photo by Kevin Yiming Chen ©2013

What is it like to organize HackMIT?

A look behind the scenes. 

It’s been one full week since HackMIT ended, and the buzz around the event has calmed. Looking back to April when planning began, I can honestly say that I had no idea what I was getting myself into back then.

The five of us sat at the front of a classroom designed for meetings much larger than ours—we had snagged an empty room at the last minute to toss around ideas about throwing a large hackathon. Emily, Richard, Bruno, and I listened to Ishaan Gulrajani as he described his vision: “500 hackers! 36 hours!” In the original plan, hackers would work in every annex, classroom, and lounge of the iconic Stata building on MIT’s campus. We thought we knew the routine: sponsorship from companies, food catered from local restaurants, and plenty of Red Bull.

We had no idea how much these plans would change.

At some point in the early planning stages, I had taken charge of sponsorship. One of the first steps in raising money is, well, to decide just how much money to shoot for. Trying to be ambitious, we shot to raise more money than had ever been spent on an MIT hackathon before. I remember sitting in yet another meeting with just the five of us trying to decide how much to charge. “There’s no way that companies would ever pay to attend a random hackathon,” someone warned.

I silently worried that sponsorship would, given no precedent, be a challenge.

I began making my spreadsheet of sponsors—i.e. which companies to contact for money. The team pitched in. At the end of the brainstorming session, I had realized two things: (1) I was looking at contacting around 200 companies and (2) Damn that’s a lot of emails to hunt down.

I got to work on possibly the most unpleasant task in hackathon organizing: stalking recruiter email addresses.

Cold-emailing recruiters is about 40% successful; most are nice enough to respond with either an apologetic no or a cautious yes. I worked steadily through my list, accumulating mostly maybes, a few nos, and (yay!) a few yesses.

Carolyn (our designer) joined the team and created our beautiful website. Emily double-checked space arrangements in Stata. Ishaan began to prepare the publicity push, to go out in late August. We were working steadily towards our 500-person hackathon.

The annual Greylock Hackfest was on July 27th-28th. I went with a team of two high school friends and one college friend, not really knowing what to expect. Ishaan introduced me to some of his friends he had made touring the hackathon circuit the previous year: “This is Katie, she organizes HackMIT.”

After pivoting some hours into the hackathon, we settled on creating an hackathon management app. Nothing ambitious—I had decided to attend Greylock to work on a HackMIT-related tool anyways. I set up camp next to Ishaan and some guys from Penn who seemed pretty friendly, and got to work.

Enter Dave Fontenot. Before Greylock, Dave was just a character on Facebook that liked and commented “hell yeah” on everything hackathon-related. The founder and former director of MHacks, Dave had come to Greylock from a party elsewhere, and immediately decided to join our team, no questions asked. But the important part was that Dave knew everyone, and damn did he know how to pitch a hackathon. Between Ishaan and Dave, word started spreading about HackMIT, and people rapidly joined the “_______ University takes HackMIT by Storm!” Facebook pages that Ishaan had made earlier that day.

Our Facebook page like count almost tripled.

Our EventBrite registration count shot from 400 to 1700.

So much for a 500-person hackathon.

A funny thing happens when 1700 people are signed up for your hackathon: people start talking. And when people start talking, other people find out too.

A lot of things started happening quickly, and all at once.

(1) We realized that, with customary Eventbrite attrition rates, we were looking at a 1000 person hackathon. Which meant our original fundraising goal was around six times too low. Cue the alarm bells.

Ishaan turned to me: “Well Katie, go raise that money!”


(2) Sponsors are a lot more willing to give large quantities of money when they know that 1700 people (and over another thousand on the waitlist) have expressed an intention to attend. Ishaan and I set up around ten calls a week to various sponsors to convince them to attend.

(3) Later that week, we received an email from the MIT administrators in charge of student group event planning: “We have some very serious concerns about this event…”

They say that hackathons change your life. Greylock is where it began. I left the hackathon with over a dozen new friends, pumped to double my planning efforts.

After Greylock, I found myself lured to Mountain View under the false pretenses of promised Chinese food. Upon arriving at House@Delian (a hacker house where Eric, Ishaan, Zain, and Geoff also lived), everyone but Ishaan and I promptly fell asleep, much to my (and my empty stomach’s) chagrin.

Ishaan and I Skyped the team.

The plan had changed: we were going to go bigger than ever before. HackMIT would be 1000 people, and we were damn well going to have that hackathon if it took every ounce of what we had.

There are three main components of a hackathon, from the organizers’ point of view: money, space, and people.

We definitely had the people aspect covered thoroughly—an understatement.

Fundraising was coming along nicely.

And then the realization hit: Stata, a building that could hold a 500-person hackathon, could never hold 1000 people at once.

We had classrooms booked for 1000 people before the scheduling office caught on and told us politely that we had to consult MIT before proceeding. We began regularly meeting with a team of MIT administrators who specialized in event planning. None had ever seen an event the scale of HackMIT pulled off by a student group.

We needed a venue.

Looking back, the number of venue ideas that we explored was ludicrous. BCEC, Fenway, random company offices, and an out-of-the way warehouse were just a few. I now know how lucky we were to secure the spaces that we had: Kresge Auditorium and the Johnson Ice Rink.

Over the summer, our initial group had recruited four more members: Cathie, Kate, Jodie, and Amanda. Charging headfirst into the school year, our team recognized that we needed to recruit young talent.

Through TechX, the student group that ran HackMIT, we found ourselves ten amazing new members of the team: Alex, Alice, Aneesh, Barbie, David, Jennifer, Jeremy, Michael, Nalini, and Serena. Our team was now a healthy twenty members, almost all of whom were under 20 years old.

The next few weeks were a never-ending rush of preparations. I went to PennApps with a few members of the team and to MHacks with Ishaan, both to hack and to see how operations were run. Weekly HackMIT planning meetings turned into semiweekly meetings, which led to meeting four times a week. The last few days, we had meetings from 8pm to around 3am every day—our very own “War Room.”

Friday the 4th, the day before the event officially started, I saw my first full pallet of water when we purchased it from BJs. Loading up a U-Haul with an unbelievable number of beverages and snacks, we rushed around the Boston/Cambridge area picking up day-of supplies.

By mid-afternoon, we had everything that we planned on needing. The check-in tent was set up. We were ready to roll.

If you attended HackMIT, you know how it went. Over 1000 hackers came, they hacked, and most had a damn good time. If you didn’t attend, the Boston Globe wrote about us. Matt Condon also wrote an awesome account of his HackMIT experience on Quora.

It was an absolutely insane 30 hours. But then, just as quickly as everyone arrived, all of the hackers left. The event was over.

What do you do when the event you’ve poured your life into is suddenly over? I’m still in shock that this all ever happened. HackMIT was a thrilling and unbelievable experience; I’ll never forget organizing it.

They say that hackathons change your life. HackMIT changed mine. (Credit to MAKEwithMOTO)