Organizing a Hackathon from Afar

Organizing a Hackathon from Afar


6 min read

Over this past weekend, I helped with the 2023 edition of sunhacks at Arizona State University virtually. I was managing the DevPost, answering hackers' questions on Discord, and putting out fires in general. It was a pretty fun experience and I was glad to be back in the company of friends doing what we were best at, but it was also insightful how many lessons learned there were from holding an in-person event, and how little I (and virtual organizers/volunteers) can help with as hackathons transition back to being in-person.

My Introduction to sunhacks

My first experience with sunhacks was in the fall of my sophomore year, at sunhacks 2020 (or 4.0 as the organizers called it). This was the first hackathon that I had attended, and since COVID-19 had just burst onto the scene in the previous semester, the hackathon was completely virtual, hosted on a platform called Hopin (remember Hopin?). The events and workshops were all held virtually, and the speakers could all just livestream themselves. Although I did not win any prizes that year, that event left me enamored with hackathons and I continued to attend more with friends. I was interested in the prizes, sure, but more so in the workshops and activities hosted as a chance to learn new things and further immerse myself in the tech community. Soon, when I received a recruitment email from the organizers the next spring, I signed up to be an organizer.

We started planning for sunhacks 2021 (5.0), and soon activities began in earnest to the hackathon a reality. sunhacks is divided into different departments, such as finance, operations, marketing, hacker experience, and tech. Although I was a Computer Science student, I found interest in workshops and activities that I loved and joined the hacker experience team, which focuses on mentoring, workshops/activities, prizes, and judging. We focused on a hybrid hackathon with both in-person and virtual attendees since COVID-19 had become less of a threat. Discord was used heavily for announcements, questions, and as a control center for all operations during the event. Instead of Hopin, we turned to Twitch to host our events and workshops. I enjoyed speaking at the opening ceremony, coordinating some workshops and activities, determining prizes and prize categories, and finally judging. Although the preceding two weeks were hectic and we were constantly putting out fires during the event, I was proud that I was a part of the resounding success of sunhacks 2021.

By the time my senior year had come, many of the original organizers (OG's) had graduated or were too busy to continue planning sunhacks. The mantle was passed onto a few younger organizers and me, and we decided to return to an in-person hackathon. Unfortunately, due to a lack of experience and a lot of red tape with ASU's admin, we were unable to host a sunhacks event for 2022. By May 2023, I had graduated without ever hosting another hackathon.

From "Organizer" to "Associate"

When I graduated, my role in the organization quickly changed. Since I was no longer a student, I could no longer be an official member of the club due to ASU's restrictions on student organization membership. Instead, I transitioned from being an organizer to an associate, like many of the OG's had done the previous year. I could not directly organize the operations of the hackathon, but I could give advice, think of ideas, and still attend regular meetings. The new generation of directors and organizers were going to plan sunhacks 2023 (5.5), a smaller version of the event in Fall 2023 to test the waters.

After spending a summer with my parents at home, I soon moved to the Washington DC Metro Area for my new job as a Software Dev Engineer with Amazon Web Services. I continued to attend meetings and offered any ideas and advice I had to the new organizers. The new organizers learned from our mistakes, and soon we were heading toward the fruition of sunhacks 2023. As COVID-19 became less and less of a threat, the organizers decided to hold sunhacks 2023 as an in-person-only event. This was a great step forward for the recovery of sunhacks from the pandemic, both as a hackathon and as an organization.

Returning to In-Person Hackathons

However, due to the need to return to an in-person hackathon, there was a lot of unexpected red tape in reserving a venue, maintaining site operations during the event, and a lot of other issues that were not needed for a virtual hackathon. This prevented us from holding the hackathon in 2022 in the first place and cost us a year, even though the same issues were dealt with for pre-pandemic sunhacks events. So many lessons learned were a result of processes changing post-pandemic, contacts changing post-pandemic, and generally not knowing what people to contact for what issue. Another reason was that we had never hosted an in-person hackathon by ourselves before, and while the OG's knew what to do for a certain situation, that knowledge often wasn't correctly passed down to us new organizers, resulting in a lot of knowledge siloing.

The in-person hackathon also meant that I could not help as much with the event due to being in the DC Metro Area. Instead of being able to help by, for example, hosting a workshop virtually like many had done in 2020, I could only be a DevPost manager and mentor. The range of things I could do to take the burden off the team was limited, and things that could be done virtually were sometimes just easier done in person. Oftentimes questions were asked in the Discord server about specific onsite procedures, and I had no way of answering them due to not having any idea of what was happening onsite. The burden on the in-person organizers was greater than it would have been had the hackathon been virtual.

Returning to an in-person hackathon was a necessary step for sunhacks and most hackathon organizations as we transition into a post-pandemic world, but oftentimes we lose some of the benefits and help that we get from being a virtual hackathon. Although in-person events are more beneficial for hackers, sponsors and organizers, I believe that they also put more burden on the organizers in sometimes unexpected places. We were lucky to still have a bunch of associates (OG's) willing and able to help us, but it is a lesson to learn for newer hackathons and organizers transitioning to being back in person. If you are a hackathon organizer, what kinds of lessons have you learned when transitioning back to an in-person hackathon? For the next sunhacks event in spring 2024, I hope to be there in person to be fully able to help the organizers and also enjoy the liveliness of an in-person event.