Hosting a hackathon is not easy. But it's worth every ounce of effort. Hang tight, as we delve into an experience that should have been three blog posts long, crammed into one.
The beginning: Rewind to 2017
Two years ago, one of my friends hit me up, and asked:
Hey, have you ever heard of Local Hack Day by MLH? Maybe you should organise one. I did for my campus; It was a lot of fun.
One Google search later, I read: Local Hack Day is a global hackathon hosted by students in over colleges around the world. It's a beginner friendly event spanning 7-12 hours, with the aim of learning, building, and sharing.
I was in my holidays, and my time was being largely spent on Google Code-In. I had roughly 22 days to prepare. I was (still am) overly optimistic as to what can be achieved within deadlines; It's my personal double-edged sword. So I said, why not? I immediately registered, then reached out to a small circle I trusted to get their opinion, possibly support. There were a few NOs, but I decided they would not stop me.
" How to do something you have never tried before? You Google it. "
It takes hundreds of hours of planning, researching, googling, reaching out, talking, emailing, travelling, and more to organize a hackathon. I managed to get 8 sponsors total, who generously covered all hosting costs, plus swag and prizes! We had ~90 registrants and were expecting 75 participants, but only 50-ish showed up. This could have been because InfoTech and 2 more events were running in parallel. Anyway, this was our first experience with real life no-show rates. As the participants started connecting to our hotspot, we realized too late was that even a small crowd of 50 will burn through any amount of data you load on a sim. Thankfully, we did ask the participants to bring their own internet beforehand.
Bringing people together to work on a singular cause is exceptionally rewarding. We met several new people, like Bruno, Veegish, and Yusuf, who were inspired by their first experience at MoHack to pursue a career in tech. Thanks to Logan, Muzaffar, Nigel, Codarren, CSEs, and sponsors, MoHack '17 was a success.
Initially, we weren't planning for a second edition, but the demand was so great, I decided MoHack 2018 had to happen. This time, we had a taste of the process, and the CyberStorm.mu team had my back. We agreed to not to be a Local Hack Day- the date was inconvenient for multiple reasons. Last year taught us that marketing may sound easy, but it's one of the most important and time-consuming parts of the hackathon. If word about your event doesn't reach people then it's dead in the water. We tried something new- Instagram. It's the worst social media platform for mental health, but also the most popular among youngsters - for better or worse. Surprisingly, as applications opened, we had more or less the same number of registrations. Numbers can be deceiving.
So we head off, set everything up in the morning. Using mobile internet for internet last time was a pain in the a**, so we dug up the closest fibre optic cable and jammed it into our router. Voila! (kidding)
Of course, life doesn't just go along that smoothly. The maximum connected devices limit was set too low for some reason. Later Logan found the culprit - a very paranoid (and playful) sysadmin had put up all sorts of walls. A couple of calls and tweaks later we were all set. Connection set, we turn around, Woah! What happened here?!
Same expectations, very different outcome! A LOT more hackers had turned up. Turns out, advertising didn't directly increase our conversion rate. Instead, it established trust and earned MoHack recognition. People heard about the biggest hackathon in Mauritius on social media, and what's more, their friends were also talking about it. A couple "Hey, you know what, we should all hang out at MoHack!" inserted between conversations can have quite a dramatic effect.
After everyone got their badges and settled, I promptly briefed them about the day's schedule. Logan then took over, and explained why students should consider contributing to open source, what cyberstorm.mu is, and got them to sign up on Github to start their open source journey.
Time had slipped swiftly, like sand through the hourglass. Stomach growls signaled that it was time for lunch. After the appetizing, filling meal, lethargy spread around the room. The energy was being diverted from the brain to the digestive system. Maybe we should serve energy drinks with lunch next time, or allocate time for a mini nap... Either way, we got the message loud and clear. Time to jump into the more exciting part of the event: code.
After the tasks were revealed, all the mentors in the cyberstorm.mu helped out each and every participant with their issues. Meeting up with these people, and having personal, 1-on-1 interactions with them, ups everyone's skills and knowledge. You'll see a 14-year-old guy helping out a university student with an Ansible issue, or perhaps an attendee talking about his nmap experience with a professional network engineer. It's truly formidable to witness.
Looking at hackathons in Mauritius and elsewhere, we found some major flaws in their formats:
- Sleepless weekends fueled by junk food and caffeine aren't healthy and don't allow enough time to present a polished, all-rounded work.
- Because of the time constraints, some hackathons choose to offer engaging but ultimately unproductive tasks/tracks. The work produced during these hackathons are either discarded completely (they're useless) or left to rot once it's over.
Of course, you can't tell anyone what to do- you have to be the change you want to see. That's why MoHack allows up to 1 week *after* the event to work on the tasks. What's more, the solutions you write solve issues encountered by real open source projects. All your work is out there in the open,. Maybe you weren't in your element during the hackathon, maybe you were sick, shy, whatever, but that will not stop you from writing code that will be eventually used by millions. Even if you give up, someone else can easily pick it up from there. Open source is rewarding, and way better this way. Oh, so is the sleep you get back.
Over two years, results have proven us right. Through MoHack, over 125 Mauritians joined Github, most uploaded at least some code written in the past, many started used it regularly, and dozens of pull requests have been sent. Collaboration is key in MoHack, and to reward the best we offer prizes to the winning teams. This year's winners were IJ Duo and Undefinable, who did an amazing job.
Even after it was over, many of the participants stayed back to help us clean up and return the hall to its original state. This really touched my heart and makes me really proud that we've managed to create a sense of belonging this strong.
I'd like to thank everyone- the attendees, the mentors, the sponsors, the school, and even those who couldn't attend- for making MoHack what it is today. Next year, we'll be even bigger.