Redesigning the Hackathon Experience for Beginners

Reflections on Hack@Brown: Brown University’s first annual hackathon


This is an extended version of a talk I gave at HackCon, a conference for college hackathon organizers.


Hack@Brown had roughly 250 attendees. 73% of the attendees said that Hack@Brown was their first hackathon, and 35% of them identified as female.

All of the attendees said that they would definitely come back again next year— how did we do it?


Everyone is welcome

Let’s get it straight hereHack@Brown is not your next MHacks or PennApps. We’re not aiming to be the biggest, most badass hackathon; there are hackathons out there that already accomplish that goal. We wanted to create a hackathon that was focused on the student experience—none of the “24 hours, 1000 hackers, $10,000 cash prizes” business—and build a stronger community of student developers and designers around Brown, RISD and the greater Northeast region. We wanted Hack@Brown to be inclusive and welcoming for students from all skill levels and backgrounds.

‘Create’ and ‘Build,’ not ‘Hack’

We focused on our use of language in order to make the event as inclusive as possible. Throughout our outreach efforts, we used words like create and build instead of the word hack. ‘Hacker’ has a strong, sometimes negative, connotation that not everyone identifies with (similarly, being a ‘rockstar coder’ or ‘programming ninja’ is not everyone’s cup of tea).

In our promotional material, we wanted to frame our event to be as inclusive as possible—whether you’re a designer, developer, philosophy major who takes computer science classes for fun—Hack@Brown could be an event for you.

You’re invited to Hack@Brown, the first annual Brown University hackathon January 24-25 in Alumnae Hall! Form a team with students from schools in the northeast plus engineers from Dropbox, Google, Venmo (and more). Build a project with your team in 24 hours, demo your project for a panel of judges, and win prizes. There will be tons of free food, coffee, and swag!

Work side-by-side with engineers

Inspired by our experience at the University Hacker Olympics (UHO) working alongside engineers, my co-founder and I wanted to replicate that model at Hack@Brown. We asked sponsoring companies to bring engineers who would be willing to work with students on a team during the event. These engineers worked side-by-side with students and served as mentors, especially for beginners.

We encouraged the team-forming process to happen during the event so that students would be able to form teams with students from other schools and with engineers[1]. We first had engineers pitch potential project ideas to students in the beginning of the hackathon, then form teams with those who were interested. Students, likewise, had the opportunity afterwards to share their ideas with other students and engineers.

Facebook pitching their idea to students
credit to David Deckey

Engineers were not accustomed to this model—most of them told us beforehand that they wanted to be ‘floaters,’ wandering from team to team—but once the hacking began, 80% of engineers ended up joining a student team. By the end, both students and engineers found this to be an extremely rewarding and empowering experience. All of the engineers who attended told us that they would definitely come back next year.

Overall, we thought that this model allowed for more collaboration between students and engineers; it also brought about a sense of mentorship and support that we wanted our hackathon to embody.

As a result, we had some of the most diverse teams. One team consisted of a high schooler, a Ph.D student, a designer from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), a student from Boston University, Brown University, and the CTO of Shelby.tv.

In total, we had 56 teams and 40 engineers—almost 1 engineer on every team. 15 teams ended up making it to the final round (10 of them had engineers as mentors) and then 9 teams received prizes. Of those 9 winning teams, 3 0f them were entirely freshmen.

[1] There are a lot of hackathons that create Facebook groups prior to the event to help kickstart the team-forming process ahead of time. We found that Facebook group can be extremely intimidating for students who are beginners who have little experience outside of their introductory sequence class in computer science. Seeing tons of posts like—“I’m a web developer for reactive OpenCL Coffeescript, which powers node.js Rails servers”— is scary when you can’t even decipher half or even all of the terms in that sentence.

In the future, we hope to admit more students and continue making Hack@Brown an inclusive and welcoming space. We’re really excited about potentially having an opt-in student mentorship program prior to the event, where students who sign up as a “mentee” will be paired with a student “mentor.” The pair will be on a team together, giving beginners an even stronger support system during the hackathon.

Hope to see you all at Hack@Brown in 2015!


If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me or to the team at hackatbrown@gmail.com