How to create a tech event where everyone feels welcome

The story about Hackaway — how we created a hackathon out of the ordinary.


In Stockholm, like in many other cities, we’re having a (sometimes heated) debate about the lack of equality and diversity at various tech events.

The debate is great, but it’s so sad that it’s needed. Because I believe that when people from different fields, with different backgrounds, gender and nationalities meet and become friends, that is when people find their passion for design, programming and our industry in general.

I’ve attended and organized countless tech events, and this spring we did a hackathon called Hackaway where I think we got a lot of things right. We got a greater mix of people than I’ve ever experienced at any hackathon and the projects created were more impressive than anything I’ve ever seen.

A couple of things that I’ll talk about:

  • How a swimsuit can become a reason to hack.
  • How we got 40% female applicants (50% attendees).
  • Why talking is as important as hacking.
  • Why breaking stereotypes and conventions is more important than anything else.
  • How to turn a yogi with no tech interest into a hackathon enthusiast.

This article is a quite long (and important) so I hope your got your hot beverage ready. ☺

Photo by the great photographer and film maker Sebastian Höglund — http://www.sebastianhoglund.com/

The story about Hackaway

This is the story about Hackaway, a hackathon that I got the opportunity to co-organise together with Martina Elm and Ted Valentin (for the record, the person doing most of the work is the brilliant Martina, who’s also my best friend and co-founder of Confetti).

Martina & Ted

Before I start, I just wanna say that I know that these things aren’t always easy, it’s sometimes hard to understand people who are not entirely like yourself. I make mistakes all the time, but the important thing is to listen and learn, otherwise we’ll never get better.

What?

Hackaway is a weekend hackathon concept with focus on building and launching new web services and apps. Each event is held at a secret and unique location.

This first edition that I’ll tell you about was a three day event with 24 hours of hacking. We picked all attendees up on Friday (April 11) and took them by boat to an island two hours outside of Stockholm. There was a small conference center called Ekskäret that had room for 50 people including the staff. The theme was “Hack the news” and was sponsored by Aftonbladet / Shibsted.

I know that these things aren’t always easy, it’s sometimes hard to understand people who are not entirely like yourself. I make mistakes all the time, but the important thing is to listen and learn, otherwise we’ll never get better.

Why?

Why do I want to tell you about Hackaway? Well, I think we managed to get great mix of people with diverse backgrounds, 40% of the applicants — 50% of the attendees — were female, and based on surveys and feedback this was by many considered the best hackathon they ever attended. More importantly, for many, this was the first hackathon they ever attended. It also seemed like people didn’t just become acquaintances, they made real friendships.

40% of the applicants were female, 50% of the attendees.

We can take some credit for why the event was so successful, but I also believe that a lot of great things happened by chance and in my experience it’s the things that you didn’t plan for that teaches you the most. So now I’ll tell you what we did and what we learned.

How to get a great mix of applicants

How did we get this great mix of people to apply in the first place?

This image was used in all marketing. We wanted to focus on creativity and adventure.

Copy and imagery

In both the copy and the imagery we wanted to focus on creativity and adventure. Not hardcore programming or guys in a garage. We said that we we’re looking for creatives, designers and coders — in that order. We wanted to make clear that you didn’t have to be a hardcore programmer to apply so we put the creatives and designers first. We also used light colors and a playful typography to stay as far from the computer-guy-in-a-dark-room-stereotype as possible.

Print screen of http://www.hackaway.com/1/

The image shown above was used both for the website and all other marking. Once again we wanted to focus on the creativity and the adventure. Pen, paper, camera, light bulb and stuff you need when traveling.

The swimsuit was of course a very important detail which clearly stated that this was not an event for guys only. One attendee even told us that the sole reason as to why she applied was the picture of the swimsuit.

One attendee even told us that the sole reason as to why
she applied was the picture of the swimsuit.

Ads

We used Facebook ads for reaching outside of our own network, and we also targeted most of these towards women.

Prioritize the mix

We got almost four applicants per seat which meant that we got to select who could go and not. We focused on getting a great mix of people and we wanted an equal mix of designers, programmers, creatives, startup people, consultants, freelancers, computer science students, design students etc. Same with gender and backgrounds.

This also meant that we had to say no to close friends who we knew were exceptionally talented. This was of course hard, but I really think that it benefited the hackathon as a whole.

How to create a great event experience

What we did during the event.

Make time for people to socialise

The boat ride to the island took two hours and that became a perfect opportunity for people to get to know each other. After arriving at the island we ate dinner and then everyone were free to just hang around, enjoy a couple of drinks, tell stories in the sauna and bounce ideas with the other attendees.

Encourage interaction

One interesting thing that we hadn’t really planned for was that there were not enough tables for everyone which meant that most people got to sit on awesome floor chairs (shown above). The interesting thing about this was that as soon as food was served everyone who sat by the tables got to move away which became a natural way for people to move around in the room.

All tables were also too big for a single team to fill them up which meant that teams basically were forced to sit by each other and thereby interact.

Serve great and healthy food

One thing we’re always focusing a lot on in our events is the food. Hackaway was no exception. We got the lovely opportunity to work with Matskolan which is a volunteer organisation doing a cooking course with focus on sustainable, creative and vegetarian food.

We didn’t know how the attendees were going to react on the vegetarian part, but when we announced this at the boat ride people were cheering. So much for the bacon & pizza stereotype.

Good and healthy food makes people happy, more productive and most importantly — it breaks the stereotypes and conventions people have about what tech people are eating. We’ve also made a thing out of never serving soda or large amounts of candy.

We’ve got a lot of great feedback on this both concerning Hackaway and other events we’ve organised.

Do (ridiculous) things in as a group

Before each meal the chefs made us stand in a circle and give each other massages or do some kind of energy dance. This of course felt ridiculous, but I doubt that there are any better way the of getting closer to people than doing ridiculous things as a group.☺

Competition for fun, not for profit

They hackathon ended with presentation and we had invited three judges with different backgrounds to select the winners. This was great, but we did one misstake: we offered the winners money. This was probably the main thing we got negative feedback about in the surveys. People felt that money made the competition serious and they didn’t like that.

In other hackathons we’ve organised the prizes have always been symbolic and we’ve never received any critique on that, so next time we’re gonna dump the money.

Make time for discussions and farewells

After the presentations we had two hours of boat ride back to Stockholm. This turned out to be a great opportunity for people to discuss that what they’ve seen and experienced during the weekend, and people also had time to exchange phone numbers (…Twitter handles) and say proper farewells.

Break stereotypes and conventions

I believe that the most important thing to make a tech event open and accessible for as many people as possible is to, in every way possible, break the stereotypes and conventions of how others see people in our industry.


The yogi who turned hackathon enthusiast

I’ll conclude this article by telling you a story about one of the chefs at the conference center. She works as a yoga teacher among other things and had never before attended a hackathon and had very little to do with the tech industry.

After the boat ride home, me and three other attendees convinced her to join us for sushi. We ate the sushi and ended up spending the entire evening drinking tea and talking about life.

…she told me that they didn’t like the idea of spending one entire weekend together with 40 guys who were just going to sit by their computers, eat candy and drink Coca-Cola.

After that we became friends, and later she told me that she and the other chefs actually had thought about cancelling their trip to Hackaway. When I asked her why, she told me that they didn’t like the idea of spending one entire weekend together with 40 guys who were just going to sit by their computers, eat candy and drink Coca-Cola.

But it turned out that her notion was completely wrong. Hackaway turned out to be one of her best weekends ever at Ekskäret. She’s told us to call her whenever we’re having a hackathon again and she’s even shown interest in learning a bit of programming.

Conclusion

So, we changed the way one yogi with no interest for tech looks at our industry, and more importantly, the people within it. Achieving this on a broader scale is one of the biggest and most important challenges our industry is facing today.

By breaking the stereotypes and conventions people have about us and our industry, we’ll make our community more open and accessible for a lot of more people and that will lead to more diversity, increased equality and ultimately greater products, more creativity, better workplaces and so much more fun.

We did our best to get a great mix of people to Hackaway and the result was pretty good. But, a great mix of people of course means more than getting a great mix of creatives, designers and coders. It means getting a mix of people with different background, gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, race, and religion and so much more. To reach real diversity, we have to go much further and I hope that this article has inspired you join us on that journey.

Let us together build a community that is open and accessible for everyone.

Credits:
Thanks Martina Elm and Ted Valentin for giving me the opportunity to co-organize Hackaway together with you. Thanks Sebastian Höglund for the amazing photos in this article. Thanks Sebastian (again) & Robin Rådenman for the beautiful video. Thanks Aftonbladet / Shibsted for sponsoring us. Thanks Ekskäret and Matskolan for the hospitality and the extraordinary food. Thanks Zach Pie Inglis & Laura Sanders for inviting me to talk at HybridConf which lead me to writing this article. Finally, thanks Annie, Johannes, Paulina, Jocke, Heidi, Sandra, Johnny, Vanessa, Fredrik, and the rest of you fantastic people who works passionately every day to make our #sthlmtech community better. You inspire me.

Ps. the next Hackaway is at October 3rd and the last day to apply is at September 12th.

Ps 2. Are you a company or organization interested in collaborating with Hackaway? Send an email to martina@hackaway.com