Before you criticise “hackathons”, don’t.

There are a lot of blog posts that criticise hackathons as a general concept, and without exception we think they all get one thing wrong.

Basically, the problem is people write about one specific practice at a hackathon and then use that to condemn all hackathons. In fact, there are many different and diverse ways to run a hackathon. So this is like trying a mango and not liking it, and then condemning all fruit.

Now, we have to be very clear we’re not saying hackathons are beyond criticism. Certain practices at hackathons can cause problems for some people, and this should be raised and discussed freely. But always try and do it in a way that specifically mentions the practice in question and don’t assume all hackathons are the same. Instead, maybe think about different ways you could run a hackathon that would help tackle the problem.

For example,

  • Some hackathons have such onerous terms and conditions that many people argue the sponsor is just trying to get people to work for free and then they will take the best ideas. This does happen sometimes. But not all hackathons do this.
  • Some hackathons encourage people to work all night. It is argued this excludes people with less energy or other commitments such as family. Again, not all do this – I’ve been at ones that encouraged you all to leave at 5pm.
  • Some hackathons feed people pizza all weekend. This is obviously not a healthy balanced diet. But don’t worry – many serve full meals and have fruit around.
  • Some hackathons focus on a business or startup plan. Some people argue not everything should be a business or a startup. Great! Some hackathons are specifically focused on social issues.

Basically, the term “Hackathon” is now applied to such a wide variety of practices that it has to some extent become meaningless. By all means, lets have criticism and constructive debate about certain practices. But don’t assume a particular practice you don’t like happens at all hackathons and write them all off.

Tell people your event has a Code of Conduct!

The tech industry currently has a problem with diversity, and the effects of this hurt us all. We have blogged before about this  and many other people have written far more eloquently than us on this issue.

We said before and still believe there is no one single magic solution that will solve this, but a lot of different work at different points by different people.

One of the things that can help however is events having a Code of Conduct on record and having staff well versed in that code. Then everyone knows what is appropriate and when incidents do occur, there is a clear route that people can take to resolve problems.

So today we are announcing that we are adding an “Code of Conduct” field to every event on Open Tech Calendar.

This field will be optional and can be free text or just a link to a web page on the events website. It will be shown with the event details on the event page. But there will be no filtering, or special markers in event listings – the purpose of this is not to harshly judge.

We simply want to prompt event organisers and attendees to think about the issue and for events that do have one, allow them to highlight this.

For instance, check out TechMeetup Edinburgh’s next event.

Any comments or thoughts, please do comment below or get in touch privately.

Just explicitly encourage new people to come to your meetup

Lots of the tips we post here for organising tech events are about making people feel welcome and able to contribute to your meetup. Little things can make a big difference in setting the right atmosphere. For instance, if you are meeting in a pub have several big printed signs on the table. No-one likes going up to strangers and asking them if they are this geeky meetup – several big signs needed.

But here’s maybe the ultimate in things you can do to encourage people – just explicitly do something for new people and clearly say so.

Rachel Willmer of Luzme suggested something we’ve now tried twice at Techmeetup Edinburgh, which is to have a pre-meetup meetup in the pub and explicitly say it’s for people who haven’t been to Techmeetup before. We did this once in December and got a crowd of about 15-20, half of which were new. One of them also noticed the event was looking for speakers to show fun 5-min hacks and volunteered to speak at her first Techmeetup! We did this again last night, and got about 10 new people.

In doing this, we very clearly said that this was for welcoming new people. Here’s the announcement for the first one and for the second. We also explicitly reached out beyond our normal advertising channels, tweeting to other groups who may be interested. Because this was a special event rather than a monthly occurrence, we could do this.

Your mileage may vary; Techmeetup Edinburgh is now over 100 people and so a pre-meetup of 10 or 20 people is great for easing people in. If you are a small meetup, maybe this isn’t the best way. But do think about what you are doing to welcome people in, and make sure you are doing something.

Twitter should not be your only communications channel

A lot of events use Twitter to communicate with attendees and allow 2 way communication, and that’s fine. It’s a popular tool, and there are a lot of good things about it.

But the problem comes when some events use only Twitter to communicate with attendees, under the mistaken delusion that that will include everyone and it’s fine. TL;DR of the rest of this article: doing this will exclude large numbers of people.

Firstly, not everyone is on Twitter. Wouldn’t have thought this point needed made, but apparently it does.

Secondly, not everyone follows the right people on Twitter. This applies doubly if you are organising an event and tweet details from your personal account and not some kind of event account. How vain are you to assume that everyone who matters to your event follows your personal account?

Thirdly, even if they do it’s very easy to miss a Tweet. If you don’t check Twitter regularly it’s easy to miss old Tweets, especially as they show new Tweets first.

And even if you do see a Tweet going past containing a fact you need to remember it’s to easy for it to slip past without you having recorded it, and next time you try to look for it it’s almost impossible to find. (eg “Where is tonight’s event? I know someone tweeted it last week but now I can’t find it!”)

Now we get on the two way communication part. Again, there’s nothing wrong with doing this – the problem comes if you only do this and make no other communication channels open.

Firstly, it’s 140 characters. You can’t discuss any details, or any points of finesse, or a complex situation. You just can’t. Communication is superficial.

Secondly, almost all communication is public and many people aren’t happy with that. Maybe the nature of their comment means they want to discuss it in private?

And lastly, remember that for large segments of the population, Twitter is not a safe space. Not in the slightest. Really not. If someone does not feel comfortable using Twitter, are you happy excluding them from your communications, remembering that they may already feel excluded from many other things already?

TL;DR So by all means use Twitter as one of your communication channels – it can work great. We’re happy with it – follow us here. But do not use Twitter as your only communication channel, unless you are happy excluding a large number of people.

So what should you use? That depends on what your are doing and what is relevant for your audience. Obviously we hope you’ll add tech events to our calendar but at the end of the day, you know your audience and it’s for you to decide what’s effective.


Edit: The original article had one very angry and harsh sentence, which I regret and have toned down.

Hackathons: getting domain experts and developers to mix

One of the big challenges to overcome at a themed hackathon (like NHS Hack Scotland) is getting domain experts to mix with the developers well.

If this isn’t done, then what’s produced will be of little value. Developers left to themselves will produce things that don’t solve real problems or things that rely on unrealistic assumptions and thus will never work in practice. Meanwhile the domain experts won’t fully grasp what technology can do for them and will come up with something vague (“we could have an app?”).

If this is done right, then people will learn from each other and the concepts produced should be a much better fit. Even if nothing concrete is produced, the collaboration should educate and enrich both sides and send them back with renewed energy and focus.

The first simple step is to make sure the event does not do anything to prevent this. I’ve seen one hackathon that made people wear different colour wristbands and then made all the domain experts leave at a certain time to let the developers work – thus instantly throwing a barrier between them.

But this collaboration is something that has to be explicitly encouraged. People will tend to talk to the people they know when they arrive, but you want to force them to go and talk to the people they don’t know from the “other side”.

sicampstickersOne tactic is “organised fun”. For instance, the game where you are given a sheet of stickers. Some are blank and some have general titles on them like “Educator”, “Innovator” and “Maker”. You can’t stick these stickers on yourself – you have to talk to someone, ask what they do and stick it on them. This is great for getting people to start a conversation by asking others what they do. Note some people get a bit uncomfortable at “organised fun” that is to forced or twee – you have to ask what is the overall benefit of making everyone feel more connected and find a balance.

Another tactic is to give space for ideas or peoples thoughts to be aired. Having a structure for this means that people who may be to shy to go up and speak to someone will have a way to engage. Have a board where anyone can pin up a sheet with an idea on it or another message. Have a space at the start for anyone who wants to stand up for 30 seconds to mention what they want to do over the event. Have someone who tracks what people are working on – then if someone is looking lost it’s their job to go and find out what they want to do and introduce them to some people. If there are several different themes have banners for each one in a different part of the room with people standing by them, so attendees know where to go to talk to someone.

I’ve seen other hackathons have bookable slots for sessions with domain experts where teams can go and get feedback in an informal chat session. It’s better to have the domain experts in the teams if possible, but this is still good.

Somehow, you must find a way to get people together. For a themed hackathon, getting domain experts and developers to mix is the essential ingredient!

Photo from Social Innovation Camp

More posts on Hackathons to come!

Why go to a hackathon?

Hackathons and hack events are having a bit of a moment right now with lots on and lots of people discussing them. One of the problems in the discussion stems from the fact that there are many different reasons people go to hackathons.

  • Education – learning some new technical skill by doing something.
  • Education in a new field by learning from others there.
  • Meeting people in general. Maybe just chatting or working with them on a team.
  • Trying a new idea out over an event.
  • Starting a new company or social enterprise over the event.
  • Wanting to use your skills to help a good cause like a charity.
  • Building on an existing project (probably an Open Source one) and recruiting people to it at the same time.
  • Winning the prize.
  • Showing off what you can do to win something later. Sometimes this may be direct; the organiser of the hackathon will commission some of the best entries or offer a prize but sometimes someone else at the hackathon will like what you do and approach you about something else later (a type of networking, basically).

Also, organisers have their own reasons. They may want to encourage something like education or they may want the event to produce some software or ideas they or others can use.

So why is this a problem? Because people often fail to appreciate these different reasons and in particular they don’t appreciate there is a different style of hack event for each of them.

Compare a hack event where organisers want to encourage a finished project to emerge to one where the organisers want to encourage learning. The former will usually offer a really sweet prize (maybe an immediate thing like some geek toys or a delayed thing like a commission) whilst the later probably don’t want to offer any judged prizes.

People have to understand this. In particular if they have a bad experience at one hack event because their aims don’t match others, they shouldn’t assume all hackdays are the same and slag them all off. Sadly, I’ve seen this pattern in many blog posts.

Let’s not let a few bad hackday experiences ruin the concept for everyone!

More posts on Hackathons to come!

When several meetups are in one town …

… we don’t think there’s anything wrong with that! Different events cover different topics and different styles of event, so it’s great there is a choice for people.

But how do you ensure events don’t clash? One of the things organisers in our home of Edinburgh have commented on is that having Open Tech Calendar list events is great for this, as they can easily and quickly see what dates are free.

I’ve just seen a group do this by blog post – hopefully we can help make this easier for everyone. Anyone can make an account and add events to our free listings site Open Tech Calendar – feedback welcome!

ps. Basically this is a longer tweet; when I hit reply to this tweet I had twenty characters left 🙂

Getting bad feedback

After your event one of the problems is knowing how you did. I say problems, because this is actually a lot harder than you think.

The problem is simple – most people will not tell you directly if there is something they didn’t like. Instead they will keep it to themselves, or bitch to thier friends, or just not come back. And then you may think everything went great simply because you didn’t hear otherwise.

So firstly, go out of your way to hear bad feedback. Ask people regularly for feedback and always think about what you could improve.

And secondly, don’t boast about how well it went unless you are really sure. There is nothing worse that seeing an event organiser tweet about how they “nailed it” when you know a bunch of attendees went to the pub afterwards and complained about certain elements.

Of course, you may listen carefully to someone’s bad feedback and decide it isn’t relevant. Maybe they want something specific and you are aiming for a different type of event, for instance. How you deal with the feedback you get is a different issue. But always do your best to listen.

ps. And also, real listening often involves a long conversation to get to the real root of the problem and will probably bring up some complex issues with several subtleties. Twitter is not a suitable medium for this. Few electronic chats are. But that’s a topic for a different post.

Audience interaction and moderation

The topic of audience participation during a talk and the questions afterwards is a well argued one.

Some speakers welcome audience participation during talks. Some would rather talk first and then take questions at the end. It may be worth asking your speakers what they prefer and enforcing it.

Others would prefer the audience never ask questions as most of them don’t add anything. They say the audience can talk to the speaker afterwards. Well, some people will, but some won’t be able to find the speaker or will be to shy to go up and butt in on whatever the speaker is doing. And sometimes, listening in as someone else talks with the speaker can be really informative.

Some let people just shout questions, while some have questions submitted somehow and a moderator pre-approves them.

You’ll have to experiment and decide what works for your speaker and your community. (Personally, I’d happily ban questions during the talk but I think that the questions after can sometimes be the best bit.)

But whatever you do, it must be very well moderated. You need someone to set the tone, and who can then jump in and be strict if needed. The bigger your audience gets, the more important this and the suggestions that follow are.

If a meandering discussion starts that is off-topic or one person starts to dominate the discussion just politely but firmly kill it. “I’m sorry but that’s getting off-topic; why don’t we continue this discussion afterwards? Any other questions?”

If people are shouting questions, insist everyone puts their hand up and be strict about the order. This gives quiet people a chance to ask questions, and stops it becoming a free for all. Or if it’s a smaller event, say “Does anyone who hasn’t asked a question yet have one?” at some point.

Be clear about an end point at which people can leave without offending the speaker and those who choose to stay can start their own discussions.

If people are talking at the back, ask them to be quiet politely. Especially in an un-micced venue it will be hard for those around them to hear the speaker, so they are being selfish. (Also, this may be a sign that the session has gone on for to long.)

Generally speaking, this means the speaker can’t moderate their own talk. It’s possible but if your the one getting involved in a long drawn out ramble, it’s harder to gather the authority to stop it and move on. Also it’s good to have someone with an outside perspective who can see when the questions have gone on for to long.

Also, it’s a tiny courtesy, but I think the moderater has to make sure the audience are paying attention at the start. When you call for attention in a room, it might take a minute for everyone to sit down, finish the remark to their neighbour they were half way through and arrange their bags or whatever. Don’t make a speaker start over that and have to fight for the audiences attention – the moderator should do that for them. Just keep waffling an introduction for 30 seconds or so at the start until you are sure the audience is ready, and then pass over to the speaker.

The worst I’ve seen is one talk where they said strictly all questions had to come in over Twitter and a moderator would ask them during a final session. (So no questions over 140 characters then? Hmmm.) However after one question the organiser of the event started shouting questions from the audience. Because he had done so it gave everyone else a license to do so and before long a drunken guy was slurring rambled nonsense. The moderator said literally nothing after his opening question. I have no idea how it ended – I was one of a sizeable chuck of the audience who just walked out.

Audience interaction can be one of the best parts of an event if handled properly – experiment and see what works for you!

This is the one of several posts about running tech events taken from a talk I gave at OggCamp 2012. I’m not claiming this is the definitive guide on this matter,  but hopefully this will give people something to think about and start a conversation.

The importance of communication

When running a meetup, it’s important to establish a clear line of communication with the attendees and make sure that messages are sent regularly. You never know what attendees are listening to.

I learnt this when I was the main organiser of talks for Tech Meetup Edinburgh. One month I didn’t update the website with the speakers as I was very busy and to be honest, I didn’t think it mattered. I was soon corrected by someone who asked me what was happening that night, before politely but firmly pointing out the website was not updated. I could do nothing but apologise.

Every month I email events from Open Tech Calendar to a email list. Whilst normally I email events a couple of days before the month starts, on January 2013 I emailed it on the 4th. This was partly because of the New Year holiday – it won’t matter right? (It was also partly because there was a bug I was hoping to fix before I sent the email.) At a big meetup someone came up and said “I want to report a bug!”. Me sending the email several days late had meant he had missed an event. Again I could do nothing but apologise.

Recently I went to a meetup that was usually in a set pub. Several people had turned up, but not the main people. I asked the staff, and they were confused as several people had been asking after it and they hadn’t been told anything. They knew it was a usual booking, but this month they hadn’t heard anything. They asked me to get the organisers to call them.

The meetup’s own website did not list the latest events – it was two months out of date. Eventually I found someone on the phone who told me it was in a pub across town. Arriving late, I got chatting to one of the people sometimes involved in organising it who airily said “It’s all on Twitter”. That’s clearly wasn’t adequate.

(No names. I’m trying to make a general point, not have a go at anyone.)

Once you have established several clear communication channels, be they an email list or a webpage or anything else it’s important to stick to them. People are watching.

Annnnd this is the bit of the blog post where we start telling you how Open Tech Calendar can help with this problem. We know there is a lot for event organisers to do and they often do a under-appreciated job. We want to make life as easy as possible for them.

By adding your group and adding events in just one place, attendees can get an iCal feed to add to their personal calendar, a reminder email on the morning of the event or an email every time any details change. You can get a widget to place on as many websites as you want that displays the latest events from your group only.

And even better, our open Wiki design means anyone can add events. This way attendees can help out by editing entries and ensuring they are correct for organisers.

A lot of people check us to see what events are on, so give us a try!