Maybe you shouldn't start an online hackathon now

This is the summary of a few calls that I've had recently. If you are on the other end of this conversation, I apologize if this looks like a call-out, but I hope you understand what I have been talking about. Opinions are my own.

I don't know what went wrong. The nation is almost entirely shut down, the economy broke down not once, twice, but 4 times. Yet out of nowhere, everyone – literally everyone – is running online hackathons.

Yes, students are bored right now. Most of them are staying at home, going to "school" when the teacher doesn't even care about the quality of their own lectures. Most extracurricular activities have been suspended – volunteering, library service, debate tournaments... It might seem like an awesome time to get an event or two started – after all, it's extra juice on your resume, so what's there to lose?

Don't get me wrong: it's perfectly okay to convert a previously scheduled in-person event to an online alternative. A lot of events have already raised thousands of dollars, and it's unlikely that they would be able to run an in-person event before the end of the year. In this case, running an online event to repurpose these resources (both funding and marketing) is a perfect way to achieve almost the same goal.

Also: I am only against efforts to try to recreate the traditional hackathon experience online. If you're trying something new – hosting/writing a workshop series, livecoding, ... go for it!

But here's why you shouldn't be starting fresh now.

  1. You are very likely not going to get any support. There's no reason for companies to be donating cash to a newly created student event, when their local healthcare facilities and shelters could use that money any day under the worsening pandemic. A lot of engineers are already busy putting out fires at their home base, so that leaves less time and incentive for them to mentor for you. Without support and funding, what do you have to offer for your students?
  2. Hackathons are in-person events, period. This is my own opinion, but I just cannot imagine an online event offering even a fraction of the experience that I'd get at an in-person event, whether it's meeting new people, getting support when in need, or just being able to concentrate on building something with a large room of people. Say what you want on your prospectus, but face the truth – an online event is not an event. It's at most an encouragement.
  3. Good luck getting your event team running. An event is not a one man's job. It's already hard to get a dedicated team of students working for an event (see pessimistic), and it will be even harder for you to recruit a successful team when everyone's under the weather, at least mentally.

I get it, you want to do something constructive during the pandemic. Here're some cool, practical, realistic things that people have been doing that involves leadership:

  • Don't depend on others to build projects. Contribute to an open-source project, or get a group of friends to build something cool together. I heard is cool.
  • Think about what you can do for the healthcare workers right now. Get some research done with a few buddies. Publish your work.
  • Try something new. I've been trying to teach my mom to play the piano and getting some hardware stuff done on my house... and I've seen cooler – like @cwalker from Hack Club literally hacking a tree, @neelr generating anime music with AI, @austin getting some egg sandwiches made...
  • This is personal: do something for your school's class of 2020. Organize a campaign, write to your school, find a creative way to celebrate their graduation. They lost everything that they deserve.

Whatever you choose to do, just remember that hackathons are not the only things that can go on your resume. Small things count.

Stay safe. See you after this all ends.