This is the first article of the Dilemma series. See more: #hackathons
I want every event organizer out there to be making good decisions every step of the way. But before even thinking about all of those logistical decisions that you will have to make when planning an event, a lot of organizers that I talked to failed to acknowledge the first-ever decision that they have to make – deciding to organize.
Why are you organizing an event in the first place?
I created a survey and shared with a lot of event organizers in the three major communities of event organizers: Hack Club, MLH, and SRND. Quite a few organizers responded to the survey.
One of the questions on the survey asks: "Why are you organizing events?" And the responses that I got generally looks something like this:
... it allows many teens to gain valuable exposure and experience with technology at an applied level...
they brought in priceless rewards like knowledge and community. Changed my life and is growing me into a better person
Yet while these are both awesome motives, they more or less dodged the question. I can very easily take these responses out of context, put them under those questions that collegiate hackathons usually ask on their applications: "What do you like about hackathons?"
Although it indeed requires a certain passion for hackathons for someone to decide to organize an event like this, after all, the question remains, "why organize". After chatting with a lot of event organizers who ran events of various sizes, I came to the realization that people don't understand why they are running a hackathon.
This is actually something that I am still thinking about till this day, after almost 2 years into organizing hackathons.
There's one huge misconception out there about hackathon organizers: "you run a hackathon, you must be really good at coding." For those of us who have been organizing events for a while, and have been connecting to enough organizers of other events, it's not difficult to understand that this is just not true. Organizing a hackathon, to a lot of people, sounds like we're doing a ton of work related to computer science, yet eventually, the organizers are always those doing the busy, dirty work: sending thousands of emails to students, teachers, sponsors, connections to get attendance and support; taking 25 phone calls over a week just to seek a few hundred more dollars of sponsorship; yelling at volunteers and co-organizers on a daily basis to keep things moving forward. Yes, we are hackathon organizers, but after all, we are still organizers.
But that's not saying that being a hackathon organizer is simply indifferent from being a, for example, TedX event organizer. There is one infamous line in the Hack Club community: "Coding is the closest thing we have to a superpower." And that's most true when it comes to organizing hackathons. We're organizers, yet we're not just organizers. We're hackers, builders, and makers. We create solutions. I remember using and improving amazing pieces of software like HackMIT's Quill, reading curated lists like awesome-hackathons, and most importantly, being one of the first users of Hack Club Bank, and watching the platform grow exponentially. This is why organizing hackathons is getting easier and easier for each generation.
So why is this important?
When you decide to be a hackathon organizer, you have to understand the amount of responsibility that you're signing up for. You're going to be a role model for however many students who show up to your hackathon, many of them for the first time – for at least the 24 hours that they are under your roof, you are going to be who they can rely on. You're going to set standards for future hackathon organizers of your community, as what you're doing might inspire a lot of your attendees to do the same.
I still remember having long conversations with other organizers and those on the Hack Club team about failure. I look at failure differently than a lot of them. Some say that for a hackathon organizer to succeed, they must learn through failure. While this may be true for leadership in a lot of other situations, I do not think this should apply to experiences like leading a hackathon.
It may be your first time organizing an event like this, and it is likely that you're not going to do that great. It might be easy for you to think that you're going to do better next time, as you'll be learning from failure, but that's all different with attendees involved in the process. An amazing first experience is incredibly important for most students – I wouldn't be who I am today if not for my experience at Bitcamp 2017. A bad first experience might simply scare them away from events like this in the future, and that's the exact opposite of what you are trying to achieve.
So why do you organize an event?
I think the hacker culture, best seen at hackathons, is the best way to create and bring together entrepreneurs. (Linus Lee, Cal Hacks)
Personally, I like organizing events because I like to be part of a team and make an impact in my local community. It's great to work hard with other people to do something that you know other people will enjoy. It's also a learning opportunity, especially for those non-academic skills that I will need once I graduate. (Federico Naranjo, cuHacking)
I love the rush you get from seeing everything you've worked for come together in the form of such an amazing event, and I love the vibe of a hackathon. (Jules Pierce, PennApps)
Be passionate about what you do. Try not to fail. And trust me, you won't fail if you are really passionate about what you do.
You are not running a great event for yourself. You are running a great event to benefit all of your attendees, whose future paths may simply depend on the 24 hours of experience that they had at your event.