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At last February’s PenHacks, the crowd gathers around as Yesha O., Atul T., and Saad A demo their hack Gµitarix, a miniature guitar pedal built from an Arduino.

College hacking marathons, or hackathons as they’re known to most college students, are something every college student should experience at least once. Hackathons are really awesome ways for you to just get into the zone and just “hack” for about two days straight, more or less.  For some of us, going to a hackathon isn’t enough though! Some of the hackathons that are within your reach may not match up for fulfill the things you look for in an event. When that’s the case, sometimes it may be better to switch roles from “hacker” to “host.” While it wasn’t immediately clear to me what it took to throw together a hackathon, an event and summer of preparation later, I think I’m getting a better idea.

For those of you who are contemplating or in the process of hosting your own hackathon at your campus, here are just a couple of concepts I think you should keep in mind.

1) Conception and Idea

The first idea is simple: make sure you know why you’re throwing a hackathon and what you are trying to achieve with the event and then do all you can to make it a raging success.

I help start PennHacks, the first hardware-based hackathon at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s run by The Architects, the Computer Engineering club at Penn. The very first PennHacks happened last February, with a starting group of about 60 students (both graduate and undergraduate). PennHacks returns Sept. 13 -15 and expects to see about 120 students of all backgrounds participate.

I wanted to get PennHacks up and running because I love both the hardware and software side of hacking and side-projects – there’s so much one can do using an arduino or mBed in a project. It wasn’t even that I didn’t have the opportunity to attend hackathons — PennApps is another bi-annual hackathon hosted at Penn.

I’ve actually participated in PennApps a ton. However, I felt there needed to a hackathon dedicated specifically to hardware hacking. Instead of just hoping for PennApps or some other group to come along and throw together a hardware hackathon, I went out, found a group of like-minded people, and we created our own event.

While throwing together a hackathon from scratch was a trying process, it was a fantastic experience that I know I would have regretted if I decided to stop when the pressure was too high or there was too much work to be done. Even if you just want to throw together a hackathon for the fun of it, stick by your cause and just keep pushing until the end. Chances are, you’ll have started something that’ll keep going

2) Budget

Unfortunately, hackathons are a bit expensive to run. This is where a good network of people and contacts comes in handy (but I’ll talk a little more about that later). Sponsors are a great for hackathons, and perhaps necessary.

Finding sponsors can actually be a bit tough though. That was definitely the case for PennHacks. It took us some time to realize who we needed to contact and find sponsors who aligned with our cause and shared our passion for hardware. Figure out the goals of your hackathon and what you hope to achieve. After you’ve done that, you should then be able to figure out who or what companies would be best suited to help you get your hackathon up and running.

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The Running Gait Rectifier is a project by Aadithya P. and Sonny S. featured at February’s PennHacks. Using an Arduino, the shoe gives feedback to the runner on his or her pace and pressure distribution during the run.

The budget for a hackathon plays so much into how much you interact with your hackers and the overall experience of the hackathon itself. It plays into what you can provide in terms of food, what you do in term of activities, and what you can award in prizes. Of course, budget also depends on the scale of your hackathon: if you’re starting out, a gigantic budget, while fantastic, may not be necessary, but it’ll certainly allow you to increase the size of your event or keep you better prepared for the next one.

3) Schedule

Figure out how long you want your hackathon to go on for. In addition, make sure you have activities or events set aside for your hackathon. A hackathon is like a machine, and a well, thought-out schedule can ensure that everything runs well with as few kinks as possible.

One of the most important things you need to figure out about your event is how long the event will be. Most college hackathons I’ve either attended or considered attending were 24/48/72 hours long. For those especially long hackathons, having breaks or activities at various times certainly helps you and your participants from going stir-crazy and gives them a well-deserved mental break.

Having everything that you want to happen during the hackathon scheduled is incredibly important. So many things can, and probably will, go wrong that it’s good to have plan to fall back on in those scenarios. In addition, having everything figured out before the event gives you more time to yourself while you’re hosting.

4) Swag

Free things have become a major factor in “how awesome” a hackathon has been, at least the way I’ve experience hackathons. After all, free stuff makes people happy. But, while these items may be free for your participants, they’re definitely not free for you. A good thing to look for from your sponsors is their ability to provide “swag” or just items your sponsors can offer to have you hand out. These items can boil down to so many different things: sunglasses, flash drives, cups, etc. However, you shouldn’t rely on your sponsors to provide you the “swag” for your hackers: give your hackers something that they can keep and show-off showing that they hacked at your event. T-shirts are our way of giving our hackers an awesome trophy to show-off how awesome they’ve been while also giving them something that can continue to use after the event is over.

 5) A good network of people

It’s good to have a group of people that you know who are well connected or to simply be well connected yourself. While this may not always be possible, being well connected or simply knowing the right people can open so many doors for your hackathon to evolve. This is why it’s important to find a good group of people to start your hackathon with. Not only will a group of people allow you to spread responsibilities, but it allows individuals with certain attributes to shine in certain aspects of the organization. Knowing the right people will allow you to get locations, swag, and the mentors or teachers you need to help get your hackathon going.

6) Attitude and Expectations

Finally, maintain a good attitude, let loose, and just have fun. Chances are, if this is your first time throwing together a hackathon, not everything will go correctly. Treat everything that goes fine as a success any mishaps as a learning opportunity and a place to improve on next time. Continue to look towards the next hackathon, and eventually you’ll get where you want to be.

Obviously there’s a lot more to throwing a hackathon than what I listed above, but I think, with these points in mind, you’ll be heading in the right direction for throwing together your first hackathon.

Jeffrey Shih

Jeffrey Shih is a senior studying Computer Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s the founder of the Architechs (UPenn’s computer engineering group) and the current Director of PennHacks, which includes duties such as reaching out to companies, scheduling events, and managing the event as a whole.


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