Happy Hackfests

The following is a rough transcription of a talk I gave at Sherbrooke University last fall.


Hi, my name is Edward. I work Shopify during the day and put on hackfests with some excellent friends of mine in my spare time.

Once upon a time, I went to a lot of tech-related meetups. I want to enough meetups that I started to know pretty much everyone who showed up. It was pretty much the same dudes interested in the same things every. single. time. Nice guys, but I wanted something a little different.

Fast-forward to some really awesome party I was at. There were all sorts of people from different backgrounds at this party, and they were all really smart, and really interesting. I met biologists specializing in arctic bacteria that live in semi-transparent rocks that naturally create condensation so that the bacteria can live. I met librarians who told me about the crazy political and philosophical beliefs that go into systems like the Library of Congress system of organizing books, and how you can still see the history of feminism and women’s suffrage just by looking at where the books are catalogued and placed.

Wow! This is super cool! I want to hang out with these people more! I want to *make cool stuff* with these people to solve problems in the “real world”, outside of my little tech bubble.

I ended up conspiring with some close friends who had similar ideas, and we realized that if we focused on the increasingly popular idea of Open Data, we would have something really interesting on our hands.

A long story short: we threw the coolest hackfest ever *inside* of Ottawa City Hall, had 120+ people show up from a zillion different backgrounds like mathematics, music, urban planning, and textile art to make more than a dozen apps and prototypes that were showcased to an audience of city councillors, the city ’s Chief Information Officer (the person in charge of computer stuff for this city of a million people), and journalists from every newspaper in the city.

The city ended up bringing open data agreements into municipal law, and committing $50 000 to a later apps contest, now there are full-time city staff working on just open data access, etc., etc., it was awesome.

Running these hackfests lead to a friend and I getting invited to teach and do them in Stockholm, Sweden, in Singapore, and a bunch of other crazy rad stuff that never would have happened otherwise.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Today, I want to talk about how you can make this happen. A good hackfest will be really fun. A great hackfest will change the course of people’s lives. This is some seriously awesome stuff.

Running a hackfest is not hard, but it’s a lot of work. However, I’m going to let you cheat like crazy, since my friends and I have figured out how to do this easiest.

The steps of running a great hackfest

Writing a vision statement

A vision for what you want to accomplish is really, really important. I once worked at a startup that essentially had unlimited money and after building really cool, bleeding-edge technology that really pushed the limits of what was available at the time… totally failed. It totally failed because the founder said yes to everything and didn’t really know what he wanted.

It is important to know what you want. It is really helpful to be able to set measurable targets for you and the organizational team as to what it means for a successful hackfest. It prevents frustration down the line when someone makes something great, but not applicable to what the hackfest is supposed to accomplish. If you say “this hackfest will be a success if at least two people continue the project that they started at our event”, then that’s perfect. Celebrate those things when they happen. Direct the hackfest as if it were a big theatrical production or movie so that that’s how the movie ends.

It is also really important to set reasonable expectations for the people who show up to be part of your event. It lets people say “oh, wow — that sounds exactly like what I’m interested in!” as opposed to “wtf is a hackfest?”

The easiest way to get started here is to write a letter to yourself. Be as wild and poetic and funny and serious as you want, but get it all out and put it on the web. Ask friends you think would come to read it and get feedback. It is ok if it is rough — it just needs to sketch out what your dream is for this thing.

Original Open Data Ottawa hackfest letter/website — seriously.

You can find the original version of my letter/website here, via the Wayback Machine.

A date

It also needs to come with a date. You are going to commit to this date. This date is going to take you from “maybe I will do this” to “holy shit, people are going to come to this thing — I need to make this happen”.

A website and a date

What’s great about writing just a letter is that you can pass it on to a graphic design friend and ask them for a typographic treatment. This is pretty much every graphic designer’s dream:

  1. Content already exists
  2. Do whatever you want: just make it accessible and legible
The profesionally designed, first Open Data Ottawa hackfest letter. Thanks Mark Dunkley!

A website. It is so important. This nicely designed site tells people that you are serious and that this thing is really going to happen. It offers people an easy place to get information from and to start connecting with you.

Connecting with people

I really, really, really wanted this to be a success, and part of my goals were that random strangers meet each other, and actually make something something together.

So what do you to improve your chances when something is hard and unpredictable?

You cheat! You cheat like never before ☺

As soon as the website launched, people started following our twitter account. It was awesome. But I quickly realized that what was happening was something like this:

  1. A volunteer comes up. (Two people on twitter.)
  2. I say something. (“Hey, there’s going to be a hackfest. It’s going to be sweeeeet!”)
  3. The volunteer starts “following me” (volunteer turns to face me. It is kinda creepy after a while.)
  4. Edward: “Uhhh… I guess I should follow you!” (I turn. This is still kinda creepy.)

Ok, at this point, you just have two people saying things mostly into space. Sometimes those things are helpful, but most of the time, they are not personal. They are not directed. They are not focused at accomplishing what you want to have happen at the event:

You want people to meet ahead of time, so do it for them.

  1. Grab another person from the audience. (They start “following” me too.)
  2. “Ah! Perfect! What kind of stuff do you like to make?” I ask to each person
  3. *I tell them both about each other.*
  4. “Hey! You guys should work on something together since you both like Python stuff. Maybe something to help people learn Python?”

This is really good! But you can do even better.

Give them a link to a wiki on which you have already written about ideas that could be worked on at the hackfest. Give that link out to people like these two people you just matched and ask them to add an idea or add on to an existing idea, and then ask them to add their name up there too.

Look at this: *points to people* this is the beginning and the hardest part of the hackfest and it hasn’t even started yet.

Before you introduced anyone, they were “maybe I will come to this event”, but afterwards, they are like “I should probably come to this thing to at least meet this other interesting person. Maybe I’ll bring a friend in case they’re creepy in real life.”

Awesome! Now you have THREE people coming.

Work twitter by introducing people to each other. Invite people to post ideas and starting filling in concepts on an openly-accessible wiki.

COLLECT A MAILING LIST BECAUSE TWITTER IS SMALL AND NOT GOOD AT SENDING INFORMATION TO MORE THAN ONE PERSON DIRECTLY

Trial versions of event

I really, really, really wanted this thing to work out. Just introducing people to each other on twitter was good, but I had no idea how the actual thing would work out.

So what do you to improve your chances when something is hard and unpredictable?

Yes! You cheat! You cheat like never before ☺

We ran mini-versions of the event in smaller venues like offices. We ran TWO of these and quickly found out a few things:

  • People can get lost really fast as to what they’re supposed to do
  • Sometimes people forget why they showed up to an event or are coming in with friends or without much information
  • Most people who come to these events are not great at introducing themselves or at quickly forming groups themselves
  • When you showcase work at the end of the hackfest, if people are coming up with their own laptops, it is going to take FOREVERRRRR.
  • Hackfests should run for like 3 or 4 hours MAX. Any longer than that, and it really starts to feel like a slog. I know hackfests are known to be these crazy overnight events fueled by red bull and caffeine, but not everyone wants to go to those kinds of things.

We realized that we needed particular jobs or roles for volunteers at the event and before.

Jobs before a hackfest

PR people / Promoters / Community managers

These people make sure that everyone on the mailing list knows about the event and has the details to know when it is, where it is, and what kind of expectations they should have

They also write press releases and tell journalists and politicians about the event; who/where/what/when and why the hackfest is happening.

They *also* get posters printed up and get people to put them up around town.

They *also* go on radio shows run by universities (who always want a story), and any other media possible. It is super easy to do this.

They *also* talk to people they know are going to attend and start coaching them on making their app or prototype. We actually ended up with a few projects that were like 90% done before the hackfest, so that when the hackfest showcase time came around, they had something really nice looking to show the media and other people.

Venue Organizers

These people find you a venue. They are connected and know a lot of people and interesting places.

Jobs at a hackfest

Greeters
These people say hi and welcome people at the door, and encourage people to come in and join. They explain what the event is about and they take people’s email addresses so you can follow up later.

Matchmakers
These people walk around the people just coming in and ask them about what they like to make and then introduce them to other random people. Ideally, they introduce people who wouldn’t ordinarily meet.

Showcase preparation people
Maybe halfway through the hackfest these folks inform participants about the showcase, teach what makes for a really great presentation in this context, and later collect a PDF or URL or screen recording of the prototype or whatever is being demo-ed.

PR handlers
They talk to journalists and politicians and other people who know a lot of other people. You know that friend of yours who *LOVES* to talk but can be very direct about telling a story? That person does this job.

Animators
These people do a presentation at the beginning that amps everyone up and inspires people to make stuff that matters or make beautiful, mind-crushing art.

They tell them about some crazy ideas like a Google Map of places for a first kiss, or an application to help single parents out by collecting all the free stuff the city is doing that day, with bike paths or swimming pool schedules, and that kind of thing.

Running the event

The great part about distributing the work amongst all these jobs is that at this point, the hackfest runs itself. Almost.

A great activity to get people in the mood is to try something we call “Idea Speed Dating”.

The concept is that you get a gigantic table; like 40 feet long. Cover that with paper. Get everyone to stand around it, and give everyone different coloured markers. I’ve done this with like a hundred people before.

Tell everyone that as soon as they hear music, they need to pick up their pens and start scribbling ideas. In my case, it was about open data, but it doesn’t matter. Just start scribbling words, or drawing pictures or whatever.

You know that feeling when you see an empty canvas, and it feels weird, and makes you anxious and you end up writing in a tiny little corner? You’re going to see a lot of that happening.

Blast music. Play whatever you want but make it loud and awesome. You’re going to play music for 2 minutes — 120 seconds. Then you’re going to stop. Complete silence.

Everyone stops. You tell them to take two big steps to the left, so that they’re looking at someone else’s scribbling. Fantastic.

You know that feeling when you’re looking at someone else’s work and you’re asked to add on or connect it with other stuff you see or know about? It’s a really different feeling than the blank canvas. Perfect.

Blast that music for another two minutes and watch people start building and drawing and sketching out all sorts of stuff.

Within about 15 minutes, you’re going to fill that entire piece of paper. This is awesome — it acts as a piece of inspiration and of collaboration; this is what the entire thing is going to be about; making cool stuff with other people. Even better is that you can take this artifact home or have journalists photograph it. Awesome.

Showcase / wrapup

The conclusion of your event has arrived. You have successfully orchestrated and conducted the production of a ton of collaborative creativity among a sea of strangers. Amazing, but the best part is about to arrive.

Showcasing work is super fun. All you have to do is take the PDFs or URLs or whatever from the person who has been collecting stuff on a USB key from everyone and introduce the teams. Have them present for a few minutes a piece and you’re pretty much done.

Then you should party. I’m not going to provide instructions here, but it involves more music and conversation.

Follow up

Let people connect by sending out an email inviting them all to follow each other on twitter, or continue to showcase work by uploading the pdfs or movies or whatever into that original wiki.

Don’t forget to also ask for volunteers, because the first thing that people will ask you as soon as you’re done running your hackfest is:

“When is the next one?”


Thanks for reading! Let me know how your own hackfests go!