Geek Fest Wellington

BY REBECCA PALMER
Last updated 12:18 19/06/2010
ulu Pachuau and Sam Minne
ROBERT KITCHIN/The Dominion Post
ONLINE ATHLETES: Lulu Pachuau and Sam Minnee are competing in the 'geek Olympics', designing and building a website in 24 hours for a charity, up against teams from the United States and Australia.

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When the starting gun goes at 11am today, out will come the whiteboard pens, the post-it notes and the laptops.

Twenty-four hours later, empty coffee cups and water bottles will have piled up and at least a few of the computer geeks involved in web-making marathon FullCodePress will be lying exhausted on the floor.

As live events go, watching FullCodePress - also known as the geek Olympics - clearly isn't going to cut it for your average sports fan.

But as the three teams from New Zealand, Australia and the United States race to build websites for charities in 24 hours, thousands of web enthusiasts are expected to follow the action on YouTube, Twitter, blogs and photostreaming websites.

"It probably won't be such a great spectator sport," admits Tash Lampard, one of the organisers.

Footage from previous events suggests viewers can expect a lot of frantic typing, conversations peppered with computer jargon, the occasional stressed-out grumble and geeks letting off steam by dancing to Walk Like an Egyptian.

It's the third time the competition has been held and the Kiwi squad is under pressure to retain the FullCodePress crown, having never lost to the Aussies. It will be especially intense this year because it is the first time Team USA, comprising web "superstars" such as designer Jason Santa Maria, has competed.

On top of that, both the previous events have been held in Australia, which gave the Kiwis an "away advantage", says organiser Mike Brown, who along with Lampard runs the annual Webstock conference. He says the Kiwis had a chance to bond while travelling together.

This time the event is being held in Wellington Town Hall. This year's squad, comprising three Wellingtonians and three Aucklanders, has never worked together before. Competition for the six places on the Code Blacks was fierce, with 44 applicants.

A quick scan through their online profiles reveals those selected are an exceedingly multitalented bunch. Just don't call them nerds.

"Geeks, not nerds," says team programmer Sam Minnee, firmly. "Completely different. Nerd is insulting. Nerd tends to imply social dysfunction."

He sees geeks as being "really, really into something".

In his case? "I think I'm excessively fond of problem-solving, have not much of an interest in sport, was always good at maths as a kid, and I'm most comfortable with people who describe themselves as geeks."

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He had applied for the team in previous years. "I thought I'd try my luck at getting in and this time I was selected, so I was pretty stoked. I guess I would like to see just how far I can push things in 24 hours."

The team will only find out this morning for which non-profit organisation they will be building a website. The chosen charities will provide the teams with content, images and a briefing.

Minnee and fellow Wellingtonian Lulu Pachuau (the team's user experience advocate) say the Code Blacks have been working together online to plan as much as they can - discussing how to best use their precious 24 hours.

"There's actually quite a lot of people on the team for 24 hours," Pachuau says. "That's a big, big challenge. We're all kind of careful not to stand on each other's toes." Although she is one of New Zealand's top web professionals, she has an old-fashioned approach to communication. She requested face-to-face meetings with her Auckland-based team- mates through video-calling software Skype. "I like seeing people. With the other people from Auckland, I wanted to see their faces and hear their voices."

A lot has changed in the online world since the first FullCodePress in 2007. This year, the competitors will be providing micro-blogging updates through Twitter.

Brown points out that in 2007, Twitter had barely just begun.

Minnee adds: "Mainstream people sharing stuff online is basically a lot more recent than we give it credit for."

T HE NAME FullCodePress is a play on the defensive basketball tactic of full-court press. Organisers feel the name captures the "excitement and intensity" of the event and the teamwork required.

Brown clearly enjoys playing up the sports references. "I think the name geek Olympics works because geeks and sports don't normally go together." When he, Lampard and their Australian colleagues from the Web Industry Professionals Association started to run the event, he was initially more interested in its competitive side.

"Then I realised that that's really cool, but a couple of non-profits get really amazing sites from it. They are clients who wouldn't normally be able to afford this level of website and wouldn't know where to start."

The resulting websites might cost the organisations about $20,000 under normal circumstances - the cost involved in hiring six web professionals to work for 24 hours at standard rates.

Lampard says one of the judging criteria is that the charities can keep the websites running easily after the event. Previous recipients include Rainbow Youth - an Auckland support service for gay young people and their families.

Brown is keen to get more countries involved, but funding is an issue - the organisers are reliant on sponsorship.

"The model we've got is that we potentially could do it online, but it's not as fun, it's not as good."

A Webstock Mini has been held in Wellington this week in conjunction with FullCodePress, and tonight the Wellington Town Hall will also host FullCodeGhost, an investigation into "paranormal activities" that have been rumoured in the building.

FullCodePress is a 24-hour event, but the competitors are likely to be awake much longer. Even after the websites are finished at 11am on Sunday, the teams have to front up to the judging panel for interviews.

The winners will finally be announced about 4pm, but Brown says that many of the competitors are far too hyped up to sleep even after that.

He has seen enough in previous years to offer the following advice: "Twelve cans of V [energy drink] doesn't work. You get too jittery."

And while organisers and volunteers might squeeze in the odd power nap, there's no such luxury for the geeks themselves. "I don't think anyone on any of the teams has ever napped at all."

He warns the weather could pose an additional challenge. "It's mid-winter. It could be quite cold."

But Minnee's not so worried about that. "Nothing works up a sweat like sitting behind a computer."

- The Dominion Post

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