Hacking in class

Last week I spent a couple of days out of the office helping tech the new Masters in Digital Marketing at RGU.

We ran a two day agency simulation. Complete with written client briefs, client interviews (real clients), ideas sessions, research, concept testing, and repeated prototype cycles.

Our room overlooked the main entrance hall in the Business School – opposite the coffee and sandwich bars – it was amusing to see people pointing up at our windows as they got progressively covered in post its and prototypes.

More doing. Less talking.


You can find out more about the course on the RGU Website.

Social media for students

I gave a short presentation about how the real world views social media to visual comms students at North East Scotland College a couple of weeks ago. Most of the students are looking to build a career in the ‘creative industries’, with between one and three years of study ahead of them before they enter the workforce.

The thing that surprised me the most was how few of them had a linkedin profile. I think three hands went up in a room of about 80. Things were better for twitter, but not much.

CV only showing twitter handle

Here are the main points I made to the students to help them get that summer internship / placement / first job by making a better impression when a potential employer does the inevitable ‘social media due diligence’ search for them.


  • Get a linkedIn and fill that thing out – make yourself findable
  • Call yourself a designer, developer, artist… whatever you want to be. I’d rather read “Designer, currently studying X at Y” than just the name of your course, or worse, “Supervisor at Funbar McGinties” with no mention of your studies / aspirations
  • Connect with everyone on your course, some of them will get jobs at great places that you want an introduction to, they can be your bedrock network for a long time to come.
  • Connect with people you meet through your course – like people that come in to give short presentations to class, your tutors, people you know on different courses.
  • Post and comment around your design interests, have an opinion, and be happy to share it.


  • Don’t have a ‘jane-person’ and a ‘jane-designer’ account – just have ‘jane’. You’ll be more likely to keep it up, and more likely to come across as a rounded human.
  • Minimise the drunken rambling.
  • Limit your selfies, football commentary, X-factor blow by blow. Don’t swamp out everything else.
  • Talk about design, even if you don’t have anything ‘genius’ to say. Posting ‘wow I just discovered the Braun guy’ is fine.
  • Share new things you find.
  • Talk with people – not at them – it helps you to verbalise your thoughts.

All of this makes me happy when I see a CV coming into the office. It shows me that the person cares about what they do. Even if they aren’t making too much sense, they are engaged with the subject.

When I ask why people haven’t followed some of these the most common answer is a combination of not wanting to put themselves out there, fearing criticism, and a perfectionist instinct that they should only show their most awesome work/ thoughts/ links.

Fight that! Put things out there. If your intentions are good, then good people overlook mistakes. Haters gonna hate, forget the haters.


If some of this sounds cynical it’s because it probably is.

Some people will rail against the ‘connect with the world’ strategy on LinkedIn. But this is a competitive industry, where your connections through friends and family can be more important than hard work and talent in securing young people their first gig.

If I can arm some folk with tactics to beat that system I’ll be delighted – even if it does involve sidestepping some linkedIn ettiquette.

Refresh Reboot 2

Refresh Aberdeen is something I’ve been playing with for some time now. It’s changed along the way a few times, and recently it’s been pretty low key – with my energy mainly going into projects like codethecity.

Over the weekend I put some thought into exactly what Refresh Aberdeen is. I still think it’s potentially useful, if only to make it easy to point people at the various events I’m involved with. When I broadened that thought out, applying some of the thinking I’d encouraged folk at codethecity to use, it struck me that it shoudn’t just be my events that it points to.

So over the weekend I spent a while gathering some links and put together a new version of the site. A really simple quick link site giving very brief overviews of events and things that I think fit the Refresh outlook on life. There is a lot more on now than when Refresh started, which is great.

Participants in the 2013 Aberdeen Jam

If I’ve missed anything please let me know – I’d like this to become reasonably comprehensive. There’s a feed and a light version already, but I plan to make it easier for people to grab the data, and also to incorporate feeds from things like the excellent open tech calendar as time allows.

And if you hate any of the images I’ve used feel free to send me replacements!

Scuffed Constraints Hack Pack Giveaway

This time last year I was refreshing the Constraints Cards kickstarter every 30 seconds or so to see how many new backers I’d got. Since then I’ve shipped a mountain of cards around the world, which has been a great learning experience. Who knew labels were so complicated!

I’ve got a big box of slightly scuffed decks. It’s full of decks where the shrinkwrap is torn, or where there is a bashed corner to the box. It’s under my desk. I keep kicking it. It’s annoying. All the cards are perfect – but I can’t really sell them. So I’d like to give them away.

Constraints Hack Packs

If you have a web user group, meetup, class, or some other group that would like to organise a hack day / evening using Constraints I’d like to send you a skuffed up hack pack for free.

Just tell me about your group, and when you’d like to organise a constraints session and I’ll ship a couple of kilos of decks, stickers, badges, logbooks and general Constraints goodies – about £100 of stuff normally. Everything you need to run a constraints hack for a decent sized room of people. The decks will be the scuffed / bashed boxes but the cards themselves will be spotless.

I have a few hackpacks to giveaway – first come first served!

Postage costs are a killer for overseas, so I’m afraid this is a UK only offer.

Just email me details of your meetup / user group / class and I’ll fire them out on a first come first served basis.

And in case you’re worried that the decks are a mess – this is pretty much the typical damage – not much, but enough that I’d feel bad shipping them as new.

bashed up decks


CodeTheCity is a new event I’ve been pulling together with Ian, Bruce and Andrew over the past month or so. It’s a civic hacking event aiming to use principles of service design, rapid prototyping and mixed discipline group work to tackle city level challenges.

Our first event is next weekend at Aberdeen University. As I type this we are fully booked, but have a handful of visitor (drop in, rather than full weekend) tickets still available.

Participants in the 2013 Aberdeen Jam

There is lots (and lots) of good information about codethecity over at the codethecity website and wiki.

In this post I just wanted to document some of the thinking behind codethecity, and the progress so far. Especially on the back of the recent Meat Conference which encouraged folk to follow through on their side project ideas.


Over the past couple of years I’ve helped organise a number of ‘hackathon’ style events. Most fun among these have been Global Service Jam and ACH13. At these events we basically filled a room with enthusiastic people, fed them some sandwiches and coffee, and helped them to jam on ideas.

The motivation for getting involved with these was primarily because I wanted to participate, but they weren’t already happening locally. If I could help a crowd of other people access these events by helping to bring them to Aberdeen then great. The benefit of the events was all about personal development though.

The things people come up with at these sessions always impresses me. So earlier this year I suggested to Ian Watt (lead organiser of the ACH13 event) that another Aberdeen hack would be timely during the summer.

I don’t know if it’s the upcoming independence vote, or if it’s the boys becoming more questioning of the wider world, but I’ve been more aware of the ability of coders to ‘do good’ recently. Could I can achieve the same personal development benefits for attendees while actually having some civic impact?

At the start of May a small group of us met up to discuss the possibility of a civic hacking event. An event centred around open data, and around social / civic challenges at a city wide scale. Hacks wouldn’t be aiming to create businesses, or to be thrown away – they’d be aiming to improve lives. We left that early morning meeting with a solid picture of the constraints we wanted to apply to the project, some candidate dates, and a number of tasks to follow up on.

Why CodeTheCity?

Any new event or initiative needs to have a good reason to exist.

Particularly in a world with so many existing projects in this general space, why didn’t we just adopt a model from elsewhere and do the Aberdeen version. Are we egomaniacs?

I started Refresh in Aberdeen, based on an established model elsewhere. I helped bring CodeRetreat.org to Aberdeen, and help put on Global Service Jam Aberdeen. So I’ve had reasonable experience of taking an existing model and landing it locally. Nothing existing felt like a perfect match for what we were trying to create, so we started with a blank sheet of paper.

Articulating the reasons why we started something new is a challenge, especially in a concise digestible, efficient manner. So you’ll excuse me if I investigate some of the underlying reasoning here while we attempt to distil something of a draft manifesto for codethecity. Consider it rubber duck blogging.

First Principles – Manifesto

These principles haven’t been formalised, and are very much my first draft that we’ll be looking at over the coming weeks. As we discuss them some may come or go. They should give a feel for the kind of event we’re trying to create, though.

Open and Free to attend

Codethecity Aberdeen is free to attend, and I’d like all CodeTheCity events to be similarly open. Anyone can register, no one should be excluded because of qualifications or ability to pay. Sponsorship should be distributed, so that no one organisation is ‘running the show’, but sponsors should be recognised and thanked prominently.

Non profit

No one should profit from running a CodeTheCity. Asking people to volunteer their time for a weekend for the good of their city has a very different feel if someone is making money from the exercise.


We have tremendous local authority support for CodeTheCity Aberdeen, but this isn’t a ‘council event’. It’s being organised by a grass roots collection of individuals from business, education and local government with a shared interest in making life better. I’d strongly encourage any other cities running a CodeTheCity to involve local government early, as their support is invaluable in many areas.

Broad attendee base

To avoid a tech bubble effect, organisers should aim to encourage both coders and non-coder service experts to attend. I’ll expand on this below.

Open data

The production and use of open data is at the heart of many ideas we’re looking at within CodeTheCity. We’re not limited to projects involving open data, but where appropriate, the openness of data is a primary consideration. Organisers should try to ensure that some open data expertise is available to participants on the weekend.

More than just apps

We should be as interested in creating datasets, creating arguments for projects, creating basic data ‘plumbing’, as we are in creating new apps. These infrastructure and conceptual projects may not be as immediately impressive, but can have significant impact, and can be achievable in short timescales.

 Autonomous teams, well supported

Teams are free to work on the problems that they select. Organisers can propose ideas, but if a team picks a new idea and decides to work on it, they are free to do so. It should obviously relate to the event in some way, but as long as it could broadly be considered ‘civic hacking’ the organisers should support it.

City level

Where possible, projects should focus on a city level. An idea that could apply to a sports club should be examined to see if it can apply to all sports clubs in the city. Or better yet, all clubs in the city.

Share, share, and share again

Showing your working, documenting your research, and sharing your process is as important as open sourcing your code. It makes it easier for other teams to pick up your work and improve it.

  • Free to attend, supported by sponsorship
  • Leave your agenda at the door, but bring your experience and expertise
  • Data wants to be open, where possible
  • Services should be as general as possible – don’t fix a problem for community centres, fix it for ‘venues’
  • Document and share your work

First Principles – Attendees

I really want to bring the Global Service Jam mixed discipline team approach to CodeTheCity. The core idea is that by bring two key groups of people together into a room to work together for a weekend we can create great things. Those two broad groups are:

  • Coders
  • Designers
  • Data people
  • Writers
  • Illustrators
  • Photographers


  • Service users
  • Service providers / managers
  • Government
  • Facilities managers

These two (very) broad groups are often very active and passionate as groups, but rarely mix as directly as we hope they will at CodeTheCity. Creating project teams with a mix of people from both groups should, we hope, lead to interesting results.

Many people in group one will rarely come in contact with the kinds of challenges we’ll face at CodeTheCity, typically working on more ‘corparate’ projects. Having the second group present and able to lend genuine expertise and insight should help ensure projects are founded in reality.

I find this incredibly exciting. If we can make this work, I think the results could be genuinely impactful.

What does ‘City Level’ mean?

When I talk of ‘city level challenges’ I’m just trying to focus the efforts of the event, and clarify who we are trying to benefit.

One of the ideas put forward to codethecity early on was a system to allow a specific support group to create individual event calendars for their service users. By shifting this problem up to ‘city level’ it can be reframed as a system to allow anyone to create a specific event calendar based on a shared high quality data set. This could benefit service users with additional needs, or tech folk trying to share a calendar with their workmates, or a school sharing kids activities for the holidays.

This is likely to lead to a project with bigger potential impact, and with wider general support.

Most importantly though, it should lead to a project with multiple backers and benficiaries.

When a single organisation stands to benefit, that organisation is more likely to adopt the ‘owner’ or ‘client’ role in the project. This can cause tension in a fundamentally open source project, where the default interaction should be peer collaboration, rather than client / provider. Such tension can, at best, slow things down. At worst it can drain enthusiasm from contributors and stagnate a project.

I really hope that CodeTheCity projects can deliver some real results, and I think this is an important consideration in achieving that.

On Side Projects

For anyone reading this that has thought about side projects since The Meat the other week, I thought it worth covering a few other aspects of the project.

Naming is always hard

Coming up with a name for an event (or anything) is always a challenge. Being the ‘marketing guy’ on the team I had to come up with something appropriate. I started sketching ideas and searching for domain names. I couldn’t believe that the domain and twitter handle were both available for “Code the city”. I should do this for a living!

The thinking was pretty straightforward when looking at names. Here are my notes from that page of my moleskine:

  • Don’t use ‘hack’ or variants
  • Like ‘hack the government’ and ‘code for america’ – three. it’s the magic number.
  • software / code / coder / coding / tech / make / write
  • Aberdeen / People / Services / Town / City / Good
  • Don’t use Aberdeen – make the name generic – easy to prepend / append city name
  • code the city – AVAILABLE – [ ] MORNING TEST!

The ‘morning test’ note simply tells me to revisit this idea in the morning. The days of my registering domain names on the day that I think of them are long gone. Code The City passed the morning test, so I registered a domain and twitter account. Decision made.

 Things CAN move quickly

Within four or five days of that initial coffee meeting we had a name, a domain name, firm date, twitter account, eventbrite page taking bookings and some leads on sponsorship. Within a fortnight we had 20 people signed up, sponsorship in place, and a wiki filling up with ideas from the community. When you get stuck in, things can happen pretty quickly.

There is always time

Organising an event of this kind from a train seat is pretty much possible. I have a half hour, twice a day, where I have a laptop, limited wifi, and usually a desk. Writing emails, designing schedules, organising lunch, contacting sponsors, designing posters and name badges – all of this can be done in small chunks from the ‘comfort’ of a scotrail train.

The Meat 2014 – Side projects ftw!

I got to go to a thing in Aberdeen that I didn’t organise myself – yay! A charming, exciting, fun and inspiring day out listening to some great speakers talk about enthusiasm.

The meat site has speaker details and links, and I covered my thoughts pretty well in my post on the fifthring.com blog – so go read that. To make your visit to this page worthwhile though – here is a massive gif of some of the audience jiggling about!


Global Service Jam Aberdeen 2014

Most of my weekends I spend in ‘dad’ mode. This is my favourite mode. It involves lego, raspberry pi, picnics, fighting illogical insanity, explaining why batman is a goodie even though he wears black, and enthusing about brilliant but out of reach ideas.

Participants in the 2013 Aberdeen Jam

Running a Service Jam is pretty much the same, but it’s spent with adults instead of 3 and 5 year olds. The main difference is that adults actually have skills. Once they tap into their child like ability to run with ideas those skills really make things fun.

I won’t go into the Jam itself here – I wrote a full post about what happened at the Jam itself on the refresh aberdeen blog.

It really was a great fun, inspirational weekend. There is lots of good stuff about the event at these links:

If you fancy coming along next year your best option is to sign up to the Refresh Aberdeen email list – announcements will likely be on that list first. It’s a 100% free event – we even feed you and provide materials to use – so all you need is some free time. It’s great if you can come for the whole weekend, but even if you can only make it for one day it’s worth coming.

Julia and Kevin larking around

Finally, thank you again to our sponsors for supporting the event. It would be impossible to make this kind of thing happen without the support.

Overcoming Blockages

Do one thing wrong, but in the right project

It’s rare that I don’t know which project is the priority at any given time.

It’s not rare that I don’t know exactly which aspect of that project is a priority at any given time. I can find myself flitting from aspect to aspect without actually achieving anything tangible.

Woah. Did you spot the double negative. I used a double negative. That’s wrong. “not rare that I don’t know”. What kind of imbecile writes that. This one. That’s who.

Normally I would rephrase to hide my idiocy. But I leave it in here because by doing that stupid thing, by getting it wrong, I’ve become more actively engaged in this tiny ‘write a blogpost’ project.

I’ll now get it done, ship it, and move that sticky into Done. Moving stickies is addictive, like pringles, once you move a sticky you can’t stop moving stickies. You are suddenly unblocked. Excellent.

Why wrong is right

I think what’s going on here is a little bit of reverse psychology. By making the project worse, instead of better, my brain kicks up a gear and gains some focus. By threatening to break something, you zap your brain out of stupor mode. Brains don’t like things being spoiled.

Also, it’s REALLY easy to do something wrong. You can do something wrong in an instance. Even a double negative in some copy might be enough.

The key word here is ‘doing’. When you do something it’s easy to do something else. It’s moving from doing nothing to doing something that’s hard.

So, do something. Embrace the fact it may well be wrong, safe in the knowledge that future you will be in a better mental state to sort it out.

Global Service Jam

Global Service Jam

We’ve just confirmed some more details about this years Global Service Jam in Aberdeen, which you can catch up on at the Aberdeen Jam website. You can book a free ticket from that site. Please only take a ticket if you have the weekend of 7th-9th free to participate.

Last year was the first Jam I’d helped organise, and it was great fun. It was really exciting to see people using relatively simple but powerful service design tools and techniques to take ideas from initial concept to robust prototype over a weekend.

I left last years event with a real sense of urgency to apply this mindset of rapid iteration at work. I can honestly say that we’ve made progress in that direction – thanks in no small part to the GSJ experience.

Seeing these techniques work so well with a mixed group, where most teams hadn’t met each other before that weekend, proved the value of the process.

You can find out more about GSJ at these sites:

Anyone can take part – you just need to have some enthusiasm for design, and a willingness to push forward with ideas to test and improve on them. You don’t need any specific experience or skills to take part – and all activities are team based, with experienced facilitators available to guide you throughout the weekend.

We’ve added a bit more depth and breadth to the facilitation team for 2014, and have some plans to tweak the running order a little to make things more fun.

If you have any questions about GSJ get in touch on twitter – I’ll be happy to give you more info to help you decide whether it’s for you. (hint – it is!).

We’re on the lookout for additional sponsors – so if your company would like to help us bring this great event to Aberdeen do drop me a line.

Some pics from last year.

Participants in the 2013 Aberdeen Jam
Participants in the 2013 Aberdeen Jam
Participants in the 2013 Aberdeen Jam

Build GIFs

2013 was the final Build conference in Belfast. It was fun. Gifs aid memory I believe…

David Cole

David Cole at Build

David spoke of the core importance of design. How it’s not a stage in the creation process. It is the creation process in many ways. A nice essay version of his talk is here.

David is on twitter.

Nicole Fenton

Nicole Fenton at Build

Nicole spoke of the importance of words to user interface / user experience. Something I continue to find a challenge. I’m pretty bad at words. You can read her presentation here.

Nicole is on twitter.

Paul Soulellis

Paul Soulellis at Build

This was tremendous. I really enjoyed the talk from Paul, and have thought of it often in the couple of months since the conference. The way he spoke of his projects, and the directly personal nature of each of them were a good reminder that websites are for people. We really shouldn’t need to be reminded of that, should we? But we do. I do.

I’d encourage you to have a look at Paul’s blog version of the talk if you haven’t seen his work before.

Paul is on twitter and is really worth following on Flickr too.

Leslie Jensen-Inman

Leslie Jensen-Inman at Build

I’ve spoken to a lot of graduates of ‘web’ courses who have relatively few usable skills, so the talk from Leslie about the unicorn institute project rang true. Especially the stuff about participation, project work, and practice being key to development as a UX designer (I’d say web designer, or designer).

Leslie is on twitter.

Jason Scott

Jason Scott at Build

You all know Jason – @textfiles – he’s a legend. Infectiously enthusiastic about the internet we used to have (you know, without Cameron’s filters and NSA snooping and acquihires killing content), and about the responsibilities that come with taking peoples files. He might dress like a scary dark angel – but he’s right. This stuff matters. Go and set yourself up an archive team warrior. I did. It’s painless. Do it now.

Jason is on twitter.

Frank Chimero

Frank Chimero at Build

The likening of the development in user interfaces in plastic and in screens in this talk was just lovely. Just go and read this beautifully presented (of course) version of his talk here. A fitting end to Build.

Frank is on twitter.


Lunch happened in the Cathedral. It was quite the setting for a bunch of nerds to consume calories. Enjoyable.

Lunch in a Cathedral at Build