How do you independently organize a hackathon?

November 13th 2018

In this story, I will speak about the importance of small outcomes

Taj (Far left), Me (Next to Taj), Jhamar (in red check shirt). A moment from the Hackathon.

Abstract

I come across many YouTube videos that are about 24-hour challenges. I am specifically referring to YesTheory, a channel dedicated to its mantra “seek discomfort”. Inspired by their bold moves, I decided on a 3-month challenge during summer vacation in 2018 since I didn’t have too much on my plate. As a software developer, my aim was to do a hackathon under 3-months without a team, venue & funding. Although, I have attended a hackathon before, I hoped to gain experience through organizing my first event regardless of its outcome.

Hackathons

Back in the early days, Hackathons were competitions held at tech companies by employees for fun. The goal is to engineer a technology in the form of hardware or software or hardware + software under a given time period while also competing with colleagues. As this culture gained popularity, emphasis was put towards inviting outsiders to the culture in order to spread Computer Science. Big tech companies such as Facebook and eventually organizations such as Major League Hacking (MLH) and schools themselves started organizing Hackathons.

NYCHacks

Branding

Pondering upon a great name for my event, NYCHacks was a name that stood out to me. Since NYC is all about bright lights and bright stars, my logo of choice was a red lightbulb over a green ship wheel, which represented innovation. The light red and green color scheme remained consistent throughout the overall branding of NYCHacks.

Planning

Typically, Hackathons are planned at least 6-months prior to the event’s date which meant that I had to get things done at 2X the rate.

There are 7 parts to organizing a Hackathon:

  • Team
  • Funding (Sponsors)
  • Venue
  • Food/Prizes
  • Marketing
  • Surprise elements
  • Attendees

Team

Since time was limited and I planned the event during summer vacation, I could not find a list of people to form a team from my connections. However, upon marketing my event, some have reached out to offer me help. I needed people in a few areas for the event:

  • Judges
  • Helping hands

I was surprised to see the eagerness of people to help out at my event. I ended up with two judges, Taj English and Jhamar Youngblood. Taj is my friend from high school and the co-founder and CTO of an upcoming startup called ListedB. Jhamar is a co-founder of a startup called The Blast App. I was fortunate to have also received help from the Red Cross Club of Stuyvesant High School and Shania who reached out via Reddit.

Venue

With 0 funding in hand, I first texted my good friend, Taj and described to him about my crazy idea.

His reply: “Lol…Companies really won’t pay an individual to host a hackathon unless it was for a school purpose other than that you probably won’t have much luck and the hackathon would have to be in the city if you really wanted people to come.

Those venues aren’t cheap.”

My Reply: “Still on with the challenge. Never give up 😅”

His Reply: @charles_m02

Reach out to him”

So, I texted Charles regarding my situation.

Charles: “I’ll say 677 Fifth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY would be good, just not sure if 12 hours is a possibility, though it’s worth a shot. It’s a free space.”

After contacting the venue, it turned out 12 hours is perfect since the venue is open 12-hours.

My reply: “I got the venue at Microsoft Flagship Store booked

Thank you again”

Funding (Sponsors)

With the venue booked for $0, now the goal was to raise some funds/sponsorship deals for food and prize costs. Luckily, I knew a neighbor who runs a company called JhalNYC, a street food vendor who offered to provide me with some funds. In addition, I have reached out to other companies, a few of which offered to sponsor. So with sponsorship from, JhalNYC, JetBrains, StickerMule, Axure RP and some funds from my dad, I managed the food and prizes.

Marketing

Since money was short, I planned free marketing strategies. First, I called at least 30 universities around NYC, most answered “NO!” and few that did, were not very effective. I figured since it’s summer vacation, most students won’t be in school and leveraged the power of the internet. My next strategy was to use Reddit to market the event with the hope to gain even more registrations. After posting on several relatively large subreddits, 61 registered and 22 attended the event.

Surprise elements

No one can predict the turn of events that can take place in the weather system, a crucial element which I left out. A storm was heading towards NY and I was unsure as to what I should do about the event. I contacted the Microsoft venue about a potential cancellation of the event. However, since they already made arrangements for the event, it would be a disappointment on their end, so I proceeded with the event. Luckily, on the morning of the event, the weather calmed down. Although, many did not show up, I was still surprised by the amount that choose to attend the event given the weather conditions.

Connections I made

While I was new to organizing events and lacked credibility/adequate connections to organize the event, reaching out to companies has helped me gain exposure and make connections with industry experts, some of whom are great connections.

Vlog

Recently, I searched Google for NYCHacks and saw a vlog about the event that someone choose to create on their own. All credits to the creator.

Link to video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lDN4UtPd3E

Moral

So the moral of this story is that sometimes small results can make for a big achievement. From the start of the idea for the event, my goal was to pursue with the event even if it meant a low attendance count in order to teach myself the rigorous process of organizing events. From 0 experience, 0 funding, 0 team, limited connections, limited marketing experience TO an event at the Microsoft store in fifth avenue, with 22 attendees, 2 judges, 6–8 helping hands, support from the Microsoft team and during poor weather conditions, I consider this outcome a great success. I have learned about some faults that I posses and that I should work towards improving on them in order to attain higher success.

Secondly, having a Plan B is a must because there is always a potential for surprise elements and there is never enough precautions that can be taken. For example, I dismissed the potential of the weather turning poor and this resulted in a confusion for both me and the attendees. This doesn’t only apply to organizing events, it is an important skill to have for anything in life.

A great quote from my high school physics teacher “You get paid to solve problems to questions where the answers aren’t obvious!” served as a metaphor/motivation that reminded me to solve the challenges of organizing the event. Most people, especially the millennial do not consider accomplishing goals or solve problems outside of their “ordinary routine”, limiting themselves from opportunities. My software engineering teacher said, those jobs with the phrase “do you want fries with that?” are going away and fast. He referred to the jobs that require very little thinking and consist mostly of one repetitive process. Today’s computers are very capable of taking a single routine and processing it with greater efficiency than humans ever could. So, the cashier jobs at McDonald’s are soon going to be replaced with robots since it is very cost efficient to maintain robots rather than paying salary to a human. However, job opportunities will be open to those that are able to solve complex problems, create innovative solutions and ultimately those that are open to learning new concepts and ideas. As I continue the journey of my engineering career, I will look back at this experience and continue to better.

Thanks for checking out this read and remember always to stay ahead of the curve!

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