Learning what doesn’t work, or that something is harder than you thought, is valuable.
Walter Nissen
Gary Laguna, Greg Lee, and Walt Nissen stand in front of the HPC building

Bytes from the Big Three: Hackathon Veterans Laguna, Lee, and Nissen

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Like hounds to the chase, the Lab’s Computation hackathoners pursue digital quarry of a hundred types and purposes, sussing something useful, new, or new to them.

Hackathons are addictive, but none has tracked the event more doggedly than Gary Laguna, Applications, Simulations, and Quality (ASQ) section lead and deputy division leader; Greg Lee, with the Livermore Computing development environment group; and Walter Nissen, project lead for the parallel-meshing tool in ASQ.

These big-three hackathon veterans (BTHVs) were there at the beginning and haven’t missed one since.

Hackathons, consisting of 24 hours of hacking spread over two days, come thrice a year. The event is open to Lab employees (and their collaborators), who get a respite from usual duties to focus on the challenge. For the BTHVs, this latter point was and is a powerful draw.

Nissen recalls, “At my first hackathon, I was interested in trying something challenging and interesting without worrying about whether it was deployable.” Lee concurs, “I was excited to work in a more open environment on a project I might otherwise not have had time for.” For his part, Laguna took a strategic-precedent approach: “It was important to set an example for ASQ and for my technical team.”

The BTHVs report that early versions of the hackathon included a competition that was abandoned as organizers settled on a winning routine. Today, participants typically arrive with laptop at the Lab’s High Performance Computing Innovation Center on a Thursday at 1:00pm, and after a warm-up talk, get cracking. They code until 8:00pm or so, eat together, and return early Friday for hacking and lunch before finishing with a show-and-tell. Limitless snacks are a hallmark of the event, with hacker-brainfood value ranging from edamame to Rice Crispy treats, in ascending order.

The point is collaborative programming, creative problem solving, socializing, tapping into others’ expertise, and prototyping an idea in 24 hours or less. As the event’s registration page suggests, you might “automate a tedious task, complete a project from the previous event or just get engaged and learn something new.”

The BTHVs have mastered picking the right project.

“In early years, we were too ambitious,” notes Laguna. “With more experience, we choose projects we have a reasonable expectation of achieving in the time available.” He generally works with ASQ and the Environmental Information Management System team—a collaboration that has been especially golden, crossing assignments, divisions, and directorates with projects routinely picked up by other Lab directorates.

Lee generally goes solo and varies his approach. “Sometimes I choose something brand new and exciting. Other times I’ve worked on my programmatic project. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to put down my normal work and ignore email for 24 hours.”

Nissen mixes it up on alternate years by tackling something removed from his workaday projects.

But should any hackathoner lack a project, no problem—go to the registration page and join a team. Or list your project and attract a team—collaboration (or not) is the name of the game. With many years’ experience, the BTHVs conclude that just doing it, and debriefing everyone afterwards, is what matters.

“The hacking and listening to the post-hacking presentations are the most important part,” says Lee. Yet Nissen is concerned that “Hackathons have gotten bigger in terms of participation, but much smaller in terms of presentations.” He hopes people don’t think they have to get something working. “Learning what doesn’t work, or that something is harder than you thought, is valuable.”>

Though the BTHVs have served together on hackathon organizing and steering committees, they never have hacked together. Their bond is the high value they place on this freehand, shoot-from-the-hip ordeal.

Notes Laguna, “I think the hackathons have tremendous value beyond the actual project results. Senior developers mentor junior developers. Team-building happens. And it builds connections with, and knowledge of, the work others are doing.”

“Computation management has been very supportive of these events,” observes Lee. “This allows employees to grow their technical abilities without judgment and try something that may fail.”

The mental heavy lifting of a hackathon conduces to discoveries great and small. Nissen marvels at what he accomplished on his first outing. “I was shocked that I was able to ship 3D models over the network and visualize them with good frame rate in just one day.” Meanwhile, amid his many hackathon achievements, Lee rues a discovery of the logistical kind, when he “inadvisedly purchased and unloaded all the food for a hundred people in two locations all by [him]self.”

Laguna has discovered in the hackathons a revealing, thrilling, and useful tool for expanding coder skills and horizons, and he recruits accordingly. “Seeing the excitement and possibilities that these events made possible since that first day, I strongly encourage anyone who will listen to me to participate,” he says.

The next hackathon is penciled in for March 28–29, 2019, hosted by two Computation directorates—National Ignition Facility Computing and Enterprise Application Services.

– Margaret Davis