A Hackathon Organizer's Dilemma: Intro

Hackathon... It's a word that I did not learn until I settled in the United States, and yet it has made so much difference during the past 3 years of my life.

So what, really, are hackathons?

The first documented use of the word "hackathon" as an event was when a few OpenBSD developers came together at a house in Alberta to avoid getting into legal trouble in the United States when they are writing cryptographic software (OpenBSD). Well, those who organized or attended that event were obviously not high schoolers. And they look different, too. Their event would look something more similar to this:

A round table of software developers surrounding a switch and a large number of cables.
A picture from OpenBSD's 2012 hackathon "r2k12" (OpenBSD Journal).

Yet since then, events that refer to themselves as "hackathons" started popping up almost everywhere: first by tech companies to encourage their developers to start new software projects with limited time (and... without pay?), then at college campuses across the nation starting with PennApps in year 2009, then slowly incorporating interested high school students surrounding these campuses. Soon comes HS Hacks in 2014, the first ever hackathon exclusively built for high schoolers, and from there, they became unstoppable. (If you are interested in learning more about the history of hackathons, you should check out the talk by MLH's Jon Gottfried.)

While the format has gradually evolved and the scale has slowly increased, are we still running "hackathons" anymore? And why are we still running these events?

When I first started running my own event, I did not think that hackathons would become that big of a part of high school for me. I thought of it as a one-off project – I run the event, and I'm done. I then hold the "eternal glory" of having once been a hackathon organizer. But that's not what happened.

Over the past 2 years, I kept finding myself organizing and volunteering at different events from coast to coast, even if I had initially planned to be attending the event as an attendee (none of which, except for my first event, that I explicitly "applied" to become an organizer or volunteer for). Well, it's true what they've all been saying: once you are a hackathon organizer, you can no longer "attend" another event.

Group picture of all organizers and volunteers of Hack Pennsylvania, standing in a row.
Me becoming a "fake organizer" at Hack Pennsylvania.

I'm extremely grateful to those who got me started – whether they taught me the first steps to contacting my first sponsors, shared with me their failure stories so I never had to make those mistakes again, or simply got me connected with the right people at the right time. Without them, I would've never been able to do all of this that I am now extremely proud of.

But regardless of what I have been doing with hackathons, I've been sensing a few changes in the general hackathon organizers' community since I started. Some of these changes are creating positive momentum, but some of them are quite concerning.

Starting today, I will be periodically publishing my thoughts about the high school hackathon community.

I'm not at all qualified to "teach" others how to properly run an event, nor am I able to judge practices of other events. But I will be chatting with different event directors, ex-directors, volunteers and attendees about their experiences, to make sure that what I am writing is truthful and informative. I hope these small articles can answer some of the most common questions asked by new organizers, and help them make the right calls along their journeys.

I'm writing these as a graduation gift for the high school hackers' community that made me who I am today, with the hope that it will continue to support new generations of leaders in the future.

I hope this can be a series of articles that every high school hackathon organizer can read (beyond the hackathon 101 guides) before they can confidently walk into the venues of their first events.

Hack on.

Series Credits

Special thanks to Linus, Megan & Saharsh for contributing to the contents of the series through a number of meaningful discussions. You might not even realize this, but I was able to learn a lot from our conversations. Thank you.


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