Faizaan Madhani

3 Things I learned from organizing hackathons

August 15, 2019

This is a topic that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, but I never got around to it. Procrastination has been a silent monster this summer, and while there’s no one I can blame but myself for not getting around to actually writing this, subconciously I’m sure I’ve been trying to justify my lack of effort in anything other than work (an article will be coming about this soon!), and the occasional CS problem.

Back in Grade 10, after attending a couple hackathons of my own, I decided I wanted to organize my own. It was an ambitious plan, especially since I lived in a city with a tiny tech scene and very few people or companies I anticipated would be interested in sponsoring an event run by a group of high school students. However, in the end, it worked out. We pulled off not one, but two events in the span of a year, at two different locations and even managed to partner with our city in the process. Best of all, I’ve been able to step down and allow another team to take over and build upon Hack the Hammer’s legacy, by organizing a third, larger and better hackathon.

Hack the Hammer our first event (the website is pretty broken now since we haven’t really maintained it), and Urban Hacks was our second, which we did in partnership with the City of Hamilton, and kept around the theme of Urban Development. Organizing the two events was both very exciting and very stressful, but an important learning experience nonetheless.

The following are three things that I learned from organizing these two hackathons. I hope they prove to be useful to you if you’re organizing your own hackathon, or any event for that matter.

When building a team, passion is more important than skill

A team can make or break your event. However, not necessirarily in the way that you think. If you’re a student and organizing your first hackathon, it’s unlikely you’ll find people who are skilled in event planning, especially in the planning of hackathons: events that are often more than a day long, cost a lot of money and are overnight. Logistics is a headache, but it isn’t something that a simple google search, a quick readthrough of MLH’s Hackathon Organizing Guide or a quick chat with another organizer from another city or another school won’t fix. In most cases, other organizers would be happy to speak to you (feel free to contact me!) and offer advice.

However, when you’re in the thick of things, you’ll find that a team that is as passionate as you about making your hackathon a reality will help pull you out and drive the event forward. A passionate team will be invested in making the event a reality, and will remain by your side even when things seem hopeless. It’s easy to teach someone how to follow sponsor leads, market the event and plan out logistics, and you and your team will eventually learn and get better at doing these things. Skills can be learned and taught, but passion is innate.

All sponsors matter, monetary or not

Sponsors are very important to your hackathon’s success. Without them, you don’t have money to buy food, prizes, rent a venue or provide your hackers with frankly anything. Not all sponsors will be able to provide money, rather opting to provide access to their APIs, sending engineers or mentors over or running a workshop. This is especially true if you are a first time event or a very small event. In this scenario, you may not have alot to offer sponsors, and they may not see value in providing you with money. Their value to you, to an extent, outweighs your value to them. That’s okay, considering that things like API credits, swag, free domain names for your hackers, engineers to teach workshops and mentors are all very important in making your event a success. For example, at Hack the Hammer, while we were unable to get Google to provide us with monetary sponsorship, they did send over engineers to teach a workshop, distribute swag and mentor participants. This, greatly improved hacker experience and made our event better overall.

Ironically, some of our largest sponsors were the least involved in our event. If your event is small, those sponsors will often be local ones, and they often may treat their sponsorship as a donation rather than an invitation to be involved in your event. Use those sponsors to help fund your event, and the ones who provide in-kind sponsorship to help make the event a more fun and enjoyable learning experience for hackers.

Put yourself in the shoes of your hackers, constantly

As an organizer, it’s easy to become caught in logistics, raising money and negotiating with vendors, without thinking deeply on how the decisions you make affect hacker experience. It’s important to not only designate one person, if not one team to think about and plan how the sequence of workshops and events will affect how much your participants will enjoy the event, but also to plan out mini-games and activities to increase morale and encourage breaks. Since sponsorship dollars may be limited, it’s important to think up activities that cost very little or no money. At Hack the Hammer, some of these included Cup Stacking (a hackathon favourite), Red Bull Pong and a twist on !Light (a game where people tried to replicate a webpage using their HTML and CSS skills without access to any online resources, while trying to consume a bowl of spicy ramen).

Hacker experience is very important, because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how much money you raise but how your hackers felt at the event. Were they welcomed? Was a your team and volunteers civil? Did you put out fires properly and was conflict minimized? And, did you think about how your hackers would go through the event without just relying on sponsorship dollars and planned workshops. Hackathons can be very stressful environments, especially in the morning before demos, where many teams are rushing to complete their projects and many more are trying to get theirs to work. At Urbanhacks, we brought in therapy dogs in the morning before demos to try to ease the tension, which was very popular with hackers.

Therefore, it’s very important to try to get your team well accustomed to how a hackathon works, and for them to experience being a hacker firsthand. To do this, it’s a good idea to plan out a weekend where your team attends another hackathon together, or if that’s not possible, members from your team should attend a hackathon any time, at least once, before the actual event. They’ll bring back ideas, inspiration and better perspectives on how to make your event more enjoyable for hackers.

These are my main takeaways from organizing Urban Hacks and Hack the Hammer. I hope they’ll be helpful for you, if you’r embarking on organizing on organizing your own event. Good luck!


Computer Science 2024, University of Waterloo