I haven’t been to many hackfests, hackathons, or the other types of similar incarnations that seek to bring technically-minded and otherwise skilled people together to tackle a series of issues or concerns. I feel I’ve participated in enough to begin discerning the elements of an event worth the donation of precious free time and an event that isn’t.
The first thing is organization. There is a finite amount of time to tackle the problems so each minute wasted while someone figures out how to work the projector or get the sign-in process running smoothly is a minute lost on the real reason everyone came.
The second thing is organization. I believe in getting talented people into a room and letting great things emerge from their interaction, but they must start with a well-defined problem. The goal of these events is to articulate and begin working on a solution. To that end, most events I’ve been to start off with presentations of the basic ideas so the assembled mass can break off into groups to start working on the problems at hand based on their particular skills or interests. This is where the real work is done. Not in the presentations. It is excruciating for those who came to work on something meaningful to instead sit through long-winded lectures on the topics at hand in the presentation section, particularly if they’re not interested in the topics. If you can’t state your problem in a few sentences, it probably isn’t really well thought out. No amount of technical talent and ability will solve a problem that isn’t properly understood.
The third thing is leadership. I believe in getting talented people into a room and letting great things emerge from their interaction, but this requires proper management and leadership for the event. The purpose and goals of the event shouldn’t sound like a public service announcement Mad Lib. Have a strong, well-articulated vision and try to keep to that vision while accepting the knowledge and experience of those around you. If someone is distracting, ask them to leave. If a presenter is droning on and wasting the time of the participants, cut them off and move on. Get the real work started as soon as possible and minimize those things that detract from the purpose of the event.
I think events like these are good ways to explore the art of the possible, seeding new ideas that grow into vibrant collaborative endeavors, but this doesn’t come about by chance. It requires proper planning and initiative. Unfortunately, inexperience or inability to plan and manage these events isn’t a barrier to holding them, sapping the time and energy of those who volunteer their time.
I’ll keep going to hackathons and hackfests and whatever other names are used for these events, but I’m learning to be more selective with my time.