Thoughts after running Experience for HackIllinois 2016 about growth and direction of HackIllinois and Hackathons in general. This was written in May of 2016 with Andrew Kuznetsov as we were trying to assemble a vision of what HackIllinois could become.
HackIllinois was founded in 2014, just one year after the first MHacks, and 5 years after PennApps. For the past 3 years, HackIllinois has been refining the idea of the “College Hackathon”, by focusing on experience at scale; creating a large highly themed whimsical hackathon, which tries to provide as many resources as possible. As a result, HackIllinois has grown year over year to 1500 Hackers in 2016. It has grown to become a top class event in the world of hackathons, alongside MHacks, PennApps, HackMIT and more Quora - What are the best hackathons. HackIllinois traditionally has created an event to evangelize the hacker culture to new students by trying not to look at qualifications before admission (in fact admissions are mostly based around transportation), thereby making an event where people who are new to the world of hackathons can meet the true hackathon hackers.
However it has become apparent from hacker feedback, the submissions and general observation, that HackIllinois is struggling to scale the experience further. Many hackers complain of long lines for food, the inability to get mentorship, not being accepted despite being a student at UIUC, and the event’s inability to handle so many submissions in the competition. The quality of submissions at college hackathons in general has fallen as well. Many of the first hackathon goers have graduated and left behind those who believe in a warped view of what hacking is. This new generation, who are now the organizers and major figures in the hacking community, were inundated by the CS culture during its current boom as they were being introduced to the hackathon community, and created a more concentrated form of the startup centric, founder-glorifying culture in Silicon Valley. This culture focuses more on being able to pitch ideas and imaging wild ways in which they might “change the world” than it does on the journey of hacking and the engineering behind it and now people are starting to reject it. This is clear to see in the submissions to HackIllinois 2016, where not all of the Top 10 hacks in either category had done any significant engineering work, however many make claims such as “ we solved 3rd world sanitation” with a project featuring 3 wires a couple LEDs and a SparkCore. The organizers of these hackathons are just as culpable as the hackers: by putting incentives on using company APIs, current hackathons only encourage this sort of hacking.
It is obvious that HackIllinois needs to change in order to continue delivering the same quality of experience to hackers. However, it must change within the greater context of the culture it represents. Hackathons are no longer growing, especially hackathons that focused on size over experience, (Hackathons that artificially limit the number of students will not see this effect for a year or two). The people who are interested in the college hackathons are not the same type of people that were setting up and attending these events in the past. MHacks is a poignant example - the entire leadership of the MHacks organizing committee did not return. As a consequence, the people who attend MHacks are more and more just Michigan students that want free food as other students are not seeing the value in traveling to Ann Arbor to sit and work on meaningless projects incentivized by API prizes. Hackathon Be Gone
A Quick History of Hackathons
There are 2 places of origin for what is now the hackathon; both tied together by the people involved. The first event called a hackathon was in the 1990s, where 10 or so developers of BSD Unix, came together to prototype some ideas for the operating system. This idea transferred to Sun Microsystems as some of the founders of BSD were core engineers at Sun. At Java One, Sun had the first corporate hackathon. Developers were challenged to learn/use Java to create new applications for the Palm. These two events set the platform for what hackathons would be. Wikipedia - Hackathon
At their core, Hackathons are events that seek to accomplish several things at a very specific scale, showing what is possible with a technology, but often without pushing the limits of scalability or deployment in real world environment. Hackers either twist technologies to do something it was never supposed to do (think the top hardware hack at Hackillinois 2016 - Catch Me if You Can) or develop a prototype for a feature or idea.
Problems Facing HackIllinois
There are a bunch of issues that arise from the expectations of hackathons:
- Influx of business-minded individuals coming in with a business pitch and a coder believing they are holding the next Facebook™ in their hands.
- The Code Evangelism Hackathon vision is no longer relevant.
- No one learns anything after their first hackathon because the same technologies (and skills) are being used over and over again (Different frameworks don’t count, just as different languages don’t count).
- Hackers rely on APIs for major compute power, competition has become geared at best applying an API at a problem.
- It’s easier to plan events for beginners, after all you can teach them everything. However, not much thought is dedicated to providing for participants who are not first time programmers or hackathoners?
- Nothing of substance is ever developed in hackathon because most of the heavy lifting is done by the APIs, nor is their incentive to do so. Virtually no projects survive the closing ceremony.
- Companies that are not platform based (e.g. Amazon) see very little value in evangelizing their products at current style of hackathon.
- Other companies put on their own hackathons that are more effective at evangelize their systems.
- Sun and Java One, Pebble and Pebble Rocks, Github and local hacknights, AT&T and the AT&T Dev Summit and Hackathon
- Other companies put on their own hackathons that are more effective at evangelize their systems.
- The competitive skills that are developed at hackathons are geared toward prototyping, rather than teaching solid engineering.
- Hackers cannot see a project through, will avoid good engineering for speed (Whatever Works Development). Reinforces the practice of deploying prototypes
- Unfortunately, they do not realize that this is poor development and try to apply the same strategy to real life situations
A thread that mentions all these issues - Hacker News - The Rising “Hackathon Hackers” Culture
“We hired a dev that’s very much like you [OP] described. We “knew” he was smart because he did well in some Hackathons. Had built some cool projects on his flashy portfolio. Went to the same university we went to, which is a top university in the world. Had good grades at said University. etc. He had all the markings of being a fantastic intern for us. About half way through his internship we had to fire him. He lacked the attention span for a long term, rigorous software development project. We later hired someone whom we evaluated very differently and it has been incredible. He’s doing a fantastic job. Constantly questions our opinions about software and pushes the boundaries of our depth of understanding. To add to this, we knew the fired intern went on to another startup to keep doing whatever it is he thinks he’s doing. The founders of that company ended up telling us the same exact problems were happening with them. Don’t worry about these “hackers” and what they’re doing. They’ll all end up getting a reality check at some point. If they frustrate you, then just remember that the best revenge is living well.”
Many of the students who lead the charge for hackathons now distance themselves from the culture because of what it now represents (Large exodus of Hackathon Hackers sub-groups from the HH community/brand in early 2016). These original students founded their own hackathons because of what they saw in industry or in the colleges of peers, and are now seeing them becoming calculated competitions for prizes. The system of prizes and especially API prizes reinforces this behavior. We can see this evidence of this trend in project distribution among prizes, and in the dearth of workshop and talk participants (and the subsequent need to incentivize their attendance) (HackMIT 2016).
The ever widening gap between the hacking community (HH, Hackathon goers and Organizers) and the tech community (employers, engineers, members of the FOSS movement, older hackers) is concerning. From the hacker perspective, a collegiate hackathon provides access to other fellow hackers and a handful of recruiters. From the perspective of the greater developer community, collegiate hackathons are prototyping competitions which reinforce a poor competitive mindset (read: faking tech demos), as well as fostering poor engineering practices Kevin Techonology - Preventing Cheating at Hackathons, targeting a very homogeneous set of people - 18-21 year olds with 1-5 years of programming experience. Unfortunately, due to the lack of mentorship, the cycle of poor development repeats itself: hackers learn from other hackers (company mentors are typically recruiters, evangelists or older hackathon goers, not engineers) and are then asked to mentor others. It is hard to see such a culture to continue to be a respected part of the CS community if something drastic is not done to change the values and the vicious cycle that has been created.
The Main Event
The MLH-style “College Hackathon” is dead, or it will be soon. @folz - Selling out and the death of hacker culture
But as always is the case, less active companies and institutions are still only discovering the basic idea. For the near future, Hackathons (and MLH beside it) will continue to expand to these new territories largely to continue growth. Despite this, the original college hackathon has peaked, and we can see the evidence in MLH’s newfound (2015-2017) focus in Code Evangelism, High School Hackathons, European Hackathons, and untouched colleges.
HackIllinois is now faced with a choice, take the money, drink the kool-aid, and ride it to the end or try and create something new and start the new phase of hackathons. This is the time to do it while there is still some momentum in the community (among quite a few reasons to which we will get to later). It is increasingly harder to justify HackIllinois attendance (over others) as the more we continue along this path, the less unique we become.
There are entire subsets of students that are not being served by the current MLH infrastructure and it just so happens these are the passionate engineers, the founders of the hacking culture and collaborative minded engineers who understand the prestige of significant contributions to the greater community and growing that community. As an event, we need to focus on these technology and community drivers; people who are passionate about the technology and the journey of creating something new. This group of active community makers and developers define the original values of the hacking community and also are disenfranchised by what it has become. It is this group that HackIllinois needs to attract and impress, if we to change what hackathons represent. We need to examine and question the culture we have created, and advocated for.
That being said, a new idea that will pull in these hackers as well as the greater CS community and solve many of the issues facing hackathons today is the Open Source Initiative created at HackIllinois 2016.
[email protected] questioned everything about hackathons.
- Why can only college students hack?
- Why are teams only up to 4 people?
- Can we run a hackathon without prizes?
- What if people could work on previously existing projects?
[email protected] also presented solutions to common problems that faced hackathons:
- What happens to projects after the hackathon?
- How do you make sure that people learn something?
- How do you make sure hackers meet new people and develop meaningful connections?
Open Source harkens back to the original meaning of ‘hacker’, and a hackathon that unifies the two would go a long way to start bringing the culture back to its roots.
“Take a look at the free software community (which is incidentally very well-correlated with what the “hacker” community used to be 20-30 years ago, and has much more of a claim to being the intellectual heirs of that group than the hackathon crowd does or even the HN crowd does). There’s a lot of focus on ethics and civil liberties, and maybe a bit too little focus on effective PR and on shipping, but it’s very refreshing. As a concrete suggestion, LibrePlanet https://libreplanet.org/2015/ is next weekend at MIT, and free for students. Or see if there’s a Debian group in your local area.” - Hacker News Poster (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9205177)
The way forward for HackIllinois is to recapture the old idea of what a hacker meant through fully embracing FOSS (Free and Open Source Software). In doing so, we may stave off the decline of the College Hackathon Scene, reintroduce a focus on the craft and journey of a hackathon, and on the brand of hacking and community contribution that is exemplified by groups like iOS Jailbreakers and Android ROM community.
Pre-MLH, Rutgers student Mike Swift wrote an excellent article on why not to run a hackathon http://theycallmeswift.com/2013/10/25/dont-throw-that-hackathon/ and it exemplifies exactly what should be avoided when throwing such an event. What the author says should be something that should be internalized at HackIllinois: “Hacks are just that… they are hacks”. Hacks are just pieces of code cobbled together - just as a writer in the flow spits words onto a page, a hacker wired in spits out code. And just as writers would never submit a first draft for publication, hackers should never presume that their project is done after the hackathon. Like a good writer, the hackathoner should make it stable and share it. No one should be going into a hackathon thinking they are going to change the world because that requires more than 36 hours and working at a scale hackathons cannot provide. That being said, hackathons are wonderful tools for 2 types of projects.
- Crank out a prototype
- If there is an idea that has been itching in your head, a hackathon is a great place to put pen to paper
- This traces back to the first hackathon at BSD.
- Hopefully this turns into something more, a patch to a FOSS project that reaches millions of people or a brand new technology (will require more than 36 hours)
- If there is an idea that has been itching in your head, a hackathon is a great place to put pen to paper
- Demonstrate a proof of concept
- How can you make something do what it was never supposed to do
- This goes back to the core of the hacking movement,
- Excellent example is Saurik and the Jailbreaking movement or ROM hackers for Android.
- Another good one is the Car controller for Mario Kart - Catch Me if You Can
- Hopefully the hacker puts out a guide or at least the source so other can learn
- This goes back to the core of the hacking movement,
- How can you make something do what it was never supposed to do
One may see that these two categories are symbiotic. These categories do not presume anything past the restrictions of a hackathon, but focus on sharing the result, which is what hackathons are about.
HackIllinois’ motto should be “Contribute Something Amazing”. Hackathons should not be about founding startup or curing cancer. They should be a place to create, contribute, and explore. Contribution could take the form of a discovery or a patch, and we should encourage people not just make something and leave it, they should feel proud and inspired enough to keep working and sharing it with others.
Applications of existing APIs are not strong qualifiers. A video search engine that glues two external APIs (one to process images and another to process text) with some basic engineering glue is not in the spirit of the ideal of make a contribution, since nothing new was learned. It is extremely important to notice that this protects the event from imminent data science projects that will visualize data provided from leveraging existing analysis on large open datasets.
While the entire event is geared towards open source, that doesn’t mean the elimination of the unique whimsicality HackIllinois is well known for, since that is a major part of the HackIllinois brand and success.
The event should have 3 key values:
- Students should be creating legitimate projects, either by contributing to the world of open source, or by developing novel uses of common (open source) technologies or devices and there should be a focus on getting those contributions released to the public (i.e. Open Licensing)
- HackIllinois should attract the most motivated students from around the nation. This can be done by the unique opportunity that is presented by being able to work with key people from the CS community.
- The people who come to HackIllinois should represent various backgrounds i.e young, old, male, female etc.
And the event should seek to be something
- Whimsical and Fun
- A unique experience that sets people on a new path
- A place where the FOSS community gets to interacts and mentor students.
- A place of mentorship and study at a depth not typical of a hackathon.
Our inspirations are not other college hackathons, but rather meetups like Twillo BASH, or Greylock Hackfest.
Twilio BASH is a small event tied to the Signal Conference. It featured a carnival type atmosphere with a bunch of games centered around the CS culture (e.g a virtual boat race where successfully debugging a code snip-it moves your boat ahead, a 4 v 4 person arcade game or a lego building competition). Winners of these games would earn tickets which could be exchanged for prizes like a NES or headphones. This might be a fun way to let people go home with something without the idea of judging and prizes. It would also be a great way to take a break.
Greylock Hackfest exemplifies the execution goals of HackIllinois: mentorship is plentiful, there is an extremely wide variety of participants, and events like a midnight carnival or a chocolate fountain provided memorable experiences. Submission-wise, this was a very selective hackathon, and as a result, API hacks were rare. Many hacks were full platforms or clean apps, there was even one group trying to recreate Project Soli from a RC car https://atap.google.com/soli/.
These events should serve as inspiration for how to make an event memorable but they don’t represent the values that HackIllinois should stand for. Ultimately what we should aim for is the vibe of a quirky LAN party: Lots of food, lots of fun, and lots of people having a good time with each other while learning and contributing. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5302940
What HackIllinois 2017 looks like
- 300-400 external (non-UIUC) hackers, hard max.
- All UIUC students are accepted to walk in, however swag and food is only promised to those who pre-register.
- Target ratio of 1:1 Non-UIUC to UIUC
- Admission is partially random and partially via a completely objective merit based system (e.g admissions puzzle)
- No cap on project team size.
- Registration must be put out in late Nov, early Dec to give us time to react to demand.
- All projects made and submitted during HackIllinois 2017 should be open released as open source under a FOSS license (e.g GPL, MIT, UIUC/NCSA, CC) to be eligible for judging
- A significant portion of the attendees (not counting the 300-400 + UIUC students) should be active developers on Open Source projects
- Target 30% active Open Source developers.
- Any Open Source project represented must send min 3 mentors but ideally 5-10
- This should enable a ratio mentor to student ratio of 1:2-3 while keeping groups around 10 to 15.
- This means personal attention and resiliency from people who dip.
- This was learned from attempting the small group size model in 2016 with 1 mentor and 3-4 hackers. Ultimately small issues (hackers leaving, mentor sleeping in etc.) had an outsized impact on the success of the team. Due to some natural reorganization during the event we saw that a low mentor hacker ratio but large group size made it easier to react to these issues
- This should enable a ratio mentor to student ratio of 1:2-3 while keeping groups around 10 to 15.
- Sponsors of HackIllinois 2017 should have interest in Open Source and should send 3-5 Engineers to work with students on one of their open source projects
- The company showcase should be named a tech showcase, where they alongside the open source projects, present an open source technology and the problems that need to be solved.
- This occurs during the team matching phase at the beginning of the hackathon.
- Submissions for judging should be of one of 2 categories
- Patch or Feature to existing Open Source Platform
- E.g Contribution to Ubuntu 16.10
- A start of a new Open Source project (could be PoC with future)
- E.g If ACM wanted to open source Groot
- Can be mainly Proof of Concept, but must have clear path forward. The ‘mario in a car’ project from HackIllinois 2016 would only qualify if the team had clearly shown a path toward emulating other key-presses and playing other games, etc.
- Condition: There must be a team of min 3 people who worked on this project for it to be eligible
- Patch or Feature to existing Open Source Platform
- Logically, Web APIs will not be a part of this hackathon
- VIP Speakers and judges should have a hard bent towards open source
- E.g Chris DiBona, Director of Open Source - Google
- Workshops and Tutorials need to have a strong open source basis and should ideally be put on by the projects not the event. Some should exist specifically to introduce developers to the FOSS flow.
- How to choose a license
- How to submit a patch, Pull Request
- Tool chain and build tools
- Prizes should not be monetary
- Should be items or experiences such as
- Compute time on Blue Waters
- Tickets to DefCon
- Should be items or experiences such as
- A special “Test of Time” prize should be awarded 3-6 months after the event for the group who has made the most progress
- HackIllinois should still maintain its whimsicality
- I.e Strong theming
- HackIllinois should encourage healthy hacking
- Places to actually sleep
- Set up hosts for example.
- Have healthy food
- Places to actually sleep
- Use the opportunity to showcase Champaign-Urbana
- Midnight tours
- Try something like Twilio Bash to get people’s minds off hacking for a bit
- Allows students to win prizes while not making the hackathon overly competitive
- Have games like Debugging Boat Race
- 4v4 Arcade Battle
- Lego Building comp.
- Improve event long activities
- Cluehunt (a favorite amongst hackers)
- Make sure that Hardware and Software Open Source Projects are represented
- Raspberry Pi
- RepRap 3D Printers
- A final part of expo at the end of the event should have the groups (all teams competing + any leftover sponsors) presenting ways to get further involved in their projects
What is Open Source?
“Open-source software (OSS) is computer software with its source code made available with a license in which the copyright holder provides the rights to study, change, and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose” -Wikipedia
At it’s core, Open Source is little more than providing your project’s source code (read: having it up on github), and attaching a Open Source software license to it, in which you release your ability to sue people for using it. Since we live in an age of github repositories and stackoverflow code snippets, the idea that you can be sued over using a code snippet from the internet is beyond foreign. Many don’t realize that before Open Source won out as the dominant way to develop software, code simply wasn’t shared openly on github: it was hidden and viciously protected by lawyers as proprietary software. The simple idea of releasing your code for free for people to use and play around with was immensely powerful: people began contributing to large projects in their free time, collaboratively creating immensely complex software projects that would become some of the software we know today (Linux, Python, etc..). Open Source so crushed that we don’t realize there could have a been a completely different historical outcome had everyone stuck to their lawyers and kept their codebases proprietary. O’Reilly - Open Source Won.
The Open Source ideals do not stop at software. The Open Hardware is a growing community as well, featuring the open 3D printing platform RepRap, Arduino, and more. There are efforts and many other disciplines, Biology, Design, Architecture that all are looking to incorporate open source ideals into their workflows. Open Design [IDEO] - Avacado, Open Interaction Design [Facebook] - Origami
Note: Open Source is not a theme like wilderness or space. It is a focus like hardware or software. HackIllinois should still have a separate theme. Which leads to a secondary point, the theme does not need to be interconnected with focus.
Why Open Source
Embracing the culture of Open Source will gain us access to this community and the people who run it. While it may seem that embracing the FOSS movement is not a major change for our generation, just the shift in terminology will have deep impact on the mindset with which hackers come in with, as the FOSS movement traditionally embodies a spirit of open collaboration and building out software for the greater good.
Open Source also brings these added benefits:
Many great relationships in CS span generations Adve and Latner, Clark and Andreesen. This is an opportunity unique to HackIllinois where you actually meet developers who are not your age.
More than just recruiters and hackathoners. The current Hackathon paradigm focuses on prizes and flair, leaving mentorship to a desperate call for peer mentoring among hackathoners and recruiters who attend the event regardless. It is at the point that no participant (barring first timers) expects to learn anything from the mentorship system, aside from fixing an issue.
Existing strong traction among sponsors and participants HackIllinois 2016 demonstrated very strong traction among Open Source participants, from both participants and mentors, despite a sideshow execution. Interest is on the rise, with Chris DiBona, Google’s head of open source reaching out after hearing about the initiative. Google’s summer of code annually connects ~200 Open Source organizations with about ~1000 students. This is a big deal.
Solves continuity problem Hackathons are often looked down as competitions that go nowhere and contribute nothing. Open Source, by it’s nature, counters this trend.
Open Source tends to attract strong developers It is no secret that legitimate developers at some point are drawn to Open Source, whether of good will or the prestige of contributing. Companies know this. Open Source organizations know this.
Very Unique No other college hackathon has done anything significant in the Open Source space, the potential to become a groundbreaking and original leader in the hackathon space is wide open. As a result, there is also uniquely additional opportunities for media coverage / hype.
Inherently high visibility By the nature of Open Source, the event proselytizes itself. Participating organizations will broadcast their presence, and the work itself is thrust upon the community.
Why the Hybrid Model does not work
The obvious compromise is to make open source a larger part of the event as it currently stands. However, the hybrid model dilutes the strengths of Open Source and ultimately this means less people benefit from what is been shown to be a superior model, and the software and hardware aspects lose out due to a less resources and time devoted (you end up half assing both parts). This is best exemplified by the feedback given by hackers in the Open Source Program:
“The Open Source program was a great experience for our team, because we finally had time, mentorship, and resources to further an open source project that we had actually started. However, despite HackIllinois’ calling for projects that would outlive the hackathon, most of our team felt like the Open Source program was a sideshow during the event… We really appreciated the intent behind Open Source, but a lot of activities at the event didn’t back up its goals.“ - Open Source Hacker HackIllinois 2016
While the Open Source Program at HackIllinois 2016 was a pilot program, the criticism was warranted. Most people if given the choice will do what feels normal and and that is contrary to the goals of the event.
The battle between breadth and depth harkens back to business models and the battle between horizontal (Google) and vertical integration (Apple). As a champion of horizontal integration, Google tends to get a little involved in each space, being dominate in some and doing woefully poor in others (ehm, Google+). Apple is the opposite, controlling every detail that goes into their products, but as a result can only focus on a handful of products . Neither company’s approach is particularly better in the overall business space as both annually alternate as the “world’s most valuable company”. VentureBeat - Vertical vs. Horizontal
However, only one of these models truly fits within the context of HackIllinois values. As an organization, we seek to create a hackathon that provides the absolute best experience while advocating for this different style of hacking. By trying to commit to all initiatives, we do not show commitment to any specific values and thereby endorse a mediocre product: the MLH style hackathon.
Note: A hackathon becomes legendary when it goes hard in one aspect of their experience. MHacks used to go hard at sheer scale, sacrificing food quality and experience quality, yet consistently making it very well known hackathon. Making the same hackathon as others, with a theme and a couple extra features is not a solid path to that success.
What about the newbies?
If the expectation of hackers is to make novel uses of tech or add features to the most popular open source projects, the topic of the fate of beginners naturally arises. There are 2 prongs to the strategy.
- Students looking to primarily learn skills such as how to use an API or mobile development will find their needs equally satisfied by the 50+ other collegiate hackathons.
- Students looking to contribute to FOSS but don’t have the technical chops yet or the confidence to move at the speed of React or Angular, can contribute to an open source initiative OpenHackathon, an open source effort we are forming that aims to create the technical tools and providing documentation necessary for anyone to create their own hackathon. This includes the software for registration, check-in, mentorship, dashboard, mobile apps, how to approach sponsors, a prototyping board and more. All of this tech and information will be released under GPL and Creative Commons. This gives the opportunity for students can work alongside other developers passionate in the EdTech / Hackathon space, while providing a high visibility avenue to contribute, while not having the intensity of a large FOSS project.
Incentives and Value Proposition
There are always the questions of incentives to attend and compete, not to mention sponsoring or mentoring. There are two parts to answering these questions: what is our audience, and what is their motivation.
Hackers broadly fall into three camps: those who enter to win (Competition Hackers), those who enter to spend time with their friends/work on a project/enjoy the process of hacking (Casual Hackers), and those who enter to join the movement or learn (Curious Hackers).
Attracting competition hackers should never be a focus of HackIllinois. At their core, these participants are competitors who have developed (and are constantly improving) a formula for winning prizes (fairly famous example http://thetech.com/2014/11/14/hackmit-v134-n54). They only care about the monetary benefit of their attendance, and will strongly affected by any any changes to prizes. Aside from not creating a sustainable spirit, this does not mesh well with HackIllinois’ or the FOSS movement’s values.
Hackers who are solely entering to learn coding or join the college hackathon movement, should not be our main focus as there already exist 50+ hackathons out there focused on this demographic, though we think that the event would be helpful to them, however it is going to be more demanding that many of the hackathons they are used to.
We need to target hackers who are looking to contribute to the greater Software Engineering community (the Free and Open Source Software movement) or are looking to work on projects of substance. It may seem exclusive but creating a beginner-oriented hackathon is (at the time of this writing) incredibly redundant throughout the hackathon space.
Our core target group is people who feel disenfranchised by the current hackathon culture, people who understand or seek to understand Free and Open Source Software. As noted previously, these people are typically great engineers looking for a push to contribute to the things they have used or seen. Initially, these hackers will be skewed toward a certain profile, but provided they have great experiences (good food, good fun and good people) they will spread the word and bring more and more of the other two groups next year and the year after. These participants will also understand that good work never goes unnoticed, and see that they can potentially get an employee referral based on their work. By bringing Open Source to the hackathon scene, we stand to make a significant change in Open Source involvement at the college level.
That being said, in order to increase the probability of people attending, several significant incentives must be available. The first should be an incredible event in and of itself, and we are able to leverage the tremendous reputation of HackIllinois in this respect. . The next incentive is a form of travel compensation. From our experience during HackIllinois 2016, we know that it is important that well defined and clear-cut qualification criteria should be put in place. As a potential qualification for a target of 300-400 non UIUC attendees, is the following offer of acceptance to the event: hackers more than 350 miles (Ann Arbor) to 500 miles (Pittsburgh) away will be given reimbursements but will in summation not make up more than ⅓ of the accepted hackers. Criteria for reimbursements could be determined from a variety of factors, from just distance to prior contributions to FOSS or other hacker-related criteria (e.g. demographic representation).
As many people will be traveling, another possible incentive is the ability to stay in a UIUC students dorm, HackMIT style. This creates an opportunity to forge a connection with someone at UIUC, someone who could showcase UIUC and make sure to take care of their guest and others visiting, ensuring there is always a place to sleep and safely store belongings. It also encourages healthy hacking (a key point often brought up by critics of the college hackathon scene), and insures that each participant has someone to ask when they need something or have a problem. This is key to making new and old hackers alike feel welcome.
In this new pivoted event, prizes are somewhat obvious but need to be overhauled from previous years. There should no longer be a 1st, 2nd, 3rd place hack because frankly it makes no sense - deciding priority between the top several hacks has always been difficult and very subjective and only creates division and salt.
One possible method of allocating prizes is a vote of all participants. Participants would vote for: “Best Contribution to a FOSS Project” (like if someone added a new graphics driver to Ubuntu), and “Most Interesting New FOSS Project”. Particularly, one “Test of Time” prize should be given 3-6 months after the end of HackIllinois and given to the team that has been the most productive after the end of HackIllinois. The endorsement it gives the winner, that huge members of the FOSS and hacking community liked their submission the best is something truly special.
The prizes would take the form of items that will provide new experiences or resources, not just money. Good examples are items like tickets to conferences such as DefCon, SXSW, WWDC, Google I/O, and O’Reilly OSCON, items such as a GTX 1080 (great for CUDA and Deep Learning) or very unique prizes such as a couple hours on Blue Waters.
Since HackIllinois is only giving out about 3 top prizes (we do want to avoid sponsor prizes since that doesn’t really jive with the FOSS mentality) a prize giving event such as Twilio Bash, carnival type atmosphere, and CS-related minigames with prizes that can be bought with won tickets (e.g. NES, flash drives, HackIllinois swag and company swag) may provide the same thrill of having something to take home (while not just being something you queue in line for upon registration and leave with).
The Question of Initiatives
From data gathered from 3 prevalent hackathons (HackIllinois, MHacks, BoilerMake). The idea of separating segments of the hacking population into initiatives adds a lot of complexity for very little added benefit.
We saw in 2016, 20% of submissions were hardware projects (16% if you don’t include VR and smart watches) , 21% in 2015 (10% if you don’t include VR and smart watches) , and 16% in 2014 (11% is you don’t count VR and smart watches) for HackIllinois. We had 216, 180, and 135 submissions total for 2016, 2015, and 2014 respectively
Mhacks 6 had 15% (12% if take out VR and smartwatch only hacks) out of 276 submissions, MHacks 5 had 19% (11% if you take out VR + smartwatches) out of 274 submissions
Boilermake, the hardware hackathon got 21% (19% without smartwatches or VR) in 2015 out of 84 submissions, 24% in 2014 (20% without smartwatches (10% of which featured the boilermake badge)) out of 99 submissions
The increase at HackIllinois 2016 is most likely due the increased availability of hackable hardware. Intel pulled hard here, as well as us not focusing on having every type of resistor but more stuff like myo, drones, arduino shields, etc.
For the hacker, the value of an open source event comes from several key experiences . Primarily, it lowers the learning curve for getting involved in FOSS, a very rewarding but initially intimidating community . This is a gap that many people find hard to cross and having someone to hold your hand through the process is tremendously reassuring . Once students cross the gap, being involved in FOSS is as simple as committing to Github - it is no longer otherworldly. Throughout their experience, students will learn about aspects of FOSS that are not talked about outside the FOSS circles such as licensing, governance, communication and organization . Students will make valuable connections with people in and out of college and create connections that will last beyond the hackathon, not just from a personal perspective (as happens in most events), but also as a technical/developer peer. As participants will be working with the mindset that their code will be used and freely distributed, they will be required to adhere to good engineering practices and as a result have something to be proud off / show off at the conclusion of the event. By closing ceremony, participants will head home having had a good time, having learned a lot in a unique developer ecosystem, met some top tier people and a full bag of swag and prizes.
Mentors would want to come to HackIllinois because it is a wonderful platform to find new people to contribute to their projects. It is also a way to showcase their projects in front of companies and students, and just as companies do in traditional hackathons ( representatives of FOSS projects do have an interest in evangelizing their projects). Mentoring is also a great way to get involved in education; training the next generation of engineers in good engineering practices. Benefits should include hotels for the night between Sat and Sun, and eligibility for prizes just like the hackers.
Mentorship should consist of large groups i.e 10 - 15 hackers, and ~3-5 mentors for each project. We learned from Open Source of HackIllinois 2016 that the most successful groups are those that can lose or add people as necessary, while keeping the ratio between hackers and mentors low. It is imperative that participating projects bring as many mentors as they can.
Outreach should be based around projects, e.g. React, Angular, Tensorflow, Debian, Ubuntu, ASP.NET.
Having high profile projects well represented at HackIllinois is key to making Open Source work. Using the networks created by Google Summer of Code, the Apache Foundation and others will give us a way to expand our contacts and put us in touch with more projects.
Potential VIPs (Speakers or Judges)
Chris DiBona, head of Google Open Source (!!!) has already reached out. Other great speakers would include
- Saurik (spoke last year, Cydia)
- Juan Bennet (spoke last year and was a favorite, IPFS)
- James Gosling (Java)
- Linus Torvalds
- Vikram Adve, Chris Lattner (Creators of LLVM)
- Andy Rubin, et. al. (Android)
- Bjarne Stroustrup (C++ creator)
- Guido van Rossum (Python Creator)
Anyone from any organization within Google Summer of Code 2016. It’s 176 orgs, you can’t really miss.
Sponsors can point to this event as a huge signal that they are committed to Open Source, something that many companies try to do but struggle to find an avenue to do so through. By sponsoring HackIllinois, a company is investing in the next generation of open source not only with their dollars but by getting their hands dirty sitting down with people and writing code. As in hackathons of year past, they will still benefit from the traditional hackathon perks, resumes, having a recruiter on site etc. However, they will now be converting a set of hackathon goers into contributors (more than just developers) for their platforms, and will benefit from the exposure in such a high profile community (Hackathon-FOSS). Sponsoring the event will also present the opportunity to gain mindshare with a very productive set of hackers who are known for creating and maintaining more involved projects, something more valuable to a company than the broadcast approach to API advertising. As a result, a participating sponsor has more to take home than API usage numbers, they have attracted elite developers, found collaborators to improve or maintain Open Source resources, and exposed themselves to the community as champions of furthering the community they sponsor.
Who Sponsors an Open Source Hackathon
Prominent examples of companies that make Open Source a core part of their value system include: Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, CoreOS, Mesosphere, Meteor and Databricks. Some of these companies have explicitly reached out to get involved with Open Source (specifically, Chris DiBona. Google’s Summer of Code annually connects ~1,000 students to ~200 Open Source projects.)
Sponsors from last year involved in Open Source
- Github (!!!)
Note: Something important about reaching out concerning Open Source is to hit an engineer or director of the project because recruiters may not see the benefit immediately as an engineer would. Having an engineer on the inside, especially higher up in the organization will make our jobs much easier as they can help advocate for the importance of supporting FOSS.
Note. Be careful when reaching out to FOSS groups to use the correct terminology. Many groups (e.g GNU) will tell you to go away if you use the term Open Source or Free Software with the wrong group. It is worthwhile to have a briefing on the differences between free software and open source and to research the groups before reaching out. When in doubt use the term FOSS (Free and Open Source Software). It will also be important in terms of branding to make sure HackIllinois is a FOSS hackathon not an Open Source Hackathon for similar reasons. Note that many of these organizations are interconnected (e.g Apache) and thus it is important to create a strategy that hits the most people personally without spamming.
The value proposition and incentives for the staff is important as well if we are to avoid the staff churn by other large hackathons (read: MHacks). By pivoting to Open Source, the staff will feel that they are part of something actively growing, brand new, and in control of a very significant new paradigm. Not only are individual staff members getting more responsibility, they are in a unique position to shape a completely new movement in the Hackathon space. If HackIllinois continues to be a “college hackathon” many of the people who have the most to contribute will not stick around, because there is nothing to solve. Chris McAvoy of Mozilla Open Badge has an analogy for this:
“The attackers and defenders of an empire. In an empire, no one is eager to stick around and defend what is captured, just as developers are drawn to active development and not documentation of what has been created, despite the importance of doing so. “
HackIllinois in 2-3 years
HackIllinois must fully commit to a transition from an event staff to a real year-round organization to back this shift to Open Source. This ensures that there are always community members ready to get involved while maxing the utility of each staff member. The current model of 15-30 people working year-round on putting on HackIllinois (contacting mentors, contacting hackers, sponsors etc.) and the rest running other events within CS/ECE community is a step in the right direction. HackNights is a good start, however we can leverage existing CS communities to put on events like a GameJam with Gamebuilders or putting on the Datasummit with ADSA. This has the twofold benefit of creating sustainable (each will be learning experience for the staff) and interesting events (empowering specialists to put on a great event). As an organization, HackIllinois can use these events as another avenue of fundraising for the main event as multiple companies will be interested in private events depending on their recruiting focus. This opens the possibility of focusing on companies that strongly align and add value to the main event, while developing stronger, more specialized sponsor-community relations in these private events. As a result, we can concentrate companies who are truly serious about supporting our vision and not tagging along for recruiting or platform evangelization (as is the common case in today’s hackathons admittedly).
This grand vision of this pivot questions HackIllinois’ current position in the CS @ ILLINOIS ecosystem - does HackIllinois just put on events or does it mean more? HackIllinois should be the representation of the hacker movement at UIUC: it should work to move the idea of hacking from prizes and startups (which quite frankly aligns better with Founders/54.io) to creative ideas and making something that changes how people think or makes something better. Illini Hackers is a shell of an organization that often refers to itself as “just a facebook group”. This should not be the way it is: hackers should have a place and set of resources at their disposal, whether it is the ability to checkout hardware for a hackathon, to travel scholarships, or busses arranged (all of which can be provided by HackIllinois Org currently). It will also make HackIllinois a more cohesive part of the hacker community, where organizers and attendees are the same set of people and are constantly in touch with a variety of other groups, other university’s hacking organizations, companies, etc.. It also ensures that HackIllinois will always be run by hackers, people who are in the loop and know what needs to change about hackathons. This alleviates an issue that other large hackathons are suffering through (read: MHacks), where the hackers and the organizers are starting to split into two bipartite sets (and often averse to unification). Through unification, we open more opportunities for hackers and organizers, as they will always have either other’s knowledge to tap.
Services and Roles
The organization should be split broadly into two parts, one focusing on the hackers of UIUC and the other on putting on the events.
There should be one person elected as the representative of the Hackers, his or her role is to provide organization and resources to the hackers. This includes being the point of contact for other hackathons, organizing busses, setting up hardware loans, and scholarships. Scholarships in particular should be a point of importance to the hacker representative. It may be tempting for people to apply for a scholarship so they get a free trip to some other University, a good condition of acceptance to mitigate maybe being that hackers awarded a scholarship are required to make some sort of contribution to the FOSS community at the hackathon they are attending. This will continue HackIllinois’ commitment to FOSS and be a valuable motivation for hackers to get more involved in FOSS. This could range from a small platform the hacker creates to hacker contributing to a major FOSS project. Perhaps this representative can contact other universities hacking organizations to set up interesting remote events, arrange to have hosts for UIUC hackers and more. Overall, this side of the organization is responsible for organizing the hackers: through a tutorial series, small codejams in the middle room of ACM, or just getting them to come to HackNights, as well as managing relationships with other hacking organizations. At the minimum this side of the organization should have a general meeting once a semester to remind people of the resources available and of upcoming hackathons that semester.
The Organizers’ role is to put on HackIllinois events. They should be focusing on HackIllinois but also work to engage people in the hacker community through events and opportunities at UIUC. Obviously, this includes the main event but should extend beyond. Events such as HackNights are vital. In addition to the above, they should be looking for ways to present people with the chance to get involved on campus in hacking and FOSS in creative ways, as well as connecting the UIUC community with outside groups.
The face of the organization should be the director(s) of the HackIllinois event, since they can represent both the interests of the hackers and organizers as a result of the relationships (with the department and other organizations) built during the planning and execution of the Main Event. The five main leads should consist of the representative of the hackers, the director of HackNights and the 3 major branches of HackIllinois, forming a balanced team that keeps the hackers in mind while still remaining conscious of the requirements of putting on a hackathon.
Meetings and Workflow
The format for meetings for each brand/subgroup will be a little different.
IlliniHackers should have at least one general meeting at the beginning of each semester just like UIUC’s IEEE Chapter, that reminds people of the services that IlliniHackers can provide, the hackathons for the coming semester, and to get feedback on which people would like transportation to. This is essential to starting to build a community. Further meetings should be organized by the Hacker representative and may include tutorials and workshops. IlliniHackers should also strongly encourage attendance at HackNights.
As HackIllinois Staff has decreased in size, one weekly meeting is all that is required to remain synced. A second weekly meeting may be put on in conjunction with the organizers of HackNights in the style of the HackIllinois 2016 staff meetings. This will give students a chance to learn from the HackIllinois Staff and for the staff to consider succession and new hires. HackIllinois should be actively looking to bring more people on as they prove themselves, and all members of this group should be aware of the sheer amount of work that is required to make HackIllinois happen. TL;DR: Hire slow, fire never (ideally).
HackNights should have one meeting a week with more if necessary for the success of a planned event. This meeting should include the organizers of HackIllinois to serve as mentors and ensure that the greater organization’s interests are maintained.
Software and documentation developed for OpenHackathon should be created in the process of creating HackIllinois and the HackNights. However, there should be someone to maintain the organization, accept pull requests to the code base, and maintain overall presence.
Slack was found to be a great method of communication in the planning of HackIlinois 2016. However, several key lessons were learned. First, only active organizers who are working for the Organizers side of the org should have access, signified by having a hackillinois.org email (which should be cleaned each year). IlliniHackers can have its own org wide slack, but might not be necessary since there already exists a Facebook group.
Almost everything on the HackIllinois Slack should be public (minus budget discussions which should be confined to the Director, the head of HackNights, the 3 Department heads for HackIllinois and the representative of the hackers). This means that anyone who wants to contribute ideas can do so to any part of the organization. In addition, this will ensure that ideas and themes are more easily shared among all parties. Tiers of Slack access was the predominant reason most of Hackillinois 2016 staff felt that they did not know what was going on, in addition to stifling inter-department conversation within the HackIllinois organizing team. Maintaining this transparency also serves to further respect the time that people are putting into this organization by not presuming that only certain people should be allowed to comment or be informed on certain topics. Further, individuals’ contributions to this open slack will expose solid candidates for future roles in HackIllinois, as these contributions are a solid metric by which to recruit.
- #general <- @channel disabled here (for non admins)
- #random <- @channel disabled here
- #hackillinois (general for hackillinois)
- #hacknights (general for hacknights)
- #hacknight_[date] <- these are small staffs so further breakdown is not needed
- Leadership of major branches of the org + treasurers + active advisors
- Past directors and core who still want to help
Any further private communication can go through DMs Adhering to this layout will maximize transparency within the organization, excellent for avoiding the creation of factions and discontent.
Branding / Brand Management
IlliniHackers should be the presumptive name of the unified organization that represents the hackers and the organizers of the event. It will also be used to refer to the hackers themselves. We currently have admin rights to the FB group though admin rights to FB page need to be acquired. As noted above, IlliniHackers also must grow into an actual community past a loose collection of hackathon goers. This includes outreach programs, like hardware checkout, and scholarships.
Note: ‘IlliniHackers’ should be stylized to have no space to mirror the branding of HackIllinois and HackNights.
HackIllinois is the flagship event of the IlliniHackers/HackIllinois organization, its brand has been maintained over the years as a whimsical, highly produced hackathon. This image must be maintained while integrating the Open Source aspect. This means that the same level of art, design and execution must be maintained.
HackNights are events put on by the unified IlliniHackers/HackIllinois organization that serve several purposes: they train the next generation of HackIllinois Staff, work to serve those who may not want to attend hackathons but still want to be apart of the community, and allow fundraising. HackNights should be individually branded and themed toward the topic of focus but should strive to have the same level of production as the main event.
OpenHackathon is a FOSS initiative to give people the resources and software to make throwing a hackathon as easy as possible. We already have control of a domain (openahackathon.org), github org (/open-hackathon) and twitter account (@openhackathon). What is left is to craft a brand around this movement, with a set of design guidelines and terms of usage to protect the brand.
HackNights serve multiple purposes both within the organization, department, and greater community. HackNights are the training ground for our next HackIllinois Staff members, where they can run an event at a smaller scale and learn the skills required to plan and execute events. This comes from the experience of smaller CS events Flight_196 and SAIL/Splash, where alums of those events were more tuned into the requirements of putting on an event, e.g. getting food, booking rooms and facilities, sponsors, making engaging content etc. For companies, HackNights are an opportunity to hold a more interesting/specialized techtalk, either via a tutorial & hack structure or just a pure ‘use-our-platform’ event. Finally, HackNights are an entry point for many new hackers to get involved within a low stakes environment and for more experienced hackers to learn about new tools. This will make a great substitute for the sort of targeted intro level workshops that were part of HackIllinois (How to Make a Mobile App, How to Use Node, What is Azure, etc.)
Each HackNight should have a technology focus. This focus may be platform based (such as Microsoft Azure), or a more broad theme such as games (similar to a GameJam). Each HackNight should also have a domain-related sponsor attached, who is responsible for funding the event and providing (some to all) mentorship. If possible, HackNights may also want to partner with a group within the University who focus on the topic. For instance EA could sponsor a gamejam with Gamebuilders providing some mentorship, or IDEO sponsor a design hackathon with Design for America.
Despite a focus on a technology, the organizers should still try to bring the HackIllinois whimsicality to the event as well. This may not have to be done through thematic choices, it could be through mini games, or some other method (the creative decisions to which we leave as an exercise to the reader).
As previously noted, HackNights should also feature the same sort of attention to design and branding that HackIllinois does. This means assets should be created (e.g FB banner image), good graphical layout practices should be adhered to and a global set of branding guidelines should be created in conjunction with HackIllinois to serve as a starting point.
Obviously we want to target people who are members of the CS community, but we should also be looking to engage people around campus, whether it means having a hardware HackNight in ECEB, or a Bio inspired HackNight. In a generic sense, the goal of HackNights should be introduce people to what hacking as an activity and culture is, in some unique context/domain, and thus the target audience is wide. Engagement and Incentives
Past HackNights efforts were met with varying success. The ACM tradition of a ‘start of the year’ hacknight was met with great engagement as it was as much hacking as you could get on campus outside of HackIllinois in Fall 2013. The HackNight in the beginning of Fall 2014 was sponsored by Dropbox and also had great engagement. However, as time worn on, the vibe shifted to working on homework while taking advantage of the free food as people became more numb to the novelness of hacking. There a number of ways to mitigate this and it starts with strongly differentiating coming to a HackNight and staying home and hacking. The primary way to do this is a huge amount of personal mentorship. If you can present mentorship more personalized than stackoverflow, then people will come to learn and ask questions (even if debugging). The second part of the strategy is to broaden the focus from just CS majors, to people who have yet to catch the hacking bug. An an example, if a bunch of design majors are invited, their enthusiasm will alter the atmosphere because they bring something new to the table (and to continue the metaphor, we bring something new to theirs). Having mini games w/ associated prizes will also help, as it changes the feel from staring at a screen writing code to more of a LAN party feel. Prizes will help the atmosphere, but must fit several constraints. Prizes should not just be money, a good prize is something that interacts with the theme or sponsoring company, e.g tickets to WWDC for a HackNight sponsored by Apple. Participants vying for a prize must present the technical specifications of their hacks and not just the functionality of their creation (must disclose APIs/significant codebases used). Winners can either be chosen by consensus of the attendees or by the sponsors given some criteria determined by the HackNight Organizers.
Sponsors of HackNights should not be sponsors of HackIllinois and vice versa unless there is a clear benefit for all three parties (e.g RedHat may want to do a security HackNight leading up to HackIllinois as part of their sponsorship). Many traditional HackIllinois sponsors will not be a fit for the FOSS version and HackNights is an excellent way to maintain that corporate relationship. There will be some sponsors who prefer one over the other (HackIllinois vs HackNights and vice versa). As such, a good price must be established which does not overcompete with HackIllinois and would generate income for HackIllinois but is not too high to scare sponsors off. Part of the deal should be the requirement that actual engineers be present at the hackathon, as there is little to gain for hackers otherwise. As a sidenote, sponsors should also be companies that hackers would like to interact with and are well regarded within the community; the sponsoring company should be part of the attraction. Integration with HackIllinois and IlliniHackers
HackNights is quite obviously the training ground for HackIllinois and also how we maintain the IlliniHackers community throughout the year. It might be interesting to explore HackNights as events which build up to HackIllinois in some way. This is ultimately up to the directors of HackIllinois, the Hacker Rep and HackNights.
A theme needs to be decided on. Action points need to be drawn up. A sponsorship doc needs to be created that that presents HackIllinois as the Free and Open Source hackathon, lays out the benefits and established what we seek in a sponsor. The sponsorship game plan should include a place for HackNights, whether it is recommended to companies that don’t match the Open Source profile or as an additional benefit. Outreach for mentors from Open Source groups and sponsors needs to be executed this summer. A summer budget must be established so Experience can start to plan and execute fast. Outreach for HackNights must explicitly start this summer as well and HackNights should be starting to set up for the first HackNight (being held 3-4 weeks into the semester). Systems work should be aware of OpenHackathon and start to work within that context. The fate of IlliniHackers needs to be determined (basically getting control of the FB Page) and a representative for the hackers needs to be chosen. He or she needs to develop a game plan to formalize the organization from the hackers side and prepare for the general meeting at the beginning of the year. This means setting up scholarships, determining how hardware checkout works, and executing on other ideas that come up organically. If well executed, this will secure the org in a position where it is stable and growing, encouraging a refined style of hacking and ready to run a great set of events.
Checkmate, Hackathon Hackers.