What I took away from HackCon EU

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!)

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.

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!

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 🙏🏻

Slowly passing on my baby to the wonderful Lakshika 💖

For those interested, Matt summarised all lightning talks using funky mind maps…

🌏 community

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…

Octocats! *screams at cuteness*

…And met some awesome people (most of whom I’ve been admiring from afar on Twitter for a while. Can confirm they’re all 💯)

this was totally not staged

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!

Sheffield squad with the MLH team!

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. 😊

Hackathons are cool ✌🏼

All MLH photos taken by the wonderful Harshpal 💖

PS: HackSheffield 14th – 15th October, be there ✌🏼

7 responses to “What I took away from HackCon EU”

  1. That looks like it was so fun! I like that you mentioned how Hackathons weren’t just for computer science people, because whenever I hear “Hackathon” I always picture a bunch of programmers programming nonstop for 48 hours haha. (Mostly because that’s how my boyfriend describes the Hackathons he goes to.) I’m actually going to participate in my first Hackathon next month (An all-women one, too, so that’ll be extra cool!) so I’m super excited and scared for it.

    1. Hey, Vicky!

      Thanks so much for reading, really appreciate it! Hackathons are definitely not just for Computer Science students, I actually am organising one related to Medicine/Healthcare/Science which is welcome to all. We ran HackMed last year and it was super successful with a mix from people from different industries.

      That sounds awesome, I hope you have fun! Learn, build and share 😉

  2. That looks like so much fun. Nothing better than being surrounded by others who enjoy the same things that you do. 🙂

  3. Aww Octocat! I’m still waiting for my Octocat sticker set LOL.

    Some 2-3 years ago, a co-worker of mine invited me to a hackaton just to observe how it’s like. It was also hosted by GitHub and it took place in GitHub HQ too. I was really motivated to participate in another future hackaton (if the schedule fits), but like everyone else, the impostor syndrome attacked me again LOL. It’s one of my (unwritten) goals, but I really need to fine tune my coding skills at the moment. XD

    Thank you for sharing your hackaton day! Looks so much fun!

  4. I didn’t know there were conferences for hackathon organizers! What a neat idea, and it sounds like a great way to learn from each other. My company does a week-long hackathon every year that I’ve always had fun participating in.

    I totally agree that it’s important to market hackathons to non-CS. At our company, people would view the hackathon as something only for the developers, but we really want the designers and testers to participate too. There’s more to a project than just the code!

    And it sounds like you picked up a lot of helpful tips! I think that’s a good point that you can do more outside of the hackathon and to keep disabilities in mind. This looks like it was a great event!

  5. I still need to go to a hackathon – Mutay had tickets booked for us, but I was doing my charity walk that day! Hopefully I’ll get to do the next one 😀

    Amazing post, Pauline! It’s so nice to see how passionate you are about this and I absolutely love that. Hackathons look like so much fun, so I definitely need to go to one soon!

  6. That sounds like such a great event, Pauline! It sounds like you really learned a lot. Hopefully it will help when you’re organising events in the future!

    I’d love to take part in a Hackathon, but I’d be terrified that I wouldn’t know enough. They sound like really fun events though and I’m so glad to hear you’re enjoying them!

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