psychological barrier that censors your thoughts and ideas. This can often help you see the problem in a new light and think up fresh, creative solutions.”[i]

Other research indicates that play can decrease stress and absenteeism. As employees make time to play, it lessens work related stress. This leads to less sickness absence. On the other side of the coin, it also leads to a more positive attitude and more energized work environment.

Allowing play in the workplace is good for business and employees. The opportunity to play shows employees they’re valued. Employees are therefore more likely to be engaged, collaborative, creative and focused. All better outcomes for the employer. A natural follow-on is that employees are likely to experience more job satisfaction. As Forbes reported, “Last year revenues increased by an average of 22.2 percent for the 2014 Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For.”[ii]

Isn’t it about time your staff starting playing?