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The man who makes grown geeks tremble

If there were three words that could strike fear into the heart of any first-time Code Black, it might very well be these: Jason Santa Maria.

Santa Maria is something of a legend. He redesigns his blog for eachpost. He writes for A List Apart. He runs a design studio called Mighty and works on Typekit. He impressed the pants off everybody I know when he spoke at the Webstock conference in Wellington last year.

And now he’s a member of a star-studded US team competing against the Code Blacks and an Australian team in this weekend’s FullCodePress, a kind of geek Olympics which pits crack teams against each other in a 24-hour race to build a working website for a charity from scratch.

Last year the Code Blacks—New Zealand’s crack web team, which is selected from scratch each year—beat Australia to come home with first prize. The 2007 Code Blacks did the same. There’s a proud record on the line.

This year the Code Blacks are up against not only a determined bunch of Aussies but a glittering array of Americans bent on a successful debut.

“The prospect of going up against those guys is daunting,” says Darren Wood, a web designer and member of last year’s triumphant Code Blacks. “All they need to do is think ‘Jason Santa Maria’ and, you know, the fear will set in.

“So I think the advice I’d give these guys is to probably ignore the competition… not to be intimidated and know that the team that they have is an excellent team.”

Fellow 2009 Code Black Courtney Johnston agrees. “It all comes down to how well you perform as a team in that short amount of time.

“I can’t see any reason why a team of New Zealanders can’t take down a team of Americans just as well as we took down a team of Australians.”

The event starts at 11am tomorrow (Saturday June 19) and nobody will leave until after 11am the following  day. The teams will work through the night to conceive, design and build a working website for their charity clients, who they will meet for the first time tomorrow morning.

Each team has six members with each filling a specialist role including design, HTML/CSS, content writer and programmer. New Zealand’s team, chosen from around 50 applicants, are:

  • Project manager: Amanda Wood
  • User experience advocate: Lulu Pachuau
  • Graphic designer: Matthew Buchanan
  • HTML/CSS: Mike Harding
  • Programmer: Sam Minnée
  • Content editor/writer: Hadyn Green

In the 24 hours ahead of them, with no sleep in the offing, these teams will plough through weeks worth of work, according to organiser Mike Brown. “If you take the six people and multiply by 24 hrs, that's 144 hours of work—which at standard industry rates might equate to a $20,000 website.”

So what’s the key to success?

Teamwork, according to the two former Code Blacks I talked to. “There’s no room for ego,” says Wood. “Everyone is on the same level regardless of how you stand skill-wise because if one person fails, the entire team fails.

And besides, “My guess is that the American team are a little bit too highly qualified, and they’re going to try and do something particularly whizz bangy and forget the fact that they've only got 24 hours.” 

How did the Code Blacks do it last time?

They started by getting to know each other a little bit over drinks in a Wellington bar with a couple of the successful 2007 Code Blacks, and later on an early morning flight to Australia where the 2009 event was held.

The venue last year, oddly, was a convention centre in the throes of preparation for a trade show opening. (It’s the Wellington Town Hall this year.)

Johnston said: “We were setting up our laptops and trying to get onto the network and setting up our whiteboard and stuff like that while all the vendors were setting up their stands.

“And there were people walking around in nurses’ uniforms … There were forklifts driving through the venue helping set up stands.

“The whole thing was so surreal that it kind of made the weirdness of getting together for 24 hours to build a website seem sort of normal.”

A coin was flipped and the Code Blacks chose the half of the stand with full-height walls, leaving the Aussies rather more open to view. So far so good.

What came next was crucial, according to Johnston—spending time with their client, in their case Rainbow Youth.

“I think the clients make all the difference, and they were so sweet and so enthusiastic and so kind of full of beans and excitement, that it made it real,” she said.

“We pointedly spent about an hour and a half just trying to understand who they were, and what Rainbow Youth does, and what they were looking for, and what they could support, before we got started.

“I think that was something that paid off, taking that time to understand them and what they were trying to achieve, which would have been pretty easy to just let go.”

And then it was on. Each getting stuck into the area of responsibility they’d be hired on for but also figuring out where they could help each other out.

“I think if I was going to give advice to this year’s team,” said Johnston, “it would probably be to actually talk about that in-depth, you know, and figure out where people could overlap and help each other.

On staying up all night:

“It was such a bubble, you know, that was the thing that made it possible,” said Johnston. “You had no friends, you had no family, you had no commitments. All the food was getting delivered to you. All you had to do was just sit there and build this thing. And you were in this place where there were no beds, there was nothing like that that you could go and do.

“I think we all thought oh maybe we’ll have a nap around 2 o’clock but it never happened. Bloody Darren had us doing star jumps at 4 o’clock in the morning and I whined like a little girl at that stage. But it was the right idea, and it worked.”

Seeing messages on Twitter from supporters back home in NZ helped too. “That actually made a real difference, that feeling of having people out there who were paying attention, and kind of rooting for us even from that distance.”

Wood remembers “a very dark couple of hours between 3.30 and 5.30 where things were bleak.  You know it was cold, and we were strung out having drunk too much coffee.  And things, yeah things were just not going as well as we had hoped.  In retrospect things were going fine, but it just felt like dread and doom at that hour. 

“But, you know it’s good that we managed to come through it and sort it out.  I guess you just lose motivation and, you know you get to that last period where usually you're in bed and you're very comfortable and you're dreaming about bunnies jumping through fields.  But now you're strung out and having to get the site live in only three hours, so yeah.”

What was the end product like?

“It was a desperate rush and I think we all knew that it would be a bit untidy around the edges,” said Johnston. “But I think we all felt like we had built something pretty stable and pretty well resolved.”

“Yeah,” said Wood, “I'm super proud of what we’ve done.  There are obviously a few things that, you know we would like to have fixed.  But within the 24 hour period I think we knocked out a winner—well we did knock out a winner.”

On what you take away from an experience like this:

Johnston: “It’s one of the most intense things I’ve ever done. But without a doubt it’s amazing knowing that you can do that. That if the situation is set up right you can achieve this thing that just seemed completely insane with people who you barely know, with clients you’ve never met before.”

Wood: “I guess looking back now, being thrown into a team of strangers and having to work together was an interesting challenge.  So I guess finding out what people’s strengths were and then helping them work to those strengths was a good lesson to learn.” 

Websites aren’t just for FullCodePress. How do you build them to last?

Keep it simple and make it easy for the clients to maintain and update, said Wood.

“We decided that there were certain things that we would like to finish up for them, and we let them know that within reason we could help them to sort out what they needed.

“I guess a lot of that comes down to building a system that is robust and extensible.  But yeah another bit of advice I would give any teams going ahead is use a CMS that is easy, you know like WordPress would be great, because to change the look and feel of a WordPress site is easy.”

Last word of advice?

“Don’t freak out in advance, because that’s not going to get you anywhere,” said Johnston. “And get a good night’s sleep beforehand.”