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How to do hackdays right

Last weekend I went to the Culture Hack East weekend in Cambridge. I didn’t get a lot of sleep, but I did have tremendous fun building an app in the company of some very clever people. As hack days go, this was done of the best ones I’ve been to, with enormously impressive organisation and attention to detail.  That got me thinking about what makes for a good hack day as opposed to a mediocre one.

I sometimes question the long term value of my MBA, but one thing it did give me was a grab-bag of theories about motivation and why people do the things they do. One of the better-known is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs - basically it says that some needs are more basic than others, and your happiness and motivation will be increased the more of these needs that are fulfilled. The continuum runs from basic biological needs like food and water, up to more abstract concepts like esteem and self-actualisation.

So how does this model, apply to hack days, and what might it tell us about what distinguishes a good one from a not-so-good one? Here’s my attempt at crashing the two together.

Physiological

In Maslowian terms, these are basic biological needs like food, water and shelter. Hackday participants have basic some physiological needs too, especially if you extend their physiognomy to their devices :

Power : hacking needs amps, and delivering amps require sockets. At least 2 per coder to start with, and preferably arranged so that the room doesn’t become festooned with tripwires. Not everyone will be connected with MagSafes.

Wifi : network connectivity should be a given. However, hackers have more specific needs that normal - we’ll need non-standard ports like 22 and 443 to be open, and wifi services that need a username and password entering into a browser will usually end up getting in the way. Don’t underestimate bandwidth, either : a single access point probably won’t be able to handle a large event at all, and will probably struggle with more than a few participants.

If you don’t personally have control over the network infrastructure, make sure that the person that does will be available, and has been briefed. Crappy connectivity will kill the motivation of participants well before the problems can be fixed.

Food and drink : it’s generally considered polite to feed your hackers. Culture Hack East did that almost to extremes - there were looks of incredulity when the “overnight snacks” trolley arrived groaning under the weight of the bacon croissants at 11:30pm.   But take a leaf from their book and do us a favour - don’t make the tired assumption that all we eat is pizza. It’s nice, sure, but lots of hacker types are health-conscious and prefer less cholesterol-ridden fuel. And pizza grease and keyboards don’t mix.

Safety

A roomful of hackers is a roomful of expensive kit. Make sure that the area is secure from casual pilfering, especially if the hack’s taking place in a public space. But at the same time, don’t go overboard. If your building needs access cards to get to the loos, make sure all your participants have one. And tell your security and facilities people before the event, too.

If the event is overnight, then allocating a specific area for sleeping which is quiet and dark will really be appreciated by those of us over 30 who can’t do a full 48 hours on adrenaline and caffeine.

Belonging

Although the Hackday community is relatively small and some people will know each other, that’s not universally the case. And without wanting to stoop to stereotypes, not all developers are entirely comfortable with networking their way around a room full of strangers.

As the organiser, you can help aid the formation of teams in various ways that will a) get the hacking going quicker and b) make it less likely that people get left in corners.

If you’re supplying data, then spend some time at the beginning of the event getting lightning intros to what the data sets are. If you’re doing a match-the-developer-with-the-data-provider event, then get the developers to do lightning intros for themselves.

And make sure that you provide as much information as possible before the event, particularly if it’s going to involve unusual or novel data sets. That gives participants a chance to have at least thought about what they might do before they actually arrive.

Self-actualisation

In Maslowian terms, self-actualisation is the touchy-feely, feeling-good-about-ourselves stuff. It’s

From an event perspective, there are two areas where you can help to maximise participants’ self-actualisation. Firstly, you can help with team formation to find the stuff that people can do, and the stuff that people want to try. Hackdays are an opportunity to broaden out from the day-job and try something new for a chance.

The more fundamental challenge for organisers is picking the right theme. A couple of months ago, Cadburys got on the wrong end of the technosphere with their “Hackathon” - as if the title of the event wasn’t gruesome enough, a number of people took them to task over the fact that they were expecting hackers to donate their time and services free to a multinational profit-making corporation.

That’s not to say that firms like Cadburys can’t run hackdays if they want to. It’s just that most geeks and hackers have a very finely-tuned sense of right and wrong - and are acutely good at detecting when their skills and enthusiasms are being taken advantage of.

The payback

From the point of view of a developer, hackdays are an opportunity to contribute to the greater good - if that’s not too pretentious a way of putting it.   What came out of Culture Hack East was a range of apps, sites and service for organisations that would never otherwise have been able to afford to access the kinds of skills that were on offer.   That was aided in no uncertain terms by the efforts that the organisers had put in to making it run smoothly - so you could do a lot worse than follow their examples.