My Approach to Organizing a Hackathon

If you’re friends with me on Facebook, I’ve probably been spamming your newsfeed a lot with Hack@Brown things. Or I’ve been talking nonstop about Hack@Brown. Sorry about that.

If you didn’t already know by now, I’m the Director of Food and Logistics for Hack@Brown 2015. Honestly it’s a little crazy how I came to be the head of Food and Logistics for a 450 person event with a huge budget. I don’t think I realized how big of an undertaking this was until I had my first meeting with my 8 person Food + Logistics team to explore the venue. I remember thinking “Holy crap. This place is going to be filled with 400 people in a few months. How am I going to pull this off?” Today I’m going to explain how I’m attempting to get away with this. I’ll be going through my thought process on how I’m planning this event and maybe it’ll help you out when planning the event logistics of your hackathon. And for all of my family and friends, it’ll be some insight into what I’ve been talking about for the last few months.

Taking care of your attendees

Your #1 priority should always be to take care of your attendees. When I took on the role of Director of Food and Logistics, I decided that this was going to drive all the planning for our event. My philosophy is that you don’t have to feel like crap after hackathon. My goal is to have every attendee leaving the hackathon feel like the organizers cared about them and were willing to do anything to make their experience enjoyable.

You don’t need a crazy amount of money to take care of your guests. One thing I learned after attending Hack@Brown last year is that when you’ve been been working for 16 hours straight, any little thing will make your day 10x better.

I remember waking up at 7:00am the morning of the second day of Hack@Brown last year after going to bed at 4:00am. I was physically exhausted from running around, moving boxes, and managing attendees the day before. I felt only two things: tired and dehydrated. After downing about 3 cups of water when I got back to the event, I realized that every other attendee must be dying like I am too. A teammate(hi Bryce) and I walked around with gallons of water and cups, asking each table if they’d like some water. Almost everyone said yes. And the look on people’s faces made me really happy. We got a lot of “that would be amazing”s and “wow I didn’t realize how thirsty I was”s.

It’s little things like this that I try to keep in mind when planning Hack@Brown. Just having a lot of empathy for your attendees will increase the quality of your event. We’re having a hot chocolate station during registration this year since our event is in February. Attendees will come in and they’ll first be offered hot chocolate because Providence winter is rough man. What’s better than hot chocolate, marshmallows, and a friendly face after being in the freezing cold outdoors? Also, your volunteers will set the mood. Make sure you have friendly, easily identifiable volunteers that mingle with the attendees and get them meeting each other so that you create a welcoming atmosphere and make your hackers feel like they can ask you anything.

It was so cold.

What kind of hackathon do you want do be?

At your very first meeting sit down and figure out what kind of hackathon you want to be. There are a lot of approaches to organizing a hackathon. These approaches vary with the different factors your hackathon is dealing with. How big do you want to be? Do you want to invite students outside of your school? What types of people do you want at your event? The best thing is to envision what your hackathon will look like. Get a clear picture of what you want.

You also want to talk to your team about is what your goals are. What matters to you? What does it mean to throw a successful event? What impressions do you want people to have? How do you want people to feel when they leave? Always keep these in mind when planning. When planning a hackathon, there’s a lot of things to think about and it’s easy to get distracted in the details. Figure out what you want out of your hackathon and what you need to get there. We have a list of everything we need to be successful and know that all of these things should come first before any extra frills.Your goals should be integrated with every decision you make and you should periodically check that you’re on track to meet every one of them.

For Hack@Brown our vision is to throw a hackathon about empowering people to have the confidence to build whatever they set their mind to. Our belief is that hackathons don’t need to be about getting hyped up on redbull, winning $10,000 prizes, or becoming a code monkey for 24 hours. We think that the idea of “applying” to hackathons is silly and good food is very important. We want our participants to leave feeling good about themselves because they made something and that’s worth being proud of. Our priorities are learning and welcomeness and that is what goes into every planning decision we make. Learning is for everyone so Hack@Brown should be for everyone.

We’re working hard to meet these goals. Our Workshops Team is planning on having a killer lineup of workshops the week before and during the event. Sponsorship has been reaching out to a variety of companies and even getting designers as well as engineers to come. Design Team went through tons of iterations to create a website that looks welcoming to everyone. Student Outreach has been busy contacting other universities to make sure we have an amazing community of hackers. Dev pulled extra hours to get a good reimbursement system in place so that every student will have enough money to get them here. Our Documentation Team has been preparing to document every single hack because if you made something that’s amazing and should be celebrated! As for Food and Logistics, we’ve been working to integrate our goals with every aspect of the event. Everything from delicious food all the way down to inspiring napkins!

Any future attendees reading this, make sure to call me out on it if we don’t hit these goals. Some butts will need to be kicked for next year☺

Food.

My personal philosophy is that the best way to show love is through food. Good food is the easiest way to have happy hackers. Rather, not having good food is the easiest way to have unhappy hackers. If you’re staying up for 24 hours straight, you’re going to feel like whatever you eat. Choose food that tastes good and is good for you. The last thing you want is to have food that doesn’t taste good or is too unhealthy. Keep in mind, your attendees probably have less of an appetite after pulling an all nighter and you don’t want them to be underfed because they didn’t want to eat your food. In my opinion, never cut corners on food. It should be the biggest portion of your budget.

One way to cut down on costs is to reach out to food companies for sponsorship. Hackathons are great places for them to showcase their products and then you have one less expense to worry about. This is our second year partnering with This is our second year partnering with Spindrift, an awesome fruit soda company. This was my favorite soda brand from our dining halls and last year they agreed to sponsor drinks for the event and it actually became really fun and engaging for the attendees. Once they tried on flavor, they were eager to try a bunch more. Something to look forward to at Hack@Brown!

When planning meals, always have something to eat for everyone. For every meal you plan you should have options for all dietary restrictions. Gluten free, vegetarian, vegan, dairy free, nut free, etc. Always. It’s part of being a good organizer — no one should be hungry. I know its a pain in the ass and there’s always that one attendee that can’t eat freaking anything. In those cases, just email them and order some meals special for them. I personally emailed all attendees that put down “Kosher” just to check that they were able to eat our vegetarian options. I would prioritize this over anything else in logistics. You don’t want hungry people because hungry people are hangry people and hangry people are scary. Take it from personal experience. Also make sure you have the ingredients lists for all the food you have just in case anyone asks. They usually never do, but you want to be prepared in case someone has an allergic reaction.

Here’s the menu for one of our meals for Hack@Brown (courtesy of Erica!):

  • Beef Bulgogi rice set w/ kimchi
  • Chicken Gochujang rice set w/ kimchi
  • Vegan Portabella Bokkeum rice set w/ kimchi
  • Veggie Dumplings

You don’t understand how personally excited I am for each meal this year.

Another thing to keep in mind when you plan meals is bathrooms. Be aware of your bathroom situation. This is really important when planning a menu. It’s a little gross but needs to be addressed. If you have 2 bathrooms for 300 people, make sure you don’t order foods that “clogs the toilets.” This is one of the more surprising things I learned last year. Make sure you have someone that will clean the bathrooms regularly throughout the event and also extra toilet paper because you’ll likely run out. You don’t want your guests grossed out during the event.

Hi John :D

Have fun with it

Although its a lot, planning a hackathon is really fun. Don’t lose sight of that leading up to the event. Order some crazy swag. Buy a billion nerf guns. Put your branding on random stuff. Usually things that you really want, your attendees will too (especially in the food category). Do things that you’re excited to see happen at the event. Your attendees should be having fun and you should too. You’ll probably see me in a hamster suit.

Other than that, there’s not much else to say about planning a hackathon that’s super interesting. Stay motivated, be organized. Have detailed schedules. Make sure your volunteers know exactly what they need to do. Bother a ton of people to get the things you need. Keep running through the event in your head to see if you missed anything. Planning a hackathon is a crazy ride. Just make sure you have an awesome team to work with you throughout it all. If you haven’t checked out our website, our design + dev teams did an awesome job: http://hackatbrown.org/. I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without my Food + Logistics Team. Sharon, Bayla, Katie, Harsha, Yunny, Chris, Annalia, Erica, and I have all worked really hard to make this event as amazing as the website looks. We have some great surprises in store!

See you in February!

Jessica