Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
Everybody's Doing It: Some Hackathon Tips
Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2011 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.
I'm helping arrange some developers' events at work. They're meant for open source software developers, testers, documenters, and other contributors to get together, talk, and collaborate. We often call them hackathons. I'm directly planning, with a colleague, the October 14-16 hackathon in New Orleans. But I'm also advising volunteers and people at partner organizations who want to put on technical events -- for example, a British contributor is planning a hackathon in Brighton, 19-20 November. The Wikimedia Foundation itself can only put on a few events a year, but there's plenty of room and demand for smaller regional meetups, so I'm enthusiastically encouraging volunteers who want to throw a hacking party.
People keep acting as though I'll have useful advice for them in hackathon planning, so here goes! I do not want to reinvent the wheel here, so I'm liberally linking to others' existing guides and HOWTOs.
My colleague Siebrand Mazeland wrote some goals for an upcoming hackathon and I like them as an example. Note that this is for an event where we're expecting that most participants will be new to MediaWiki and to open source development in general:
First I'll talk about the social/content side of hackathons, and then some outreach/process stuff, and then the technical/logistics side.
People & Activities
Here's what I wrote while helping plan an upcoming hackathon, one of the first in its region:
Since I predict that at least half of the participants will be new to MediaWiki-related development, we'll want to seed the crowd with some more experienced developers (if possible, from the region). And we'll want to provide some direction and some pre-planned activities, especially for the first day (if we're assuming a two-day hackathon).
One of these activities should be the "how to start modding MediaWiki" lecture/workshop that we first led at Wikimania. A colleague and I will be cleaning up those notes in September to create a curriculum that a local developer could use to teach.
Other preplanned activities would include just enough structure to help inform and guide the energy of new, uncertain participants. For example, organizers should ask several local developers, ahead of time, to prepare sets of tasks that small groups could work on, such as "fix these ten bugs in Kiwix" or "add language support for (this language) to (tool)." It would be best if these developers could also give extremely short talks about their areas of interest (3-5 minutes each, no slides necessary). In the afternoon of the first day, and at the beginning of the second day, there would be a twenty-minute period of these "lightning talks" and then participants could decide what group to join.
I am generally in favor of allowing some room for spontaneity, by asking participants on the first day what they're interested in working on, encouraging them to give ad hoc lightning talks during the short talks sessions, and by encouraging participants to lead sprints on topics of their interest. Technologists feel more inspired and creative if there's lots of support (people who are willing to teach and mentor) but also freedom to discover and concentrate on new interests.
It's tempting for organizers to say "let's concentrate on this! and this! and this!" at a hackathon. But you can't concentrate on localisation, and mobile, and accessibility, and HTTPS, and mass uploaders, and usability, and the article feedback tool, and and and. :-) If you really want some topic focus at the hackathon, choose maybe 2 concentrations a day, and target your outreach and publicity, saying that you especially welcome participation in those areas.
Some Things You'll Need for a successful developer outreach event:
Technical stuff & logistics
Basically, once you have a venue, the next priority is provision for robust wireless (and, if possible, wired) internet, and provision for heavy electrical power usage.
You'll want to have some kind of documentation of your hackathon, to make it easier for people to collaborate (face-to-face and remotely), and to have a record for future reference. As we decided for the Berlin WMDE hackathon this year (thanks to Daniel Kinzler for distilling this hierarchy):
It's great to have two dedicated notetakers/facilitators typing into Etherpad for collborative notetaking, finding and answering questions on IRC and blogging, and walking around talking to people and asking them what they're working on and helping them collaborate more effectively.
And below I'll reproduce a note that Jon Davis, formerly of Wikimedia internal IT, wrote about audio recording and streaming (when planning for the Berlin WMDE developers' days):
The biggest problem is getting reasonably quality audio to a computer. The single biggest complaint I've had... was that it was hard to hear people. [You'll] need some reasonably quality microphones to capture with. If it is presentations, I recommend some sort of shotgun style mic. If it is a group talk, something omnidirectional. The trouble is twofold.There is probably far better advice out there regarding recording/streaming video and audio. I welcome links and experiences.
#2 - The USB omni-directional that I found  isn't cheap, and I've no idea what the quality is.
So [you'd] need at least one mic setup (and probably computer) per area [you] are trying to record. It's not... "great", but it sure beats running a ton of cable, doing mixing and all sorts of much more pro level work. I have no idea what the budget is for that sort of thing, so it might not be a big deal...
You'll also want to consider bathrooms, garbage needs, whiteboards and markers, and maybe childcare, and so on -- the sorts of things conference organizers need to consider, in general. A few guides with tips on what to consider:
Questions, links, comments welcome in the comments.
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