This past weekend we held the third annual Hackcon, the conference for student hackathon organizers. We brought together student organizers and community leaders from around the world to share their knowledge, learn from experts, and discuss the future of the student hacker movement.

Since its inception, Hackcon has been a work-in-progress. We are excited to say that based on post-event feedback from the community, this was the best event yet thanks to the inspirational content, mind blowing venue, and valuable friendships formed. We have some big improvements in the works to make Hackcon even better in the future. Our top priorities will be sourcing a more diverse array of speakers and organizers, improving communication with attendees, and continuing our efforts to make the event more inclusive and welcoming.

Let’s take a deeper look at what went well, what didn’t, and how we’re going to make Hackcon IV even better.

Attendees

Nearly 180 people representing 109 distinct events attended Hackcon III this weekend. While there was a big group of veteran organizers, we had an even larger pool of newcomers. More than half of attendees had either never organized a hackathon before or had just one under their belt.

As with all our events, we surveyed attendees after the fact, receiving nearly 50% response rate amongst respondents who followed the demographic breakdowns of the conference. According to the attendee survey, the best part of Hackcon III was making new connections with people in the community. Nearly 95% of attendees said that attending the event would impact how they lead their community in the future. Hackcon III attendees also felt that the event was a safe and welcoming environment.

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Attendees who identified as female increased to 35%, up from 21% the previous year. This was the result of increased outreach, a new pre-registration process, and word-of-mouth marketing from previous attendees.

What could we have done better?

Participants made it clear that Hackcon III was their favorite so far, but there’s still room for improvement:

  • Diversity. We want to make Hackcon an event that all kinds of people can get passionate about and want to attend. To that end, we plan to reach beyond our usual circles to find the best attendees, speakers, and other organizers.
  • Communication. Pre-event communication with attendees could have been much smoother. We sent out a number of duplicate emails that left people unsure of their attendance status, we did a poor job of communicating the existence of the Workshop Day, and our attendees and speakers were generally confused about logistics. Next year, we will ensure speakers, sponsors, attendees, and registrants know exactly what’s going on through extensive and early communication planning.
  • Ticketing Policies. We’ve never had an official policy around refunds, ticket transfers, or swapping badges, which is becoming untenable as the conference continues to grow. We will create, publish, and enforce new policies at the next Hackcon.

EDIT In answer to emails requesting clarification: As with all our events, we surveyed attendees after the fact, receiving nearly 50% response rate, across both Hackcon II and III. The respondents followed the demographic breakdowns of the conference, so we feel it is a representative sample.

Speakers

Of the 25 speaking proposals we received, we were able to convert about half of them into talks at Hackcon III. This number was lower than expected, and far smaller than previous iterations of the conference. Through feedback we’ve learned this is likely due to the short CFP timeline. We extended invitations to many more speakers than were able to attend in the end.

Hackcon III featured a variety of talk formats including discussions, lightning talks, and standard talks. We also added Live Action Role Playing (LARPing) as a new session type. Based on the feedback we received from Hackcon II, we increased the number of breaks between sessions to allow attendees to network.

We also added our first ever Workshop Day on Friday. Workshop Day was an opportunity for brand new organizers to attend a series of introductory workshops covering every aspect of organizing a hackathon, from building a team, to negotiating with vendors and everything in between. Feedback was extremely positive and we’ll be posting the talks online in the immediate future.

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The Hackcon livestream was back again this year and over 700 people tuned in to watch. The streams from Saturday and Sunday are already online, and the edited cuts are coming soon!

What could we have done better?

While response to the conference content was overwhelmingly positive, there were a number of things that could be improved.

  • Diversity. We failed to put together a diverse set of speakers for the conference. Speakers this year overwhelmingly identified as white and male (18% female, 24% non-white) and nearly a third were repeats from previous Hackcons. We will be reaching out to specific community members and groups to invite speakers for the next Hackcon. We also recognize that speaker lineups are frequently a reflection of the organizing team and are improving that as well.
  • Call for Proposals (CFP) Process. Our current CFP process is optimized for experienced speakers and is only open for a short time. Recognizing that our audience is primarily students without professional speaking experience, this needs to change. In addition, Hackcon III only received half as many submissions as Hackcon II. The process needs to begin earlier, there need to be more resources to help potential speakers prepare, and we need to do more direct outreach. We also need to be more clear about the kinds of CFPs we’re looking for in the future.
  • Content. We need to make sure everyone has access to both introductory and advanced content. We also need to continue increasing the number of discussions and networking opportunities.
  • Icebreaker Friday. The Friday night activity has always been very ad hoc because many people don’t arrive at Hackcon until Saturday. We heard from attendees that they want the same opportunities to network on Friday that they find on Saturday. For Hackcon IV, we will organize a Friday icebreaker too.

Lodging

As Hackcon is geared towards students and intended to build a tight-knit community, we organize group housing and cover the cost for attendees.

This year, we put everyone up in the Parc 55, a hotel in heart of San Francisco. Attendees loved the accomodations, rating it 4.9 out of 5 on average. While it may not have been as open as the hostel from Hackcon II, there was a centralized location to stay and hang out in and everyone had a private room to retreat to. We paired each organizer with a roommate from a different hackathon so they could forge new friendships.

What could we have done better?

Although attendees rated the lodging very highly, we are not satisfied with the experience we provided.

  • Check-in. Although we had a registration table at the hotel on Friday, our check-in process was very disorganized because the hotel had preassigned rooms that weren’t ready when attendees arrived.
  • Communication. Our communication with attendees staying at the hotel could have been a lot better. Parking, early check-in, and room service were not covered, but we did not communicate that effectively to attendees. Although we had staff taking people to and from the venues, we did not publish a schedule of when they would be leaving, which led to confusion.
  • Location. Although the hotel was in the heart of San Francisco, it was a long walk to the venues. Hackcon II had a much shorter walk, which made moving to the venue much easier to coordinate.
  • Price. Although Hackcon III was about 150 people smaller than Hackcon II, it cost nearly twice as much to put on. San Francisco, like New York, is a major destination and is thus very expensive to host an event.

Venue / Activities

The venue this year was our most popular yet. The conference was held at GitHub HQ, which was not only inspiring but enjoyable to be in. It was comfortable and had tons of breakout spaces for discussions.

Additionally, the after-party on the dinner cruise was a favorite for a number of attendees as it enabled people to socialize in a fun environment and was a beautiful experience.

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What could we have done better?

GitHub was an amazing venue and the boat was a lot of fun. None the less, we can improve and make next year’s venue and activity even better.

  • Location. We assumed most attendees would have summer internships in San Francisco and therefore having the event there would be easier for all involved. This was a miscalculation. Hosting the event in the Bay Area increased the cost for us and was prohibitively expensive for many people flying in. The next Hackcon should be hosted somewhere that is both easy to get to and cost effective.
  • Capacity. We were only able to host 150 organizers during the main conference due to the size of our venue, which left us with a massive waiting list. We need to find a way to accommodate more attendees in the future.

Organizers

Hackcon was started by Alexey Komissarouk, Nick Meyer, Ishaan Gulrajani, and me (Swift). We quickly added Dan Schlosser and Jon Gottfried. Today, the Major League Hacking team also helps out with logistical support. It’s very clear that this group of people cares deeply about this community and we’re really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish since Hackcon I.

What could we have done better?

While everyone on our organizing team is awesome and has done a great job so far, this is an area where we need to improve immediately.

  • Diversity. This is an area where we’ve very clearly failed. Our organizing team is 100% male and predominantly white (75%). We want to make sure we have a diverse set of voices helping to plan Hackcon in the future. We’re actively looking for new people to help for Hackcon IV and will be soliciting community applications along with reaching out to specific community leaders and groups that have been making a positive impact.
  • Clear Responsibilities. We’ve never really done a great job of clearly outlining who is responsible for what during the Hackcon planning process. Everyone has been very flexible and willing to step in as needed, but as we continue to scale, we’ll need to codify clear roles and responsibilities.

Hackcon IV

Despite the need for improvement, Hackcon III was an overwhelming success. At the end of the event, we announced that Hackcon IV is coming in June 2016. We’re going to begin organizing the event now, which gives us a longer window to plan ahead and focus on improving the areas that were deficient this year.

We have already started the search for new voices to join our organizing team and ensure a wider range of perspectives in putting on the conference. If you’re interested in helping make a big impact in the student hacker movement or would like to nominate someone else, please drop us a line at [email protected].

We’ll be working with the new organizing team and seeking out help from relevant experts to explore solutions to the issues we discussed in this post-mortem. We’re excited for the future of Hackcon and the community.

Happy hacking, we’ll see you at Hackcon IV!

— Swift