Despite the prevalence of the internet in modern life, there are many resources that are not easily conveyed over a screen. Physical travel can be a great way to gain exposure to unfamiliar technologies, meet online collaborators in the flesh, and pick up some new skills.
The term "hacker" has at least two meanings that are widely used. We use it here in the original sense, someone who enjoys working or playing with technology and is good at it. The other sense, someone who attacks or breaks into systems, is widely used in the press but real hackers generally consider that usage an abomination. See ESR's FAQ if you need a reference.
Sometimes hackers are described as "black hat" or "white hat", based on a stereotype from old movie westerns where the Bad Guys would wear black cowboy hats and the Good Guys white.
One way that some hackers travel is as digital nomads, typically working on a laptop in some pleasant location.
There are computer museums around the world. Some spy museums also include exhibits related to computing and communication technology.
- 1 Bletchley Park (Milton Keynes). During World War II this was the centre of a British project called ULTRA that broke nearly all the ciphers used by the German and Italian military, providing extremely valuable intelligence to Allied commanders. They used machines extensively and one of them (Colossus) was arguably the world's first digital computer. After the war, several former Bletchley people became important computer pioneers.
- The National Museum of Computing (Bletchley Park). Has exhibits on both the wartime work at Bletchley and later developments.
- 2 Museum of Computing (Swindon). Britain's oldest computer museum, opened in 2003.
- The Centre for Computing History (Cambridge). Has a collection of older computers and video games, many of them working.
- 3 Computer Game Museum (computerspielemuseum), Karl-Marx-Allee 93a (Berlin), ☏ , email@example.com. Has many playable games, most on the original hardware. € 9.
- 4 Museum of Science and Technology (Tekniska Museet), Museivägen 7 (Stockholm/Östermalm). A museum with pieces from Sweden's history of technology, including a server from The Pirate Bay.
- 5 Computer Museum of America (Roswell (Georgia)). This museum is in a suburb of Atlanta.
- 6 Computer History Museum (Mountain View, California). Located in Silicon Valley.
Hackerspaces, Makerspaces, and Fab Labs provide services like high speed internet, heavy industrial machinery, and other tech amenities. The kinds of people who use these facilities are often knowledgeable and many will host classes or gush about their current pet project, which can be interesting in its own right. Members are likely to know good local businesses and local craftsmen related to their work. If you need to make minor repairs to your phone, bike, or car, you might be able to use the facilities to make the repair, or to pay a local hackerspace member to fix it in a pinch. Some hackerspaces will include small bars or sell high caffeine drinks like Club Mate or Jolt Cola, even in areas where it is not usually sold.
Most hackerspaces are designed to facilitate the work of locals, and don't have established systems for casual visitors. That does not mean that visitors are not welcome. If you contact the space ahead of time, most will either arrange an tour or let you know if they have open hours during your visit. Depending on your length of stay and needs, purchasing a membership might make sense, especially if you would otherwise be frequenting an Internet Cafe or other paid resource.
Although many hackerspaces are open 24/7, most look down on or prohibit sleeping in the space. Some might make an exception if you just spent an all-nighter working on an epic project, but as a work space filled with industrial machinery it's simply not safe to have people sleeping around.
Conferences can focus on a specific technology or a general topic such as Cybersecurity or System Administration. Many are organized by professional associations such as ACM, IEEE, Usenix or IACR, or standards bodies such as IETF or W3C. Other events, such as the Consumer Electronics Show (January in Las Vegas) are run by industry associations.
Two quite large conferences are particularly oriented to hackers:
- Chaos Communication Congress (CCC) (winter in Leipzig, Germany). Europe's largest hacker event
- Defcon (DC) (summer in Las Vegas, USA). North America's largest hacker event.
Another is mainly for people who need to defend systems:
- Black Hat Briefings (Black Hat). This was originally a Defcon spinoff and Black Hat events are still held in Las Vegas the week before Defcon. However, they are now also held in other cities around the world. It also offers training courses.
Many conferences charge a large sum of money for attendance, as many professionals can either afford it or charge it to a company account. These same conferences often offer scholarships, or reduced rates for open source contributors (If the event is related to an open source project), students, or general community members. Some scholarships not only cover the cost of admission, but may also include travel expenses, a hotel room, meals at the event, and minor incidentals.
The most important conferences draw many thousands of technology enthusiasts from around the world. Tickets are often sold out months in advance, as is nearby accommodation. When planning to attend a conference, planning early is key to avoid disappointments.
Squeezing everything in
If you're willing to wake up early and stay up late, you can often squeeze in attractions in the morning, attend the conference, and then experience some nightlife. Some conferences integrate small tours of the area or pub crawls into the schedule as optional activities, and you may also be able to make plans with other conference goers to visit specific local attractions before or after the conference.
Most conferences have small events outside of the normal programming. Birds of a Feather events facilitate informal discussion among peers. Spot the Fed is another popular activity at certain conventions, where attendees attempt to spot government employees at the event. Some conferences will also have workshops, such as on how to use a new API or how to pick locks.
Using the venue Wi-Fi, an ATM, or leaving your device unattended at certain security conferences is a bad idea. You may want to bring a burner device for these conferences. If you can get away with not bringing anything computerized and pay in cash, you'll generally be fine.
Hackathons are events where programmers meet up and compete, often in real life. Most hackathons are about making creative works using programming, and not about illegal intrusions of computer systems. Game Jams are the game development equivalent of a Hackathon.
Some hackathons welcome participants with skills outside of computing. Some teams may even seek out individuals with unusual skills to help give them an edge. Skills related to electrical engineering and shop can be very valuable in hardware hackathons. Even skills like sewing and knitting can be useful for wearable technology projects.
Attending hackathons can be an economical way to fund a small trip for college students, as many collegiate hackathons will offer travel reimbursement to participants or offer ride sharing from nearby cities rival universities. Many hackathons will feed their participants and offer a modest place to sleep for the duration of the event, even if it is just a simple cot or a floor. Travelers should check in with organizers to find out what exactly is available, and to make sure that they are eligible for it in advance. That said, bringing some extra money to spend on food and supplies outside what the hackathon provides, as well as a pillow, sleeping bag, and a laptop are all good ideas.
You'll want a good selection of development tools on your laptop, loaded and working before you leave for the Hackathon. Most hackathons have fast internet access, but everyone at the event will be hammering it, especially at the beginning. If you're ready to work the moment the hackathon starts, you'll have a leg up.
Many Hackathons offer break sessions that can include things like workshops on specialized technologies, cup stacking, water pong, capture the flag, and other events.
Most hackathons provide meals free of charge, often catered from local restaurants. However the choice of food may be lacking. Throw some snacks you'll know you'll like in a backpack before hand, especially if you have dietary restrictions or food allergies. Visiting a restaurant outside the hackathon can be a good way to take a breather if you've hit a wall on a problem.
Often, hackathons will not have showers on site. This is no excuse not to do your best to clean up every day. Bring wet wipes, changes of clothes, toothbrush, toothpaste, and deodorant so you can do basic cleaning in a toilet stall if needed. Your teammates will thank you.
Even though most hackathons recommend skimping on sleep, you should still try to get a decent amount each night. Bringing your own sleeping bag, pillow, and ear plugs can help ensure the quality of your sleep is relatively high.
All that free stuff doesn't grow on trees. Most hackathons are paid for by a variety of sponsors, who often have recruiters at the event. This is a good time to network and get contacts, especially if you have skills they're looking for.