Two weekends ago I attended my first HackCon EU, a conference that brings both existing and aspiring hackathon organisers and leaders together for the weekend.
What are hackathons?
A hackathon is commonly described as a programming marathon. It is a 24 or 48-hour event during a weekend where small teams (usually 2-4 people) come together to share ideas, learn new things, and build cool things with others.
How I got involved in hackathons
Back in November last year, I met Matt. He approached me because he was keen on working together hackathons to the female students our university.
As you may know already, I work with Code First: Girls to run coding community courses to help female students with little to no coding experience learn how to and empower them to create great things with their newly acquired skills. As part of the coding course requires participants to take part in the course competition where students get into groups, think of ideas and then create something to present in the final week (week 8!)
— Pauline P. Narvas (@paulienuh) February 1, 2017
At the end of each course, some of the students are keen on using the skills that they have learnt over the 8 weeks course to build and what better way than to utilise what they have learnt in a fun environment? You know, an environment like hackathons.
It was after that conversation with Matt in a loud coffee shop that I had a lightbulb moment. Bringing these two communities/student groups would not only help the diversity percentages in hackathons but also allow the Code First: Girls ladies to learn from others and build on their skills.
And so, we worked together to make it happen.
Most notably, it worked well in the spring this year during the HackMed hackathon where some CFG participants led the front-end part of their hacks.
— Pauline P. Narvas (@paulienuh) April 30, 2017
Ever since then, I’ve been keen on getting involved in the hackathon scene. In the new academic year, I’ve taken up the role of Secretary and Tech Lead for the MedTech society that organises HackMed.
I was excited to attend HackCon EU to:
- Learn best practices from other organisers
- Fully understand the processes of organising more diverse, inclusive, fun, safe events
- Meet like-minded folks
Over the weekend, I got to do exactly that and more! I learnt a lot from the informative workshops, discussions, lightning talks and informal networking throughout the weekend. And I have to admit I am a little overwhelmed by all the information BUT I’ve had time to digest everything.
Here are my biggest take-home messages:
1) How to better market what “hackathons” are to engage non-Computer Science students
This is so important because hackathons are traditionally seen as something only Computer Science/highly technical people can get involved in but they aren’t at all! This idea should be shifted as much as possible and can be done, better at least, by marketing hackathons better.
I have to admit, I communicated hackathons to Code First: Girls participants quite badly at first and to those who aren’t from a computer science background, it was daunting to them. This was evident in the sea of intimated, confused faces that stared blankly back at me.
Since then though (especially after the discussion) I’ve learnt ways to market hackathons better; taking a more creative approach (a place where you can build your ideas and make them real) and avoiding the phrasing “programming competition” when possible.
2) Effective ways of building up the hype
I like to think that I’m pretty good at building up hype for events (I’ve been described as “the one who literally bounces off walls” during CFG classes but that’s just called coffee)⚡️ But I learnt of ways others have done it in the past for hackathons, some of my favourite ideas:
- Counting down days to your event on social media
- Other forms of media – making tweets and messages more interesting with images/videos
- Working with other societies/student groups to cross-promote, marketing it to be relevant to them too and exciting them on possibilities!
From this discussion, I was motivated to use social media quite a lot for Activities Fair this year to help build up the hype!
We’re all set up!
Come find us at the SU to take a photo with our friend Mona 💙 pic.twitter.com/yC3E7qJQIs
— HackMed (@hackmeduk) September 21, 2017
— Matt Burman @ 🇬🇧 (@_mattburman) September 21, 2017
3) What you can do beyond the hackathon
I enjoyed this lightning talk by Craig and general discussions about the idea throughout the weekend. I thought that it was especially relevant to MedTech as a society because although HackMed is the main event, there are other events we can think about organising to keep people engaged.
4) How to manage relationships
Make sure that relationships are kept positive despite challenging situations e.g. with University administrators and the student’s union. Try and work with them instead – for contacts for potential sponsors and champions! 💖
5) Being aware of neurodiversity
Sail’s talk on neurodiversity was super interesting. I wasn’t very aware of those with invisible disabilities and taking extra steps to ensure that they aren’t excluded in these events. I learnt the ways to ensure that they are included and thought of, just like everyone else pre-hack, hack and post-hack!
6) Letting go
I know I’ve just started in organising hackathons so I’m not letting go of anything just yet…
BUT Kevin’s talk really hit home when I related it back to my other student group, Code First: Girls, which I have been organising for the last year and a half… The thought of letting go of something I’ve helped build up to be this amazing, empowering female coding community in Sheffield honestly terrified me. But as he highlighted in his talk, leaders have to pass on ownership eventually. Transferring ownership allows new ideas and learning opportunities to new leaders 🙏🏻
For those interested, Matt summarised all lightning talks using funky mind maps…
— HackMed (@hackmeduk) September 16, 2017
— Naomi @ Hackcon EU (@naomi_pen) September 17, 2017
Knowledge-wise, I got a lot out of the weekend. But that’s not all! Just like other hackathons and tech events, I picked up some awesome swag including…
…And met some awesome people (most of whom I’ve been admiring from afar on Twitter for a while. Can confirm they’re all 💯)
I met so many people from different places in the UK but also some from around the world. It truly is a global community and I am so proud to be part of it!
— Pauline P. Narvas (@paulienuh) September 17, 2017
At the start of the weekend, Swift (CEO of MLH) said that it’s his favourite weekend in the year and now I know why! Thanks for the truly wonderful weekend MLH! Super excited to continue hacking in MLH hackathons and organising one this season. 😊
All MLH photos taken by the wonderful Harshpal 💖
PS: HackSheffield 14th – 15th October, be there ✌🏼