What we learnt from HackManchester Junior 2019

2 weeks ago, Surevine sponsored HackManchester Junior and I was thrilled to get my second chance to mentor at it. The last time was around 5 years ago and it has grown a lot since then! 

Set in the auspicious venue of Science & Industry Museum in Manchester the 2 day event consisted of around 140 8 to 17 year olds dreaming up, planning and hacking their solutions to 6 challenges. The challenges were set by sponsors and ranged from creating apps to raise awareness of environmental issues to modernising Supermarket Sweep! Generally, the challenges were inspired by what the sponsors do or by their ideals. Mentors and judges roamed the 2 large rooms lending a hand where the contestants got stuck, guided them towards better engineering practices, and observed how the teams went about their hacks. As an added bonus there were workshops on UX design and team building. At the end of the weekend, the teams presented their hacks, followed by the awards show for the winning best hacks. For the “Best in Show” a CanaKit Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ Retro Gaming Kit was up for grabs.

HackManchester Junior in full swing

The prizes were really a secondary thought for the hackers though. From talking to the other mentors, I learnt that many of the contestants returned year on year. It quickly became apparent why: they enjoy it. I heard multiple stories about how it’s hard to find events like this. Opportunities to get involved in sports abound for children, but events for those that are passionate about technology are few and far between. What’s more, the organisers have gone to great lengths to ensure the event is inclusive and open to as many people as possible. They have liaised with parents about how to support neurodiverse attendees, and are also supported by the Digital Her programme who are looking to improve gender diversity in the tech industry.

The mentors who supported HackManchester Junior

Throughout the weekend, I was struck by the difference in technology choices and how the hackers chose languages which few mentors knew. Whilst many of the more junior teams chose Scratch or Minecraft, the more advanced groups used a lot of Python and PHP. Where as the mostly widely used language for mentors, Java, was not used at all. Many times, mentors were wary about helping when the young hackers were using unfamiliar technologies. I found help was often possible by simply walking through the problem (rubber ducking) or using core knowledge that most professional developers have. If you would like to get involved, one thing to remember is not to let confidence get in the way. There are lots of ways to help.

Whilst the advice and aid of mentors was an important feature of the event, many of the teams already had impressive skills and knowledge. I was blown away by the awareness and understanding of complex concepts such as TLS, APIs, password hashing and gamification. It stands as a testament to the hard work and passion of those involved in STEM events like this and to tools like Scratch which make technology knowledge more accessible. Judging by the hard work put in by the contestants, the future of our industry is bright and the on going skills shortage will soon be a thing of the past. 

Photo of me at HackManchester Junior

The hackathon was inspiring. The amount that the teams were able to achieve in a short space of time was astonishing and a great reminder of what you can do with a bit of skill and a focused mind. I believe this sort of thing needs too spread to more cities across the country, the benefits are far reaching and important. I hope in the coming years, we can put on a challenge of our own, bringing what makes Surevine Surevine to it.

And a swag table, we’ve got to have a swag table…