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Synergex Hackathon 2021 Was Out of This World

By , Posted on December 9, 2021 at 8:49 am

This year marked our second fully remote Synegex Hackathon! Despite not sitting together at huge tables in a large conference room—the standard hackathon setting—this year’s space-themed contest was a hit. Of course, this was mostly due to the awesome teamwork and innovation that the Synergex team brought to the (once again, virtual) table, but there is also something to be said for the strategic use of digital technology in setting a hackathon project apart from the competition. Before we dive into the tools that our teams used to take their projects and presentations to the next level, here’s a high-level summary of the goals and structure of our annual hackathon.

Leading up to the hackathon itself, Synergexians propose project ideas and organize into teams according to which idea they find the most inspiring. This is where tools like Microsoft Teams and Google Sheets come in handy, especially since we’re not currently chatting around the water cooler about which project(s) we’d like to work on.  

You’ll often hear of hackathons lasting 24 hours (or more), but the annual Synergex Hackathon takes a humble eight hours a) because we are not college students and b) because that generally winds up being enough time to put together an awesome prototype/presentation and get to know colleagues you don’t work with on a regular basis.

During the closing ceremony, each team presents their work, and everyone votes on their favorite project. In an in-person setting, this would be done using the time-tested hand raise. Virtually, we rely on the Microsoft ecosystem to present, provide feedback, and efficiently collect and tally votes.

Now that you have the general gist, here’s a sampling of the apps and sites that contributed to the success of this year’s hackathon. (If they can help a team of five frantically work their way from nothing to something in just one business day, perhaps you may find them useful as well!)

Tools for Collecting Data

Google Forms and Microsoft Forms feel interchangeable in a lot of ways, but there are some meaningful differences that may make one more suitable than the other.

We used Microsoft Forms for voting purposes since we’re fully embedded in the world of Microsoft anyway, and this allowed us to take advantage of single sign-on (SSO). The form tallied the votes for us, so we didn’t have to do much thumb twiddling when it came time to announce the winners.

That said, Google Forms features a wider variety of response types and templates. Team SpaceUX used a Google Form in their presentation to show how participants in a usability testing program would provide feedback on their experience using a given software product.

Tools for Displaying Data

Airtable

Airtable is a cloud-based spreadsheet/database hybrid that the Education team uses to track data, organize tasks, and brainstorm content ideas in several project areas. In the context of the 2021 Hackathon, this platform came in handy for determining who was on what team.

Since Airtable bases are essentially easy-to-use and easy-to-visualize databases, they do a better job at pulling up data and arranging it in different ways than standard spreadsheets. This made it a cinch to sort people into groups based on their top three team preferences—all while avoiding assigning people to multiple teams by accident or winding up with very lopsided teams.

Check out Airtable if you’ve ever looked at a spreadsheet and thought to yourself, “That oughta be a database table connected to other database tables,” but you’re not sure if you have the time or know-how to make that happen from scratch. 

Tools for Creativity

Balsamiq

Balsamiq provides a “rapid low-fidelity UI wireframing tool” meant to mimic the process of sketching while adding helpful functionality that you don’t enjoy with a pencil and paper. The prototypes generated with Balsamiq are meant to illustrate content and structure rather than design and branding, making it easier to focus on the former.

The Battleshop Galactica team used Balsamiq wireframes to show off the online retail app idea they pitched. It was the ideal tool for the (very) limited timeframe, as it allowed the team to demonstrate the functionality of the app without writing a single line of code. Despite the lack of color and distinct font, the audience was able to get a good grasp of what the product would like look and how it would behave in the real world.

Biteable

Video is a powerful medium for sparking interest and evoking emotion. Two of our teams created eye-catching videos during the Hackathon, and both used Biteable.

Biteable markets itself as the world’s simplest video maker, which is exactly why it was so well suited to this time-limited event. Compared to the deluge of options and settings in Premiere Pro, for instance, Biteable makes it easy for video production newcomers to make decisions about their final product—including its font size, dimensions and orientation, and whether to include a watermark. Biteable also offers an impressive inventory of stock animations, footage, and background images, making it the ideal solution when corners must be cut (and in this event, corners aren’t just cut, they’re hacked right off).[1]

Again, this is just a sampling of the tech that stood out this year. Honorable mention goes to other tools teams have used or considered using in the past:

If you’d be interested in hosting a hackathon within your own organization, contact our Education team! We’d be happy to help get you started.


[1] Get it? Because it’s a Hackathon? …I’ll see myself out…



9 Windows Tips and Tricks You Should Know

By Jerry Fawcett, Posted on February 23, 2021 at 1:45 pm

Over many years of being immersed in Microsoft Windows, I’ve come across a few tidbits I think are worthy of sharing. Some of these you may know about, but I hope you find something new here.

1. Opening a command prompt in File Explorer

So, you’re in File Explorer and you want to open a command prompt in the current location. The easiest way is to simply type “cmd” (without the quotes) in the address bar, and there you go: a command window opens to that location. You can also run other commands the same way. Go ahead: type “notepad” into the address bar of File Explorer for yourself. Conversely, you can use a command prompt to open File Explorer in the current location. To do so, issue either of the following commands in the command prompt: “start.” or “explorer .”.

2. Auto inserting the date and time in Notepad

I use Notepad all the time for taking quick notes. Try pressing F5 when you’re in Notepad. This will enter the time and date, which is useful for marking when an entry was made.

3. Changing configuration settings with MSConfig

Many already know about this utility, but it’s worth mentioning for those who don’t. MSConfig.exe is a built-in Windows tool for controlling such things as the manner the next startup boot will occur (normal, diagnostic, or selective), which services will run, and a list of other built-in tools. It’s very powerful, so use it with care. You can find more information here.

4. Understanding system errors

A quick way (yes, quicker than Googling) to look up a Windows system error is to use the command “net helpmsg errornumber”. For example, if you want to know what system error 5 means, enter this at a command prompt:

     C:\>net helpmsg 5

     Access is denied.

5. Activating speech recognition

Tired of typing? No problem: Windows has a built-in solution that allows you to talk to your computer and give your hands a break. To enable this tool, start by pressing the Windows key +H.  This will prompt you with a link to Settings to enable speech recognition. Toggle it on, and the next time a text field is in focus, you can turn listening mode on with Windows key + H. When you start talking, your computer will start typing for you. You’ll find handy documentation on how to use this feature at Windows Speech Recognition commands.

6. Organizing windows

Say you want to re-arrange the windows on your screen. Pressing the Windows key and the right or left arrow will snap a window to either the right or left side of the screen. But what if you have four windows and you want one in each corner of the screen? Well, that’s easy: just grab a window, drag it to the corner of the screen until you see the outline of the window, and then release it. Repeat this for each corner.

7. Accessing control settings with Windows Master Control Panel

There is something called Windows Master Control Panel, aka the God Mode folder. (Don’t blame me; I didn’t name it.) It’s a folder with shortcuts to many different Windows administrative/management settings and Control Panel tools in a single location. To create it, one must be logged in as Administrator (of course), and then simply create a new folder and give it the name 

     SomeName.{ED7BA470-8E54-465E-825C-99712043E01C}

For example,

     GodMode.{ED7BA470-8E54-465E-825C-99712043E01C}

8. Deleting files

It is well known that when a file is deleted it is not truly deleted, but the space the file consumed is now marked as available. However, if you want to make sure a deleted file is actually deleted and not recoverable (by freely available tools), then the space the file consumed needs to be overwritten. There are plenty of third-party tools that will do this, but why bother getting one when Windows has a built-in tool? To overwrite free space in a particular directory or even a drive so the deleted files are not recoverable, use the cipher command. For example, to overwrite free space in the folder C:\Temp, issue the command

     cipher /w:c:\Temp

To overwrite all the free space on the D: drive, issue the command

     cipher /w:d

And of course, a tool named “cipher” can also encrypt files or directories.

9. Checking battery status

Want to know the state of your laptop’s battery? No problem. Use the powercfg command to learn everything about your battery’s current state. Note: Powercfg must be run in an Administrator command window. While powercfg has many options, the two I find most informative are /batteryreport and /energy. When powercfg is run with /batteryreport, it will create an HTML file named battery-report.html with pretty much all there is to know about your battery’s usage and history statistics.  When run with /energy, powercfg will create an HTML file named energy-report.html with a “Power Efficiency Diagnostics Report” that contains all kinds of information on the battery’s current status. For more information about powercfg, visit Powercfg command-line options.

This is only a drop in the (bit) bucket of Windows tips and tricks, so please share the ones you’ve discovered.


The Digital World … Going too Far?

By Steve Ives, Posted on October 1, 2015 at 7:32 pm

So Hilton’s latest thing is the “Digital Key”; while standing within 5 feet of the door to your hotel room it is now possible (in certain locations) to click a virtual button in the Hilton App on your smart phone and have the door to your hotel room unlock, as if by magic. The digital key also knows about other areas of the hotel that you have access to, such as the Executive lounge (I tried it, it works) and gymnasium (apparently) and provides access to those places too.

Last week I used the app to make my reservation. Yesterday I used the app to check in for my stay and and also to select my room. And today, having already checked in electronically, I was able to totally bypass the reception desk and proceed directly to my room.

Tomorrow morning the credit card associated with my profile will be automatically charged, and I will walk out of the front door and drive to the airport a few exits down the freeway.

If it hasn’t dawned on you what my point is here, it is that I will have booked and totally completed a stay in a hotel … without ever having the need to interact with a single other other human being; all of which seems to me to be a pretty sad state of affairs! Maybe we’re taking this whole technology thing a little too far in some areas?


UX Design; Elevator Controls

By Steve Ives, Posted on June 1, 2015 at 3:09 pm

Those of you who attended the recent DevPartner conference in Philadelphia will no doubt remember the excellent presentation on UX Design that was given by guest speaker, Billy Hollis. During his presentation Billy cited photographs of a couple of elevator control panels. He used one as an example of bad design, the other an example of good.

I won’t show the actual photos that Billy used (sorry, you had to be there for that!) but in a nutshell the layout of the buttons and other information (floor numbers, etc.) on the first panel was at best confusing. There was clear physical evidence that users had been confused by the panel and frequently had not understood how to operate the elevator!

The second example was much a much better panel design. The designer had successfully used techniques such as visually grouping related things together in a way that made the correct operation of the elevator a much more obvious task … intuitive even.

Well, upon arriving at a customers office building in Toronto, Canada earlier today I encountered an elevator control panel that, for me at least, took the confusion to a whole new level.

I should make it clear that the elevator in question was one of a cluster if four in the lobby of a shared office building, and that I was arriving at the customer site at about the same time that everyone was arriving at work. The point is that the lobby was pretty busy at the time, it wasn’t as simple as just walking up and pressing an “I want to go up” button.

No problem I thought, it may be two or three elevator cars before I get to make the final step of my journey up to the 4th floor. I’m a few minutes early and all is good.

image1Finally my turn came, I waited while a few other people stepped on, then I took my place in the elevator car. Intuitively I spun around to determine whether one of my elevator buddies had already pressed the 4th floor button, and I was ready to press it myself if not. The panel opposite is what I encountered.

Now I like to think of myself as a reasonably bright guy, so I instantly figured it out; the buttons would be on the OTHER SIDE of the door. And I was correct … well … kind of. I glanced to the opposite side of the elevator door … and saw an identical panel on that side too!

Not wanting to appear totally inept I just waited quietly until the other people got off at their (somehow) chosen floors … and no, unfortunately nobody else was going to 4.

The doors swished closed and I was finally alone in the elevator. I don’t remember exactly what my out loud remark to myself was, but I believe it started something along the lines of “WHAT THE ….”. So, patiently I waited and sure enough after a little while the doors once again swished open and I was back where I started from in the lobby!

I’ll be honest with you, I was getting a little “pissed” at this point (excuse my language, but its true). But not wanting to appear like a total fool I stepped away as if I had intentionally returned to the lobby, and waited for the crowd to clear … all the time subtly (I thought) observing to see HOW THE HECK THESE FREAKING ELEVATORS WORKED!!! And then … I saw it … everything instantly became clear. The floor selector buttons were indeed on the other side of the elevator door … they were on the OUTSIDE!!!!

IMG_0957Yep … believe it or not in this building you need to indicate which floor you want to go to BEFORE you step on to the elevator. After you have stepped on it’s too late; way too late!

And further, having selected your intended destination on the small tough-screen display in the lobby you are then instructed WHICH of the four elevators (conveniently labeled A, B, C and D) you should step onto in order to reach your desired floor!

Actually this is a pretty clever system, but other than the fancy 6” touch screen display there was absolutely nothing to indicate that anything was different here. Brilliant system but totally unintuitive … and so very frustrating for first-time users. Which I guess was one of the points that Billy was making in the first place.


Airline Baggage Roulette

By Steve Ives, Posted on August 8, 2010 at 7:07 am

Well it's another day in United Airlines "friendly skies" for me. I'm setting out on a week-long treck around the East Coast and Mid-West to visit several Synergy/DE customers with one of our sales account managers, Nigel David. It takes a LOT to make me smile when leaving home at 4.am on a Sunday morning, but today that's exactly what hapenned.

I walked in to the airport terminal at Sacramento "International" Airport, and I couldn't help noticing that one of the baggage carousels had been somewhat "jazzed up" (see photo). I just had to smile … I don't often check bags but it seems like every time I do there is some kind of issue. Now, at least, it seems like this airport has decided to be honest about the state of things … checking a bag with the airlines is somewhat like a game of roulette! OK, maybe the odds of getting a checked bag back on time may be a little better than one would expect in a casino … but not much!


Winner Winner Chicken Dinner!

By Don Fillion, Posted on July 12, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Spain isn’t the only winner…
Congratulations to Graeme Harris of G. Harris Software—the lucky winner of the Official World Cup Jabulani ball!
Graeme, your name was picked in the random drawing of all PSG blog subscribers who entered to win. Your official World Cup soccer ball is already en route to your doorstep. (Let's hope it flies true and doesn't sail over the goal…)
Thanks to everyone who subscribed and participated. We hope that you continue to read and enjoy the blog!


The Cloud

By , Posted on May 19, 2010 at 6:00 pm

Star date 16 May, Consultants log 1. At three pm this afternoon I was arriving at Manchester airport expecting to catch a 40 minute flight over to Belfast for a relaxing evening before visiting customers on Monday morning. Six hours later I’m sat on the desk of a Norforkline ferry with a seven hour crossing ahead of me. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against ferries, but this one is predominantly filled with drunken football fans, screaming kids, and high octane, beer swilling, diesel fragranced truck drivers, and there is not a spare chair to be had. Camping out on the floor is my only option. First class travel!

We’re half way through our road trip of the UK – we being Bill Mooney and myself. The first half of the trip started off just peachy. Some great customer visits and some lovely British scenery to drive through – and drive we have. We have covered hundreds of miles in the last three days, but it’s a small cloud of dust that threatened to halt our travels. Did this daunting fact stop Bill in his tracks? I think not!

The volcano in Iceland has again decided to spew out more dust into our ever so fragile atmosphere. The resulting cloud has grounded flights around the UK yet again. So, sat in a local bar, every bit of modern computing and communications equipment to hand, we set about attempting to find a resolve to our predicament. No cloud was going to stop us from visiting our customers!

Several calls, web searches and dead-ends later we hatched the plan. The trouble was so did everyone else. We were not alone in our quest to reach the emerald island. With all planes grounded, and both of us not remembering our swimming trunks, our only option seemed to be to sail. Our options were limited – we needed to reach a port within the next couple of hours to have any chance of securing a berth. And so began our “great adventure”.

The drive over to Liverpool was rather eventless. On arrival at the wrong port (freight only) we were guided to the passenger terminal, some ten miles away. On arrival Bill made a dash for the check-in desk. Knowing Bill as I do, I parked up and hot-footed it over just in time. “Ya, that’ll do fine” and heard Bill say as he was handing over his credit card. “What will?” I inquired. “It’s OK, they have room for us.” On further interrogation is transpired that “room” actually meant “any space you can find on the floor”. There were no cabins left, and the boat was completely full. “Full” actually means “more people than the facilities on the boat can handle”. But the customer always comes first, I thought to myself. Tickets booked, car loaded onto the ferry, and here I am, sat on the floor wondering what sleep I may actually get, knowing I have a two plus hour drive to Belfast ahead of me – at five the following morning. And the prospect of a shower a distant dream.

Then I started to notice a smartly dressed gentleman winking at me? Not sure of his intentions and cornered (did I forget to mention Bill had left me to watch over our bags while he assembled his tripod and camera and set off around the ship to “capture the moment”?) I was concerned, to say the least. Should I try to carry all the bags and run? “Hey son”, shouted the winking man. “We’ve got you a cabin!” It turns out the very nice gentlemen had a slight affliction in his right eye, but how was I to know that? The news was greeted with much joy, “And one for Bill?” I inquired. “You’ll be lucky, you’re sharing!” Now I’ve known Bill for many years, but sharing a small cabin on a rocking ferry has never been very high on my bucket list. But, needs must, and the customer always come first, I thought.

Very little sleep (due to a snoring Bill) was rudely interrupted by the crew banging on the cabin door at four am. “Breakfast is served”. Still, we had a cabin, and it had a shower! OK, let’s clarify – a gently dripping faucet and a shower curtain that gets blown about and actually wraps around you as you attempt to wash. Not the best start to an early morning. Breakfast was nice, or at least it looked nice. I’d no sooner sat down with my full English when the PA announced “would all car passengers please return to their cars immediately”.

We were soon off the boat, and heading up the motorway towards Belfast. Both customer visits were a great success, and to be honest well worth the effort. We were booked on the return ferry from Dublin to Liverpool on Monday evening. Did we make it……


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