DIY: Hackathon

Our story of organizing a hackathon at Rice University


Hackathons are becoming incredibly popular all across the world. One of my fellow hackers from Princeton recently went as far as Abu Dabhi to attend NYU’s hackathon. Major League Hacking was formed last year to track and support the organization and participation of student-led hackathons. Two years ago, I organized HackRice — our first hackathon at Rice University with the help of the CS Club. We had about 50 participants at this hackathon with 12 demos and 2 professors as judges. The hackathon was quite successful and we got an overall positive feedback.

Instead of giving direct advice on how to organize a hackathon, below is our story of organizing HackRice 2014. I hope you’ll find tidbits of implicit advice and learn from the mistakes we made.

Inception

As the technical chair of the CS Club, Peter Washington was in charge of organizing and leading HackRice 2014. Around late November 2013, we considered taking things to the next level and inviting students from neighboring universities. We met with our faculty advisor Dr. Scott Rixner and with his advice and approval, we proceeded to organize the event.

We wanted to have the hackathon early in the semester so that attendance is higher due to lower course load. The weekend of Jan 24 — 26 seemed suitable for the hackathon with MLK Day the Monday before and the Superbowl the weekend after. This left us with merely 2 months to design the new website, make venue reservations, get sponsors, recruit judges, market the event, and plan the nitty-gritty details. Not to mention that final exams were coming up and the winter break would slow everything down.

Despite the short time frame, we had a lot going in our favor already. We knew the ins and outs of the university and had experience organizing events. The Computer Science Department staff was willing to support us with reservations, storage, accounting, and travel reimbursements. We had already raised a very decent amount of money through early fundraising. We split up the remaining responsibilities among ourselves.

Responsibilities & Key Players

Peter became in charge of approaching companies for sponsorship and bringing judges to the event. I helped him with the judging format and found new contacts for Peter of companies that we hadn’t approached. I found the new contacts by asking my hackathon organizer friends at other universities. It really pays to make as many friends during your internship as possible. I also managed student applications and harassed lots of alumni into coming to the event (Hi Dennis). Andrew Capshaw — the best front-end engineer that I know of at Rice — designed the new HackRice website for us while Bilal Ahmad, my cousin designed a new snazzy colorful logo and stationery. Carolyn Shuford, our Socials Chair became in charge of getting 24 prizes for the hourly raffle. She also coordinated marketing, risk management, and security for the event. Sal Testa became in charge of food and snacks for the event while Aaron Roe designed and ordered T-shirts, reserved backup space, managed our resume book. Sally Huang took all the photos and helped manage supplies and food during the event. and While this defines the major responsibilities, there were lots of other tasks that were divided among the officers.

Logo: New vs Old

We used Asana to assign tasks and keep track of what everyone was up to. This allowed us to function efficiently with minimal communication overhead. Asana was especially handy because we find it extremely difficult to schedule meetings with our hectic schedules. Whenever someone needed to discuss minor things they brought them up in our HackSwag 2014 Facebook group chat. Whenever too many things for discussion piled up, we managed an officers meeting on campus. We had a total of 4 officer meetings to discuss and plan HackRice.

Task management with Asana

Come to HackRice!

We had plenty of experience marketing events internally within Rice. However, this was our first time marketing an event outside of Rice. We invited friends we knew at other universities to our Facebook event which began to generate buzz. Carolyn began hunting for CS department / club mailing lists at various neighboring universities and asking them to blast out our event to them. Most of the times she wouldn’t hear back from the contacts but many of our applicants confirmed that they heard about our event from a mailing list. Finally, Readyforce made an email blast to all of their student members with upcoming university hackathons in the country. This blast brought us some high quality applicants. However, most of them were outside of Texas and we only had a budget to accept 5-7 people for a $200 flight reimbursement.

Traffic sources for visiting students
Flyer for on-campus marketing

You Scratch Our Back and We’ll Scratch Yours

As we began to generate quite a buzz about HackRice, our CS department learned about the event and enlisted their support to us. I collaborated with Dr. Eugene Ng, the chair of the graduate committee to establish a mutually beneficial relationship. We sought resources that aren’t readily available to us as a student organization while the department wanted a chance to recruit the visiting students at HackRice for the graduate computer science programs. The department agreed to arrange a fantastic $3000 reception for Sunday dinner, our final meal of the event and arrange parking passes for visiting students, sponsors, and alumni. In return, we allocated 20 minutes after the demos to let Dr. Vivek Sarkar — the chair of the department — speak about computer science at Rice. We also provided the visiting students applications’ to the department so that they could get feedback about their recruiting efforts. Finally, we invited Dr. Sarkar and Dr. Stephen Wong as judges for HackRice.

Startups to the Rescue

Amidst our organization of the hackathon, two startups offered their platforms for our use to power the hackathon. The startups get more exposure of their website and product while we get to leverage their tools. Edit: Our contacts Richard Murby from Challengepost, and Brittany Martin from Readyforce were both immensely helpful and very nice. It made running the hackathon much easier and provided a far better experience for all parties involved!

We used Challengepost for team submissions, judging, and showcasing. The platform allows you to accept submissions with certain requirements and a deadline. The judges’ information is entered in so that they have access to the submissions online. Alternatively, you can also print out a judging rubric for each submission for each judge so that they can take notes as they walk around for science fair style judging.

Challengepost submission gallery interface

Not long after our encounter with Challengepost, Readyforce reached out to us to offer their platform for resume collection and organization. Readyforce is a career network that connects student engineers with companies looking to recruit them. Readyforce has nifty features such as a resume parser that links the student to an existing profile or creates a new one. For the purposes of a hackathon, it allows you to create a resume drop link for applicants or mass import them yourself into a folder. You can then share the folder of resumes with the sponsors directly. The sponsors can search and filter through the resume folder. Previously we used to go through all of the resumes and rename them into a consistent folder and send massive zip files to our sponsors entitled to the resume book of the event.

Readyforce resume folder interface

Fire Extinguishers

We discussed the possible risks involved in organizing the hackathon. One of the improbable but potentially disastrous situations brought up by our advisor was that of someone getting hurt or someone vandalizing campus property. In order to protect ourselves from these situations, we had visiting students sign liability waiver forms.

Adapt to Survive

Our original application deadline was Mon, January 6, 2014. Due to the winter break, we knew we would not get enough applicants by that date so we planned on extending it after January 6 had passed. The deadline would induce unsure people to apply and then we’d extend it to get even more applicants.

I noticed a lot of my friends at Rice had not applied but RSVP’ed to the FB event. I messaged about 25 people and pointed this out to them. Turns out they forgot to apply. We yielded about 15 more applications through this reminder. Rice kids can be lazy.

We extended the application deadline to Fri, January 17. But Aaron needed to order t-shirts by January 14 so we extrapolated the current application numbers and t-shirt sizes and ordered an estimate of 220 t-shirts. The t-shirt deadline was also our sponsor commitment deadline as the sponsoring company logos go on the back of the t-shirt. Github missed this deadline so we’ll be including their logo in our yearly club t-shirt instead.

The deadline extension increased our Rice applicants from 78 to 158 and our visiting students applicants from 61 to 150. These numbers accentuate our additional marketing efforts, which were more effective with the semester having begun.

Rice University application statistics

Ambrosia

Every hour counts during a hackathon so we needed to keep the participants supplied with food, snacks, and caffeine. Peter called in a favor from Dimitri Mayes — our campus Red Bull ambassador — and got us a ton of red bulls. We catered Starbucks and Coffeehouse, our campus coffee shop during various times throughout the hackathon. Sal arranged Thai Spice for Saturday lunch and Aladdin (Mediterranean) for Saturday dinner. Depending on how many people would be still hungry, we would order pizza from Dominos as our fourth meal for Saturday midnight. For Sunday brunch, Sal arranged Kolache Factory, a local favorite.

Calm before the Storm

3 days before the event we had an officers meeting at Coffeehouse to cover the last minute details and make sure we weren’t missing something. There were lots of items that needed temporary storage such as 24 hour prizes, t-shirts, swag bags from Schlumberger and a few other companies, etc. We divvied up storage amongst ourselves.

At this point we noticed a huge number of last minute sign ups. Accounting for no-shows, we were expecting anywhere from 150 — 200 attendees. Peter and I scouted out our reserved venue and noticed that it was likely that we’d use up all the tables and chairs in the room already. There was empty space in the room which could be utilized. Therefore, I contacted our student activities office and rented 20 tables and 50 chairs for additional hacking space.

From this point forward, the circumstances would test our ability to remain calm, think proactively, and resolve both expected and unexpected issues.

Day 1: Snow Day

We had API demos / meet and greet scheduled for Fri, Jan 24, our first day of the hackathon.

Everyone at Rice woke up to a message from the university’s crisis management team notifying that school would be shut down due to snow and severe weather that the city’s not equipped to handle. Not long afterwards, Peter and I got a barrage of FB messages and emails asking whether HackRice would be affected by the inclement weather. Aaron contacted the Rice University Police Department (RUPD) to inquire about access to campus facilities. They asked us to contact them again after 1:00 PM to hear their decision. Upon our later inquiry, we found out that Duncan Hall — our venue for the evening — would be locked but RUPD would open up the building for us upon request. Incidentally, Gmail and other Google services — which are crucial for our functioning — had outages that morning. We made a general announcement that HackRice would proceed as scheduled.

Sal checking out the ice on my car’s windshield

Sal and I went to HEB — a Texas grocery store chain — to buy paper plates, utensils, cups, and snacks. We then went to Office Depot to buy stationary for the event.

We had about 60 people show up to our evening mixer and API demos. A decent portion of the attendees were visiting students. Google, Delphix, Venmo, and Sendgrid gave short tech talks about their services.

API demos

Day 2: Hack Hack Hack!

We scheduled check in for 11:00 AM and the hackathon kickoff for 12:00 PM. The 5 officers and 3 additional volunteers started to unload stuff and set up Brockman Hall around 9:00 AM. We also had to carry over the additional chairs and tables from the Student Center to our venue. People began to trickle in earlier than expected, around 10:00 AM. All of us rushed to get the room as organized as possible. I manned the lobby and checked people in. Surprisingly, about 15-20 people who never confirmed their RSVP showed up to the event. They claimed that they didn’t receive the emails requesting confirmation from us. I decided to let them in. Some of the major waves of students we got were Rice, UT Dallas, UT Austin, and University of Houston students. 2 people flew in for the event and about 5-7 students from high school came to attend as well.

Brockman Hall has two classrooms, one that occupies 144 and another smaller classroom that holds about 40 people. Around 11:30 AM the bigger room completely filled up. We started funneling people into the smaller room. It was quite a sight to see so many people.

Full house at HackRice

About 10 alumni showed up to the event including 4 former CS Club officers (3 ex-Presidents). Most of these alumni were out of town and weren’t travelling on company expense but chose to come in paying out of their own pockets.

Shortly after noon, we got people from the spillover room to walk stand in the main room for the kick-off. All of the current and ex-officers got up on the stage and Peter made opening remarks and introduced all of us. I spoke briefly about the history of HackRice and then Peter went over house rules and logistics.


CS Club Officers Left to Right: Dennis Qian ‘12, Joan Chao ‘13, Frank Salinas ‘13, Nick Hirsch ‘10, Carolyn Shuford ‘15, Sal Testa ‘14, Waseem Ahmad ‘14, Aaron Roe ‘15, Peter Washington ‘15


Afterwards, people broke out and the hacking started. We were on the brink of over capacity both physically and with Wi-Fi. Many Rice students went elsewhere on campus to hack. A group of visiting students went back to their hotel to hack. This alleviated our capacity issues just enough so that we didn’t have to utilize the backup rooms as those were more remote and would make communication and food distribution harder.

Dinner: Aladdin Mediterranean Cuisine

Many people did not have power strips, so Aaron and Sally — one of the volunteers — went off campus to buy more power strips. At 2:00 PM we served Thai Spice, which was supposed to be for 200 people. 177 students + 10 alumni + 30 sponsors were present and the portions were small so the food ran out in no time. Joan and Frank — who both are ex-officers and work at Microsoft, one of the sponsoring companies — ordered pizza on Microsoft’s dime. Goldman Sachs bought us donuts and coffee later that night while Google got us Tiff’s Treats cookies.

All of the officers set up camp on the stage. We chatted with the alumni, answered questions, gave away a prize every hour, and discussed the plans for tomorrow. Specifically, one of the engineers from Sendgrid questioned the effectiveness of science fair style judging for Sunday and suggested that we let everyone demo instead. However, we could have had as many as 50 demos, which would put everyone to sleep and take too long. So a group of us walked out in the evening and went to the Turrel Skyspace to discuss possible judging formats. Mostly we had fun and talked about random stuff. But in the end, we decided to take our 11 judges and split them into 4 groups of twos and 1 group of three. Around 3:00 AM Sunday I wrote an email out to all of the judges explaining that the room would be rearranged for science fair style judging and each group of judges would be assigned an independent bucket of submissions to judge. Every group of judges would come up with 2 finalists to get a total of 10 finalists.

The tranquility provided by Skyspace

Shortly afterwards, I wrote an email to all of the participants with submission instructions on Challengepost. I specifically warned everyone that the 12:00 PM deadline is strict and the system would stop accepting submissions after that.

Around 5:00 AM I walked back to my dorm to get about 4-5 hours of sleep.

Day 3: Herding Cats

I woke up, took a shower, and walked over to Brockman Hall. Around 11:30 AM there were 12 submissions. 30 minutes later we had 26 submissions. Lots of people had apparently missed the deadline. Therefore, I begrudgingly changed the deadline to 12:15 PM. We ended up with a total of 38 submissions. I sprinted off to a nearby print station where I randomly split up the submissions into 5 buckets of 7 + 7 + 8 + 8 + 8 submissions. I printed out the judging rubric from Challengepost’s interface as fast as I could. Unfortunately the printer would run out of memory if I tried to print all the 11 copies for 11 judges at the same time. So I had to painstakingly print each set one at a time.

Meanwhile I was printing the judging sheets, the room was being rearranged into rows of tables for the science fair. Sal went around made sure people were doing as they were told. It can be difficult to herd over 175 sleep-deprived hackers. Meanwhile Peter entertained the judges who were getting restless as I frantically tried to print out all of the sheets.

Once I finished printing, I ran back to Brockman Hall and handed the judges a rubric sheet for all of the submissions and their individual assignments. We did not have time to implement table ordering and the judging sheets printed in order of submission so the judges had to use O(n^2) search to find their assignments. We got a complaint about this from one of the professors later.

The room rearranged for judging

The room was bustling with energy as people eagerly demonstrated the projects they created within the last 24 hours. Many guests showed up to check out the demos including my RAs from Brown College, a prospective Rice student with his parents, and our Red Bull ambassador’s sister — a prospective CS student. I walked around and checked out about 5 of the submissions before I ran off to the McMurtry Auditorium in Duncan Hall — our venue for the finalist demos and closing ceremony — to turn on the lights, block off the first two rows for sponsors / judges, and fire up the projectors.

Grumpy cat being used for testing the projector

Around 2:30 PM, the other officers began to walk everyone from Brockman Hall to Duncan Hall at 2:30 PM. The judges were already in Duncan Hall deliberating the finalists. At 2:50 PM, Dr. Sarkar provided me a list of 11 finalists (2 were tied), which I entered into the slides. I also emailed out the finalists list so that the finalists were prepared to demonstrate again.

At 3:00 PM the room was almost full, so shortly afterwards I made a quick opening address about HackRice and the diversity of participants that we had this year. We all then acknowledged our sponsors with a round of applause. After reviewing the judges and prizes, we had 3 short talks by our chief sponsors: Chevron, Rational Energi, and Palladium Consulting.

McMurtry Auditorium

We then called up the finalists one by one to make their demo. The next team to present was told to wait nearby the stage so that the amount of time switching was minimal. Each team was given a total of 5 minutes to present. We recommended 3 minutes of presentation and 2 minutes of Q&A. All of the submissions made were very impressive and differed in domain, application, and technology. Though we often had to cut the presenters off as they exceeded their time limit.

Dr. Vivek Sarkar

After all of the demos, the judges walked out to deliberate on the prizes. Meanwhile, Dr. Vivek Sarkar got up and gave a 20 minute presentation about computer science as a discipline and how computing is changing the world. He spoke specifically about the research done at Rice and the vast opportunities provided by the CS department at Rice. I heard later that people found the talk very inspiring.

The judges then walked in and one of them handed me a piece of paper with the winners. We worked our way upwards from the company prizes to 1st place. The teams who won were very pleased and we invited them onstage for a photograph with the judges.

We then concluded HackRice 2014 and enjoyed reception dinner and mingled with the students, professors, sponsors, and alumni present. Dr. Rixner congratulated us for throwing a successful event and commended (which he doesn’t very often) us for a job well done. Everybody seemed very pleased with the event and all of us officers felt as if a huge weight had just been lifted off our shoulders.

2nd Place: TextPlay

We then walked back to Brockman Hall with a few volunteers and cleaned up the heaps of mess that was left. After 3 hours of cleaning up, we hung out at Valhalla — one of our on-campus pubs — and later grabbed food off-campus. I slept 12 hours that night and didn’t do anything the following day to recuperate from all the stress.

Fail Fast, Succeed Faster

HackRice 2014 was our first experience of scaling up an event and we faced all sorts of issues and made many mistakes. Despite these mistakes, we gave HackRice our 100% and threw a very successful event in the bigger picture. We created a document and wrote down our mistakes as they occurred so that we wouldn’t forget about them. Below are the most important points. The underlying cause of most of the problems was that we didn’t have enough time for planning.

Start planning early

We started planning about 2 months before the event started. We should start planning and fundraising at least 6 months ahead of time. The benefits of planning and executing early are:

  • The workload distribution is lighter on the officers so they are less burdened and stressed.
  • Room availabilities are better the earlier you try.
  • We have more time for fundraising so we can fund raise more.
  • We have more time for marketing so we can get more applications and publicity to the event.

Forgotten Stuff

We completely forgot about getting event coverage (news, photography) etc. for the event. I scrambled last minute to get Thresher — our student-run newspaper — on board. But we could have gotten far more coverage. Regarding forgetting stuff, current organizers should make a checklist for future organizers that covers everything from buying napkins, fundraising, to thanking our sponsors and CS department faculty + staff for the event.

Rushed Schedule on Sunday

Our schedule on Sunday was extremely rushed. The following things had to happen in order between the submission deadline and the beginning of the closing ceremony on Sunday:

  1. I had to print out the judging sheets from Challengepost.
  2. The hacker space had to rearranged for science-fair style judging.
  3. Judges had to walk around and evaluate their assigned submissions.
  4. The judges had to deliberate and pick their finalists.
  5. People had to pack up and walk over across campus to McMurtry auditorium.
  6. I had to add in the slides for the finalists after getting the list from the judges.

Doing all of this in 3 hours was like living on the edge. 4 — 5 hours for this process would have made everything far less stressful for all parties involved.

Burnt Bridges

We did not hire custodial staff for cleanup at Brockman Hall. Around 9:00 PM on Sat, just when the trash had piled up the most and we were just about to clean up, the coordinator of Brockman Hall stopped by. She was very concerned about the state of the room. We violated two building policies both of which we weren’t aware of:

  • We served food and drinks in a classroom.
  • We occupied the lobby outside the classrooms but did not explicitly reserve it.

We might have also exceeded the fire capacity limit, but no one kept count. Though Dr. Rixner handled the situation for us, it is unlikely that we’ll be allowed to use Brockman Hall for future hackathons. We can’t burn bridges to our campus resources like this.

Leadership

The CS Club at Rice has been traditionally very small so the officers always ended up coordinating and doing everything. But HackRice has become its own initiative now and we really burned ourselves out organizing it in addition to our normal officer responsibilities. In order to sustain future leadership, we will have a dedicated committee of organizers for HackRice led by the Technical Chair of the CS Club. This way, we won’t overburden the future officers of CS Club and give more people a chance to get involved with the club.

Links

Feel free to reach out to me!

Kudos to you for reading my entire post! I hope it gave you some insights into organizing hackathons and student leadership. If you are thinking of organizing one at your university or would like to share your experience, feel free to reach out!