How Michigan took hackathons by storm.

A short story on establishing a hacker community

A year ago, the University of Michigan’s hacker community lay dormant. Today, it is a force to be reckoned with.

Sept. 2012

Just ask PennApps — the premier student hackathon in the country. For two years, PennApps was the largest student hackathon in the world. In Fall of 2012, Pulak Mittal, the director, got a call: “we’re here.” Rallied together in under a week, 25 Michigan hackers arrived on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus for 54 unforgettable hours. In our highlighter orange Michigan Hackers shirts, we (for lack of a better term) invaded PennApps Fall 2012. You can read more about it here, and here, and here (and here, and here, and here).

Jan. 2013

Several months later at the next PennApps, we packed an entire bus with Michigan hackers. We had just as many teams in the top 20 as Penn, themselves, and were the most represented visiting school. Mind you, Ann Arbor is more than 10 hours away.

Feb. 2013

We took these experiences back home and threw MHacks two weeks later. Seemingly out of nowhere, the inaugural hackathon brought together 521 hackers from 25 schools and knocked off PennApps as the largest student hackathon ever.

May 2013

You might think this was all just a group of students having a lot of fun, but it was more than that. It was changing students’ lives. Speaking with Will Barnett, the Facebook recruiter for Michigan recently, he mentioned: “we have seen a marked increase in the quality of students that we are speaking with, interviewing, and hiring. Summer 2011 brought us 9 software engineering interns from Michigan, and this summer we have 20 joining Facebook.”

-Sept. 2013

MHacks Fall 2013 will bring 1000 student hackers from across the globe to Ann Arbor for the second installment of “The Most Epic Hackathon. Ever.”

How we did it. How you can too!

So now you’re probably wondering. How did this all happen so quickly?

From left to right: Ian, Adam, Jonathan, Max, Kyle, and Gaurav. Founders of Michigan Hackers

It didn’t just happen by chance and it definitely wasn’t by accident. At the end of the 2011-2012 school year, several rising seniors decided that they wanted to take it upon themselves to build a lasting hacker community at Michigan before they left. As much as I give them a lot of shit and probably even made their lives hell at some points, they really did a lot of things right. What started as a simple Facebook group and Facebook page quickly transformed the entire school.

Mass Meetings + Jack Dorsey

To kickoff the year, they launched a huge campaign on Facebook (ads and everything) to promote their mass meetings along with Jack Dorsey’s visit to Michigan. Armed with well-designed, highlighter orange Michigan Hackers shirts, they took over The Diag with their quirky Mario Cube hardware hack. They were cool, energetic, and stuck out like a sore thumb all over campus.

Jump, hit the cube with your head, and a picture of you hitting the cube automatically uploads to the Michigan Hackers website

Hack Nights

You couldn’t miss their mass meetings, which were packed to the brim as they rushed to reserve bigger and bigger rooms, and order more and more pizza. The message was simple. Want to do something awesome with your time in college? Come to hack nights. No signup, no registrations, no bullshit, just show up on Thursdays starting at 9pm, and we will help you build stuff. Hack nights provided a consistent backbone for the community. From the start of the year, you knew exactly where you were going to spend your Thursday nights. Homework? Hack Night is full of upperclassmen and TAs eager to help out. Projects? Classmates are probably working on them at hack night. Don’t know when and where hack night is? No excuses.

Trips to hackathons

A couple weeks into school, Jack Dorsey arrives on campus and interested students are flooding into his talk, which was pretty inspirational to say the least. Next thing you know, 25 students are packing into vans that same night to head to Philadelphia for PennApps. The trip to PennApps was followed up later that semester with trips to hackNY and AngelHack, among others. Each trip brought back more and more students who were empowered, excited, and eager to bring their friends in. It was almost as if there was some virus students would get on the trips that would spread like wildfire when they returned. The magic happens when students realize what they can build in a weekend. Additionally, Michigan students were becoming a bigger and bigger part of the hacker community that is spreading across the globe.

All of those orange shirts. Yep! That’s us!

Learn2Hack + MHacks

Back home at Michigan, new leaders were taking the helm and finding new ways to improve the community. Recognizing the biggest barrier holding students back, Otto Sipe took the lead for Learn2Hack, “which encouraged students to get out of their room and come learn something new.” The event drew over 100 eager students.

MHacks was the vision of a crazy sophomore. The senior leadership of Michigan Hackers gave him the freedom to run with it. With the backing and guidance of MH and MPowered, we threw “the most epic hackathon. Ever.”

MHacks Final Demos


Think of building a community as a funnel. Your job is to eliminate bottlenecks so that students can go from one end to the other.

1. Raise awareness (Mass Meetings + Jack Dorsey)

2. Provide a backbone of support and consistency (hack nights)

3. Encourage action (trips to hackathons)

4. Empower new leaders to take the helm (Learn2Hack + MHacks)

If community-building is a funnel, your job is to eliminate the bottlenecks. Put your head into the mind of a freshman looking to get involved with something. What are they looking for? What’s holding them back?

Most freshmen are looking to do five things: get good grades, make friends, boost their resume, change the world, and make money. Becoming part of a hacker community gives you all of these. The biggest thing holding students back is the lack of confidence in their ability to become a hacker. Most people view themselves as technical or non-technical, but it’s actually a lot like building muscle. Anyone can do it. You just have to work out, and hackathons, or hack nights, are just like gyms.

Over the past school year, Michigan took hackathons by storm.

Wait ‘til you see what we do next year.

There’s an interesting discussion raging on HN:

If you’d like to bring a team from your school to MHacks, shoot me a tweet, and let’s make it happen: @davefontenot

Hacka2thon in Fall 2011 was a huge starting point for a lot of this. I highly encourage checking it out and doing something similar to kickstart your hacker community.

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