Hack@Brown 2018: Process and Growth

This year, we wanted to celebrate the process of creating things

Illustration from Hack@Brown Design team

As our time as co-directors comes to a close, Grant and I have had some time to reflect back on our journey leading Hack@Brown. This year, we wanted to celebrate the process of creating — and the growth that comes from it. Just as we hoped that hackers would embrace this mission, we also wanted our organizing team to experience personal growth through the year of planning leading up to the event. Grant and I wanted to make a space for people to have the freedom to try new things without fear of judgment or failure, both on our team and at the hackathon.

This past year, our team has had both successes as well as shortcomings in the changes we made. We tried refining our mission, developing our own event app for the weekend of the hackathon, changing the emphasis of judging and prizes, and focusing on making our organizing team feel like family. We wanted to share our experiences in the hopes that others can get something out of our journey.


The Spirit of Hack@Brown

Illustration from Hack@Brown Design team

Over the past 5 years of Hack@Brown, our overarching mission has stayed roughly the same: to encourage learning in an inclusive and supportive environment. However, the sub-focus of our mission changes with each new set of co-directors. This year we wanted to encourage everyone, no matter how experienced, to explore a new technology or field that they wouldn’t have otherwise had the experience to try. In total, we wanted Hack@Brown to be a celebration of process over all else, where everyone had fun while they worked on their creations. No matter how their final product turned out, we wanted every person to feel proud about what they had accomplished.

In order to convey this mission, we thought it was critical to start the event with the right tone. As a result, we decided to invite Keetra Dixon, a Graphic Design professor from RISD, to talk about her work. Keetra’s work in Experience Design can be found at the JetBlue Terminal in the JFK airport, the Cosmopolitan Hotel Lobby in Las Vegas, or in the New York Times, among many other places. What’s really special about her work is her emphasis on creative process, as that ends up shaping most of her ideas. By inviting Keetra to speak, we hoped she could share her unique perspective on creating and would inspire hackers to value their projects not based on their end product, but the journey they went through to create it.

Keetra Dixon’s retooling of crayons from leftover wax pieces

In order to create a space that people were comfortable pushing their boundaries, we needed to make sure that it was a welcoming environment for everyone. We also wanted to create a place where new ideas would be conceived, which tends to happen when we have people from different backgrounds and experiences. As a result, diversity is very important to us. This year, 40% of our hackers identified as female. While we believe that is good for a hackathon setting, we still have a long way to go.

Since we wanted to celebrate process over the final product, we also wanted to emphasize hacker self care. Oftentimes hackathons encourage unhealthy behaviours and glamorize suffering. However, if we wanted to celebrate the journey more than the destination, the journey itself has to be pleasant. Thus, we provided places and encouragement for people to rest throughout the event, and provided an entire room to play games and destress. We also placed an emphasis on providing healthy and balanced meals to hackers, ranging from mediterranean wraps to Kabob & Curry. There is no Soylent to be found at Hack@Brown!


The New Hack@Brown App

One of the main challenges we faced in running Hack@Brown in the past years has been communication with hackers. Unlike other hackathons that have huge, centralized spaces that hold all the hackers in one room, our event takes place in Sayles Hall, a beautiful 19th century building. Because Sayles has many smaller, classroom-like rooms, it is very difficult to make important announcements out to everyone. In the past, we placed important announcements on our day of site and social media, but not everyone checked them regularly. As a result, we have had to run volunteers to each floor on all 4 floors to make important announcements.

We decided to address this challenge by creating a mobile app for the event that would include our schedule, a ticketing system to get help from mentors called HelpQ (borrowed from HackMIT), and most importantly, real-time push notifications of any announcements. The app, powered by React Native, was entirely made possible by our development team (esp. @Ben Navetta!) and has truly helped the hackers’ experience and lowered the stress on our team.

We designed the app such that the hackers would be able to input the table number of where they are sitting so that we could customize food and judging announcements to their specific location, since we stagger both food and judging times. We could also separately notify hackers with dietary restrictions such that they knew what options were available to them. For judging, we could send a push notification to a specific table if they weren’t present when the judges came around so that they could return as soon as possible.


Our Process for Judging and Prizes

Just as we opened with a celebration of process, we wanted to end on a similar note. We didn’t want the reason to attend to be the prizes but rather the learning, and as a result we tried to de-emphasized the importance of them.

Illustration from Hack@Brown Design team

While other hackathons try to encourage explorations of certain fields, we wanted to keep the topics completely open. We wanted people to explore ideas and technologies because they were passionate about them, instead of trying to win a specific prize. This year, we had no ranked prizes, and each prize was broad enough to apply to many types of projects.

For our closing ceremony, we tried to find a better balance between celebrating the accomplishments of the winners and making the teams that didn’t win still feel accomplished. We wanted to have people be happy, but not have the closing ceremony drag on. As a result, we decided to just announce the names and projects of the winners. In retrospect, this approach allowed us to close relatively quickly, but didn’t let others see projects and the people who were behind them. As a result, this year’s closing ceremony unfortunately felt more like an obligation instead of a celebration of hackers and their accomplishments.

While we have improved our judging process and closing ceremony over past years, it still is the part of the hackathon that could be improved the most. Finding the correct balance between celebrating team’s accomplishments and not overemphasizing the end product is something that we still haven’t found.


Our Team Philosophy

Our fun team!!

Just like how we emphasized process over result in our hackathon, we wanted our organizing team to also experience growth over the year of planning. We wanted to make the team feel like a family, so that old and new members alike would feel comfortable asking for help and getting mentorship from other members. We felt that giving team members ownership and space to try to new things without the fear of failure was the key to personal growth.

Shopping for snacks to feed hackers!!

In past years we had noticed that many team members burnt out from the event, and wanted to limit that this year. Instead of following the dates of when our hackathon takes place every year, we moved the event forward a weekend to when people were less busy. In order to promote team bonding, we held social events throughout the year as well as a team retreat in Newport after the event for a weekend of fun!

Hack@Brown Design team cooking for the whole team at the retreat!

Moving Forward

Now that our time as co-directors is over, we have been thinking about the future of Hack@Brown. One of our goals after the event was to extend the mission over the entire year, instead of just one event. We have also thought about the possibility that one large event isn’t the best way to accomplish our goals. As a result, there have been a few new initiatives from Hack@Brown that are still in the works (inspired by Columbia’s ADI).

Our time co-directing Hack@Brown has been an incredible growing experience. We pushed our comfort zones, tried new things, and made great friends along the way. Ultimately, we hope that everyone involved with Hack@Brown, from the team to the hackers, also feel the same way.

Hope to see you next year!

Angela Cheng + Grant Fong, Hack@Brown 2018 co-directors