Organising your Hackathon

Organising a hackthon is a very challenging and stress undertaking. There are many people, scenarios, and options that all demand careful consideration. In part 2, we’re looking at my experience as an organiser mixed in with how I have observed other events tackling those same problems. I’ve written about the one hackathon I’ve been involved in organising in the past shortly after it was all over and I took a lot away from that experience so I was able to understand the choices that I’ve seen being made on how to orchestrate other events.

I will start off by telling you that still to this day, being a part of organising the 2017 Quackathon retains the title of the most stressful thing I’ve undertaken. That’s either a statement of the scale, or how I handle stress but nonetheless, there are many bases to cover and you’ll need a trustworthy team that are enthusiastic about running the event.

The size of your boat

You will need to start by setting a target for the number of hackers you plan on accomodating. This will influence all your other decisions such as the capacity of the venue space, the amount of money you will need to raise, and the number of sponsors you can comfortably accomodate. I’ve seen that hackathons and their capacity tend to fall into one of two buckets. Established events such as Junction or Hack the Burgh, which either take place at larger universities where more people want to take part than places can be fesibly offered. The other side of the coin are the undersubscribed events like Dundee’s Quackathon or RGUHack which has a turnout lower than the available capacity. It’s a bit of a blurry line and smaller events can be oversubscribed and vice versa.

Both buckets have their strengths and weaknesses for organisers, particpants and even sponsors but for the organiser, being realistic about the number of hackers you can fesibly cater for sets you up to plan better. I made a critical mistake when doing this and expected that nearly everybody who had registered to attend would turn up, this was not the case and lead to some batshit crazy catering bills. This isn’t an easy number to pull out of thin air when deciding on a number. I would suggest comparing yourself the other universities and socities in the larger region, the size of their courses and such and attempt to make an educated guess. Also check the historic records for the event you’re organising, if you are taking over from somebody else. The team who organised Quackathon 2020 got a notably higher turnout than we achieved in 2017, at this point the hackathon had ran for 3 consecutive years.

Timing isn’t easy

Weekends, always weekends. But picking an appropriate time of year is particularly challenging, it requires balance and is a double edged sword. The academic calendar is split into two; before Christmas and after Christmas. If your primary hackers are going to be students, you’ll find that coursework and lectures may be slightly lighter in the period before Christmas. Notably, final year or master students spend the vast majority of their time after Christmas working on a disertaion or thesis which demands a lot of their time. These type of students in particular have the most to gain from hackathons and meeting sponsors.

Conversley, many sponsors do not have their applications open their graduate or internship applications until January or later. It may not come into the mind of a sponsor to start looking until the new year. Things have a mysterious habit to getting pushed to January in the industry.

There isn’t a perfect time to pick, but I would say that mid-September through mid-Novemeber (avoiding the winter exam period) and mid-January through mid-March (avoiding the summer exam/disertation deadlines) is a safe enough bet.

Venue & Space

The choice of venue may be very obvious for some teams, and in the vast majority of cases, the venue typically is on a university campus because it offers the capacity, flexibility and infrastructure you need. With one exception, every event I have attended was held on a university campus. A venue is important because people need to feel comfortable to be creative and it can be easy for a venue to cause problems for an event.

You’re going to need to find a large open space for your hackers to move around and collaberate with each other. This needs to be a comfortable space, people are going to be spending an excessive amount of time so do everything in your power to make it a comfortable experience. I’ve seen teams leave events because they didn’t feel like they could work at the venue. I’ve even done so myself at a venue that had no heating during the night and ongoing wifi problems. Get a lot of deskspace, don’t be afraid to over provide here. If you jam people together, this will seriously degrade their experience and risk abandoning the venue. To complement the desk space, there will need to be an equal or greater volume of power bricks and wifi connectivity. Reminder that you should not daisy chain power strips.

There needs to be an isolated and safe spot for people to rest and sleep; and a bonus if you’re able to supply sleepings mats, bags or even couches to ensure the comfort of your particpants. You may also want an additonal space where you can have a classroom like setup to host workshops, which may be a perk for sponsors. You’re likely going to require a large theatre so you can address all your particpants and sponsors, so the sponsors can do their spiel about their organisations, and after the hacking is done, so people can show off the hacks and prizes can be awarded.

The catering, which we will explore in depth later, will need some place to store, serve, or be prepared. Optionally you may have a dedicated space where people can eat. Setup a queue system for serving, do not under estimate how quickly people move when there is food available.

If you’re using a space that typically only sees daytime use, like university atrium, make sure that the team or department who runs facilities know to change timers for heating and lighting, not great when an event in plunged into freezing darkness.

I don’t have any direct experience with this, but some hackathons have a unique selling point about their venues. Such as HackTrain which takes place on actual trains over a weekend, or VHacks which took place in Vatican City.

Registration & Ticketing

You will absolutely need some kind of way to collect the details of the people who wish to attend. There are a couple of systems which allow you to do this; a straight forward option is Eventbrite which lets you set a release time for tickets, collect the information you need but you lose out on having the freedom to style and arrange information in the way you want. You can also write your own system to collect your particpant details, hook that into services for allow for emailing for whatever you desire. I’ve done this in the past and there is a lot of time require to create and maintain it. If I were to organise a hackathon in the future, I would try out some of the platforms that the largest events have used and open sourced such sd the HackPlatform, created by the team at Junction or Quill by TechX.

You’re going to want to collect the basic contact information as a minimum. To cover catering, collect people’s dietary preferences, and if you plan on giving away t-shirts, collect peoples sizes. Some events allow particpants to upload CVs which can later be handed along to sponsors if desired. You must have explicit checkboxes for people to say they allow you to give their data to third-parties. Sponsors likely will enquire about this, and won’t touch it unless this has been the case. It’s a small thing but could impact the reputation of the event in the industry. I’m not sure if this is the case, but you may even need to register with the Information Commisioner since you are storing personal data, which should be deleted after the event.

On the day, you will need some way to indentify who is and who isn’t mean to be there. This is often as simple as a wristband that can be shown on entry to the venue, but may sometimes be a lanyard. If you are providing lanyards, then you can use this space to provide an itinerary or a schedule which is a helpful resource. It is unlikely but the venue needs some form of security, and at the end of the day, somebody has insurance for this so failure to adhere to any security requirements could lead to your event not being welcomed back.

Catering

The catering bill will probably be the largest expenditure. At the very least, you should look to provide a meal to participants for every 6-8 hours of the event. It is a bit of a meme that hackers like to eat pizza, so that’s likely going to feature on the menu but attempt to seek some kind of variation in your offerings, preferably catering that is simple to cook, deliver, and serve in bulk. You should have collected all your dietary requirements when people sign up, add a small buffer to this to give yourself some flexibility. Make sure you are crystal clear in the alergens that feature in your menu, the last thing you want is some kind of emergency.

An interesting challenge is trying to feed everybody in a civilised manner and I’ve observed a few interesting solutions to this. A straight forward method is by having a dedicated space for food, where particpants can queue up (and make sure they do) and are handed plates or pizza boxes or whatever. Many events expect hackers to take their meals back to their work areas but a handful of events are able to provide a seperated mess hall area. I don’t believe there is an advantage either way, but it is worth considering. Rather boldly, at Hack the Burgh 2020 they created their own Slackbot and participants could type /hackereats and order their meals direct to their tables. I’m not able to judge how well this works since I wasn’t around for most of the meals but it was certainly original. Also consider how you can supply drinks, teas and coffee. You shouldn’t need to provide bottled water, but you should have a way for people to get water from taps.

Merchindise and Freebies

It is fairly commonplace for hackathons to provide some kind of merchendising for their event. It’s a great way to strengthen the brand of your hackathon, it contributes to the security of the event since people are more easily identifiable. If you are planning on providing t-shirts, you can sell off space for sponsors to advertise themselves, and many hackers (myself included) enjoy collecting them. I’ve also seen a lot of other bits of merch given away, including tote bages, travel mugs, and even socks.

However it is an area that sits a little funny with me. There is something exceptionally wasteful about this. T-shirts run into hundreds of pounds very quickly and I have found anecdotally from talking to people that they don’t see a lot of use after the event. Many people don’t feel comfortable with huge event logos across their chest or backs outside of the event. Out of the small fleet of hackathon t-shirts I have, only two/three see regular wear and that’s because the design is interesting and does not stand out as being hackathon t-shirts, the rest have been relegated to hiding under winter jumpers. Besides the cost, there is an environmental stance which is worth considering.

There is a notable exception to this however, any person involved in the organising or running of a hackathon should be wearing something that makes them very easily identifible. If you do decide to offer your participants t-shirts, make sure that the t-shirts that organisers & volunteers are in a different, more noticable colour. Some events like to provide these volunteer t-shirts to their sponsors so they are also visible which is a good idea, however introduces some confusion since it introduces the chances that your sponsors get asked questions like where toilets are or when the pizza arrives; answers that a sponsor won’t have and defeats the purpose of the volunteers being intentifiable to provide information.

Stickers are a quick-win bit of merch, people do enjoy proudly displaying stickers across their laptop lids. I personally enjoy seeing somebody who is clearly at their first event applying a sticker or two to their otherwise clean lid. If you do get stickers printed, make sure to get a surplus of them. It’s an unspoken convention to provide hexagonal stickers with the event logo so people can easily stack them together.

The sponsors

Your relationship with the sponsors, sometimes known as partners, are the vital key to the sucess of the event. Hackathons are a wonderful environments for innovation and learning but they are also great recruitment opportunities for organisations who can support people early in their career. For the vast majority of hacakthons, sponsors will be the only source of income so care should be taken to meet their needs.

Create a prospectus document that you can share to potential sponsors. This will contain all the key items about your planned event, aside from the obvious location, dates and the number of expected participants; include some words about what a hackathon is for those who aren’t familar with the concept. Give these organisations a selection of options to choose from by creating sponsorship tiers. These are usually split into categories such as, as an example, Bronze, Silver, and Gold and are based on the amount of money paid for the opportunity to be at your event. Reasonably, sponsors in higher tiers should recieve more and deciding on the perks you’ll offer is more of an art than a science.

I have seen a number of prospectuses which try to offer “perks” that aren’t reasonably enforcable such as the amount of time somebody can be on stage at the opening ceremony. All sponsors pretty much have the same thing to say, and if you plan on standing by the stage to interupt somebody like you’re Kanye West then you risk damaging the reputation of your event. Keep in mind that this is a professional setting, and that it’s unlikely that your sponsor is going to mess around and hog the mic.

Similarly, I feel a bit conflicted by imposing a strict limit on the number of employees a sponsor can bring but there does need to be some reasonability to allow you to plan effectivley. Something I’ve experienced as a sponsor, but don’t offer things you can’t or won’t furfil because it paints the organisation of the event in a bad light. Similarly, don’t feel obligated to offer loads of perks for the sake of doing so. Sponsors will identify the things they need and the plan to acomplish their goals, so there’s many perks I’ve seen that are useless.

Some straight foward perks include branding opporunities across t-shirts, the website, and even at the venue. This should scale with the size of the tiers, with higher tiers getting the most prominant visbility. You will want to set a threshold for which tier sets a challenge, rather than opening it up to all sponsors. Challenges are a great upsell perk and will likely cause some companies to either negotiate their tier or upgrade. Challenges are very important to sponsors because it allows them to express their tech, culture, and products. When sponsoring, I always get a tier where I can set a challenge.

If you’ve been passed on a hacakthon from previous years, search through past emails to try and compile a list of previous connections. You may need to exploit every avenue you have to contact the correct people to find sponsors. Besides emails, LinkedIn is a good place to start. Not everybody is receptive to cold messages so look for people who have links to your institution where possible. Recruiters who are seeking interns and graduates for internal programmes are also more likely to hear you out as you pitch your hackathon to them. If you’re setting up calls and cold emailing/messaging people, don’t make the assumption that absolutely everybody knows what a hackathon is. This doesn’t mean you should include a speil about them but be prepared to explain it properly.

Acquiring and managing event sponsors is a vast undertaking in its own right, and at the very least should have a person dedicated on this area alone. Depending on the amount of funds you are seeking to raise or number of sponsors you will work with, you may want to have more.

There’s more

There is more. A lot more in fact. This is not an exhaustive list of things to think about when planning a hackathon, but it’s a list of the ones I feel are important. There are other resources designed to do that such as the Major League Hacking [MLH] Organiser Guide or the guide by Hackathons UK. The previously mentioned HackPlatform or Quill for managing registration and ticketing of your event are worth exploring.

Give yourself plenty of time to plan something like this. I didn’t, and we had to move the date of our event as a result which felt quite embarrasing at the time. This is an enormous and stressful challenge for you to take on so ensure that you keep sane while throughout. The final part of this series will be looking at what you need to be a sponsor of these events and how companies can get as much as possible out of it.