As anyone who has organized one will tell you, organizing hardware hackathons is notoriously hard to get right. In many ways hardware hackathons are more "advanced" from an organizational standpoint than their software cousins are because the nature of hacking hardware requires more tools and parts than the standard laptop, Ethernet cable, and Internet connection attendees at a software hackathon need.
But a good hardware hackathon is so much more than the availability of tools and parts. It’s about the experience, the energy, the space and lighting, and even the beer. So how do you get one right? I talked to two experts to find out.
Before we jump into the step-by-steps of throwing the best hardware hackathon the world has ever seen, there are two very important things you as the organizer need to remember. The first: It’s not about you, it’s about your hackers.
"Our role as organizers is to be the janitors, the line cooks, and the gardeners," says Zak Homuth, cofounder and CEO of Upverter. "Our entire job and our only responsibility is to enable these hackers. Get them to show up. Empower them to hack. Give them a reason to stay. Help them to communicate. Feed them. Fill them with sugar and booze. Bribe them with other smart people. Promise them you won’t do any of the shit they deal with at work. And stay out of their way."
So while the hackathon may be all your idea, the star of the show will always be the hackers. That also goes for people who are organizing hardware hackathons for big clients who want to see what hackers could do to manipulate, change, and improve on their existing hardware products. In that case the client’s hardware product may be the star at your client’s company, but at a hackathon—even one dedicated to hacking only that piece of hardware—the product takes a backseat to the hackers.
The second important thing you need to grasp before you even start planning your hackathon is that it is a hackathon you are throwing and not a workshop. The distinction between the two is nuanced, but critical, and not realizing how the two are different is what has led to plenty of bad "hackathons" over the years. So what’s the difference?
"I think this question is easiest to answer from the perspective of an attendee," says Andrew McWilliams, who is the brains behind the Hardware Hack Lab at ThoughtWorks NYC. "If I attend a workshop, I expect a curated experience in which I am guided by subject domain experts. I expect to proceed in a structured way, using exercises that are designed to build on each other progressively to achieve a stated overarching goal or goals. If I attend a hackathon, I expect some kind of orientation and then to be let loose. I may seek guidance from an expert along the way, but I am more likely to come across an innovation or insight serendipitously. I am aware of the general aims of the hackathon, and I and my team are open to design and change our approach as we go."
If you start organizing your hardware hackathon with these two things in mind, than the rest is relatively easy as you’ll be approaching the following steps in the right frame of mind.
This is the only part of the hackathon planning where you are more important than you hackers. Throwing a hackathon isn’t like throwing a party. The point matters. And the only one who knows the point (at first) can be you.
Both Homuth and McWilliams agree that organizers must have a clear purpose of what the hackathon is for, but it is important not to limit your hackers’ creativity by giving them specific instructions on what to do.
"Wherever possible, be non-prescriptive," McWilliams says. "For example, ‘Explore possibilities between RGBD and Oculus’ is better than ‘Write RGBD shaders for Oculus.’"
Once you know your aims, plan a hackathon that is long enough to allow hackers to produce results. Is 24 hours enough? Or would a weekend or an entire week be better?
Once you know the broad point of your hackathon, start building a community around it. How will participants find each other and communicate before and after the hackathon? How will they communicate with you?
Hackathons work by allowing communities of like-minded creatives to bounce around ideas and work off each other’s vibes. Allowing the attendees to easily communicate with you and one another before the event will pay off in spades later.
A good way to find motivated participants is by partnering with external organizations. "ThoughtWorks encountered a notable rush of new energy at the Hardware Hack Lab when we partnered with the Volumetric Society of New York," McWilliams says, and also notes that it’s a good idea to think about the subject-matter experts who may be able to offer guidance to groups, and what questions might be asked by participants.
Another simple tip for building community?
"Hand out T-shirts," McWilliams says. "It works!"
Step three builds directly one steps one and two. The better you know your aims and the more you can build a community that can openly communicate with you and each other before the event, the better you’ll be able to provide for and plan hardware resources and requirements.
"To the extent that it is possible—remember we are trying to be non-prescriptive—figure out what type of groups might form and what hardware and resources they each may need," McWilliams says. "Ask participants what their motivations are when they sign up, and use this to think about the groups which might form. If you have no sense of what groups may form—this is a good thing—you can judge your hardware and resource requirements purely on your aims and expected audience."
Of course, unlike software hackathons, which only require a laptop and Internet connection, the parts and tools required at a hardware hackathon could be endless.
"Making sure every hacker brings, can get, or is supplied with the parts they need to build their hack is a huge issue," Homuth says. "We've had the most success encouraging hackers to bring parts with them instead of supplying them, and then having a ‘store’ at the hackathon in case they forgot or realize there is something else they need."
But Homuth points out that parts are just one part of the hardware puzzle.
"Parts are fabricated, connected, and tested, with tools," Homuth says. "Again making sure every hacker has the tools they need is hard. Especially if the hackers don't yet know what they are building when they show up."
Homuth says that if you know your aims, and budget accordingly, most organizers will not have a problem making sure hackers have the tools they need. However, if your budget is strained, Homuth notes that you may need to alter your plans if you need some of the biggest, most expensive, and hardest to provide test equipment, like scopes, and fabrication tools, like milling machines. He also says to avoid 3-D printers ("too slow."), PCB board etching ("too messy"), and welders ("too heavy duty").
Above all, Homuth says, "Aggressively communicate what the hackers need to bring."
"This is a high priority," says McWilliams. "Really great things happen when people feel creative, and feel like they are in a creative community. This is about crafting a mood and context in which creativity can flourish. It should feel more like a social event than a workplace, and humor is actively encouraged."
For this step, start with the space. Find a venue that is big enough to hold all your hackers and the equipment they’ll be using. Remember, these aren’t just laptops they’ll have. They’ll need room to solder and spread their parts out. Creative people generally move around a lot when they’re thinking. Make sure people have room to walk. Lighting and layout add a lot to making people feel comfortable, which breeds creativity.
But don’t forget about practical logistics, McWilliams says.
"You may need good airflow for clearing the room of soldering fumes, and cleaning products or assembly tools. People will need a good amount of desk space to lay out their gear, prepare, and get going. It's hard to hack on anything where things around us feel precious, or when surrounded by distractions. We need cleared surfaces to tinker and solder, but also a space with a maker vibe so we can feel free to be messy and break things apart," he says.
"Make it easy, and more than that make it fun. A hackathon should feel like a social event. We aren't focusing narrowly on product delivery here, what we want to do is set a mood and context in which creativity can flourish. Our hackathons are about experimentation—play, not work. This means careful and subtle use of music and lighting, and leading by example with encouraging, friendly, constructive interactions. The atmosphere should feel distinctly different from a daily workplace, even if that workplace is generally a nice and comfortable space," he adds.
"This is both for late-comers, and to remind people where to find things after the initial orientation," McWilliams says. "People have limited time to make something innovative, don't make them search for resources! This can be info on the wall, USB sticks, links to source code, APIs, explanatory blog posts, et cetera."
Steps one to five are where the meat of your planning should go if you want to throw a killer hardware hackathon. If you’ve done those well, now comes the fun part, when you get to see the fruits of your labor.
When hackers arrive to where they’ll be working it never hurts to orient them to the space and everything that is at their disposal. It’s also a great time to reiterate your broad mission and philosophy.
"Do a high-level orientation on the technology," McWilliams says. "Have the hardware already out on the table and demos ready to go. Try to do all of this as quickly and concisely as possible—each group can explore details ad hoc. Keep the energy up!"
"Each person is there for a reason and you will get the most out of them if you can discover that reason," McWilliams says. "Where possible, ask people to express their motivations to the group so you are best-placed to connect participants with adjacent interests. Allow groups emerge from that, and then ask each group which aims they would like to explore."
Once everyone is settled in, now it’s your time to become the janitor Homuth stresses you must become. Creative people working toward novel solutions don't find those solutions by being given orders from overbearing organizers.
As McWilliams says, "To get them going offer guidance first, direction if needed, examples if requested, and orders never."
Up until this step meticulous planning was key. Now you need to let go, and watch the magic happen. As the magic happens you’ll be playing janitor, waiter, and whatever else your hackers need. Keep the food and drinks coming. Help with finding parts if one of the teams need something. Mini-showcases and lightning demos are also a great way to keep people motivated, but never call time out on hacks. Constantly facilitate the flow.
As Homuth says, "Do everything you possibly can for them. And be incredibly grateful they showed up."
While a final showcase is always part of the fun of a hackathon, remember to never put a strict deadline on it, McWilliams says. And instead of a showcase of "the best" it’s more helpful to hackers to have it be an analysis of time spent. As McWilliams notes, "Outcomes which explore a possibility and find a dead end are highly valuable and not time wasted."
This is also the time to document, if you haven’t already, just how inspired your hackers’ works have been. Take tons of photos and videos, which will be important for the last step.
A hackathon is a lot of work from everyone involved, but the best parts of it don’t happen only at the event. After the hackathon is over take all those photos and videos you took and post them online along with detailed breakdowns of everything your hackathon was about and all your hackers accomplished.
Actively contact all the event participants to share your photos, videos, and thoughts. This helps keep that sense of community alive long after the hackathon is over and will encourage participants to take part in future hackathons you organize.