How do you throw a truly epic hackathon? In this post, we’re going to walk you through some of the things that helped make one of the MLH team’s favorite new events, BoilerMake, a huge success.

If you’re not already familiar with it, BoilerMake is Purdue University’s hackathon. They threw their first event this past Spring season and they have another event coming up in the Fall. Luke Walsh is a member of BoilerMake’s UX Committee and the official MC.

0. Get the basics right

Generally speaking, there are 5 things you need to organize a hackathon – a venue, food, power, wifi, and people. Getting those things right is core to having a successful event.

BoilerMake spent $5,000 improving the venue’s wifi and brought in their school’s IT department to help design the hardware layout.

Pro-tip. You should always lean toward having extra food and you should have an emergency budget in case you run out. More than one hackathon has been saved by a 2am Costco run.

Pro-tip. Work with a local homeless shelter to donate any leftovers. They’ll probably even send people to pick it up!

1. Keep the event small enough to fit in one room

Throwing the largest possible hackathon has become a badge of honor among hackathon organizers. Even though they could have easily housed all 900 applicants, the BoilerMake organizers decided to cap the event at 400 (which was the capacity of the main gym).

You don’t have to throw the world’s largest hackathon to have a great event. Usually, limiting the size allows you to focus on a higher quality experience for both attendees and sponsors.

Pro-tip. You should always opt for a single large room over a bunch of smaller rooms for hacking space. As a hacker, it’s really easy to call it quits when you get stuck if you’re off by yourself in a random side-room. Being in a huge room with everyone else is an extremely powerful motivational and inspirational factor.

Another thing the BoilerMake organizers did well was positioning the sponsor tables next to the hackers. Having the mentors literally next to the hackers makes it really easy for people to ask them for help and for the sponsors to feel as if they are part of the event.

2. Target nearby schools for buses

Charter buses are becoming an increasingly popular method of getting attendees to hackathons. Traditional travel reimbursements can cost up to $200 per attendee, but chartering a 56 passenger bus brings the cost down to around $50 (if you fill every seat).

Knowing this, it’s really easy to go overboard and target schools that are far away. Keep bus trips short and only target schools that are within a 6 hour driving distance from your event.BoilerMake easily filled 7 charter buses from regional schools alone (UIUC, Rose-Hulman, University of Chicago, Ohio State, UW-Madison, Michigan, & Iowa).

Pro-tip. Bus trips that are longer than 6 hours are risky business. Last season, we had several issues where buses had mechanical issues or broke down entirely during long rides. Waiting on the side of the road for a new bus isn’t how most hackers want to be spending their weekends. Additionally, replacing a bus at the last minute is extremely expensive and will likely triple your costs.

3. Design engaging mini-events

One of our favorite moments at BoilerMake was the massive 150 person dodgeball tournament that sprung up on Saturday afternoon. It was a much needed and welcomed break for hackers and sponsors were able to connect with attendees in a fun way. A well planned and executed mini-event is an excellent way to leave attendees and sponsors with a lasting, positive impression.


Pro-tip. For dodgeball, the BoilerMake organizers split sponsors into two sides and had them recruit hackers for their respective teams. This was a really effective technique at getting hackers and sponsors to interact in a fun way.

The BoilerMake team also arranged for some other cool mini-events including rock climbing and swimming. Be careful not to go overboard with distractions though, there is a happy medium.

Be sure to have small things for hackers to do around the venue so everyone can get up and stretch their legs once in a while. BoilerMake had slushy and popcorn machines staffed during the entire event by their main sponsor, Interactive Intelligence.

4. Keep energy high

Recruit a high energy MC. This person will be the face of the event to hackers and sponsors, so having someone who is excited about hacking with some public speaking experience helps hold the entire event together.

36 hours is a long time to stay in one place. Keep background music going, but not too loud.Let hackers choose the type of music you play using a shared spotify playlist.

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Pro-tip. Get out and talk to hackers. Encourage volunteers and other organizers to walk through the venue and chat with anyone who wants to talk. BoilerMake volunteers were constantly scattered throughout the gym debugging code or suggesting cool new APIs to use.

5. Engage sponsors, make sure they understand what to do

Create a short sponsor info packet. This doesn’t need to be fancy, just explain what a hackathon is and how they can prepare to get the most out of it. You should make it clear what you are providing, and mention a few things sponsors have done at other hackathons that you thought were awesome.

Pro-tip. Keep them in the loop about what other sponsors are planning; no one wants to show up to an event and be completely blown out of the water by the awesome booth next to them.

Have only one point of contact for sponsors. This makes it simpler and more personable and makes your event seem a lot more human. You should try to contact your sponsors early and often just to ask the questions like “How are you feeling about our upcoming hackathon?”

Pro-tip. Encourage sponsors to arrive before the hackers. They can get their swag and table set up and ask any last minute questions before your organizing team gets swamped with check-in. BoilerMake had a check-in line that snaked past sponsor tables so hackers and sponsors could chat before the event even started.

6. Pick a good headline sponsor

A good headline sponsor is NOT just the company who will give you the most money. A good sponsor should make planning easier for you. Interactive Intelligence, BoilerMake’s headline sponsor, sent 20 employees who took it upon themselves to help make the event awesome. They loaded up trucks with furniture and goodies and held raffles every hour.

Pro-tip. If one of your sponsors is holding a raffle, have attendees physically walk over to their table to enter it. This is a great opportunity for sponsors and attendees to engage with each other.

 

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Target local sponsors. Typically sponsors who are located closer will be able to send more company reps, bring more stuff, and relate more to the hackers. At BoilerMake many of the company reps were Purdue alumni who came back because they were stoked to reconnect with hackers from their alma mater.

7. Work with your school to make it a success

Your relationship with your University can make life extremely easy for you if you get them on your side early. Some schools will even kick in cash or provide venues for free if you can find the right people. Bring advisors on board who understand your vision and can help connect you with decision makers.

Learn how to sell your event. You should have a quick elevator pitch that everyone on your organizing committee can give (“No, we will not be breaking into your bank account. Actually a hackathon is…”). Find something your administration understands, and relate a hackathon to that.

Pro-tip. Position your hackathon as a recruiting event with a twist. Odds are, your school already has a career fair and you can position your event on those terms. This immediately aligns your event with your school’s goals.

What’s next?

The next edition of BoilerMake is coming up this October 17th – 19th. Registration is still open, so get on that!

This time around, we’ll be doing things a bit differently. For example, we’re restructuring how tech talks work and trying some new ways to encourage people to interact. We’ll be writing a follow up post about that soon. Subscribe below to read it and more awesome posts like this one.


What things to do you do to make your hackathon epic? We’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Happy hacking,

Luke & Swift