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JoAnne Levatin
Computation 2016 fall hackathon

Collaboration Fuels Fall Hackathon

Monday, November 21, 2016

Following successful spring and summer events, Lawrence Livermore’s 2016 fall hackathon took place on November 3–4 at the High-Performance Computing Innovation Center (HPCIC) on the Livermore Valley Open Campus. The thrice-yearly hackathons are sponsored by Computation and organized by different groups within the directorate. They run for 24 hours and emphasize collaboration, learning, and fun. Computer scientists Tyler Jackson and Steven Samson were part of the multidisciplinary committee that coordinated the fall session. Samson describes the event as an opportunity to focus on projects that are lower priority during normal work hours. “At the hackathon, there are no meetings to attend or other work conflicts to balance,” he says. For hacker JoAnne Levatin, setting aside the time to contemplate a specific task is crucial. “Intense concentration leads to greater findings and, later, productivity,” she notes.

Also known as codefest, hackfest, hack day, and Ship-It day, the hackathon format allows participants to try out new ideas, create prototypes, and network with other developers. The event’s unofficial slogan carries over from season to season: Failure is an option. Because hackathons encourage collaboration and learning, Samson explains, “The experience is more important than a particular expected outcome. When people aren’t afraid of failure, they are more likely to try something creative and new that they might otherwise avoid.”

Fortified with snacks and coffee, dozens of hackers gathered in HPCIC’s connected conference rooms. For some, productivity within the hackathon’s compressed time frame required creative expression. Alex Dominguez channeled superhero strength with his Batman sweatshirt, and Julia Ramirez brought a few ukuleles to help others unwind at lunchtime—a continuation of her team’s ongoing jam sessions. Anh Quach recalls, “Several of us learned a few chords with Alex [Dominguez] supplying the metronome. It was a great team-building experience.” Repeat attendee Rachael Lemos saw the fun carry over into teamwork. “With everyone working in such close quarters during the 24-hour period, it makes for a very collaborative environment,” she says.

Figure 1. Julia Ramirez and Anh Quach find the fun in hackathon collaborations.

Many hackathon teams were motivated to solve problems through advances in efficiency, automation, longevity, and performance. Gary Laguna’s team evaluated new technologies for the Laboratory’s Environmental Restoration Department (ERD), whose mission is to manage environmental technologies and conduct related programs for both Lawrence Livermore and the Department of Energy. The team’s principal goal was to evaluate tools for improving performance, usability, and longevity of the Taurus Environmental Information Management System (TEIMS) tool suite, which ERD has used for almost 30 years. According to Laguna, a major ongoing challenge is to evolve the system so it can support ERD’s environmental missions for decades to come. The team analyzed several technologies during the hackathon, including Kendo UI, which holds promise as a user-friendly interface for sorting and grouping data.

Another team sought to find project-planning solutions for ERD. Lemos partnered with Dominguez to test pandas, a Python data analysis library, for a project called Metis. “We were hoping to find a solution to manipulate and load the data required for project planning in a faster and more efficient way,” explains Lemos. To make the most of the day, the duo set up their development environment ahead of time and welcomed input from other ERD hackers. The size of the pandas library proved challenging, so the team made progress with testing as many capabilities as they could. As Lemos emphasizes, “We see potential with the library and hope to continue working with it.”

Figure 2. Rachael Lemos and Alex Dominguez enjoy the hackathon experience.

Each hackathon culminates in short presentations by each team or solo hacker outlining their goals, accomplishments, lessons learned, and next steps. Co-organizer Jackson describes the passion evident in each presentation. “For us developers, it’s great to see what others are doing and what their skills are,” he says. Many participants, like Lemos, look forward to these seasonal events. “I register for hackathons because they are collaborative and fun,” she notes. Samson agrees, “The hackathon is an important event for employees, and it’s a positive event for our work culture at the Laboratory.” This collaborative spirit nurtures the event series itself, and Samson’s first experience as an organizer comes after participation in past hackathons. “Each hackathon relies on volunteers to organize it, and I am glad to have the opportunity to offer my support,” he says.

Figure 3. Dianne Calloway works on her hackathon project.

Along with Jackson, Laguna, and Samson, this event’s organizing committee included Justin Barno, Daniel Fedor-Thurman, Jodi Gatto, Kelley Herndon Ford, Greg Lee, Wei Liu, Walt Nissen, Esteban Pauli, Ryan Quinlan, Amber Rocha, Lorrie Rudock, and Jennifer Snyder. The next hackathon is slated for March 2017.