The word “hackathon” often evokes stereotypical images of geeks wired on Red Bull pulling an all-nighter in front of computers with a stack of pizza boxes behind them.
For Adam Benzion, co-founder of Hackster, that isn’t the ideal hackathon. If anything, it alienates participation, although many people still believe it to be the reality.
Hackster, an online community for teaching and learning hardware, started hosting hackathons as a fluke. The site itself provides a platform for people who build hardware together online and then share their expertise, as well as the tech and construction details, source code, and schematics.
“It seemed like an oxymoron because we have an online community for hardware, and yet hardware creation is as physical as can be,” Benzion recalls. “We needed to connect with our community everywhere they are. So, on a whim, we decided to create a hackathon road show. We called it Hardware Weekend.”
Not content to do a normal road show, the road show itself became its own hack built around a custom 1981 DeLorean automobile. But the team stopped short of time travel and 1.21 gigawatt power requirements, instead enabling it to spit fire and start up from a mobile device.
“The DeLorean represents the ultimate hacker dream, in context of hardware, the future, and scientific exploration,” Benzion says. “It anchored our story and romanticized Hardware Weekend with a fitting slogan: Hack to the Future!”
The road show taught Hackster how to host successful hardware hackathons by taking the same principles it tries to uphold as a company and applying those principles to its events. “Everything we do at this company is about being authentic and connecting with people on the right level,” Benzion says, “so that’s how the whole thing came about.”
So what did Hackster learn, and how can you apply these tips to your next (or first) hardware hackathon? From food to workshops to being more nurturing, Benzion shares his advice and best practices.
1. Product Education. A typical hackathon occurs over a weekend, usually taking 24 hours across two days. A hardware hackathon is specifically different from software in that it is harder to get a head start, according to Benzion.
“With a software hackathon, you show up with your laptop, you probably know what you’re going to work on, and you probably already started at home,” he says. “With a hardware hackathon, it is very likely you don’t own much of the hardware until you arrive. So, even if we say, ‘Hey, the hackathon is going to start next week, and you’re going to work on Pebbles and Particle.io devices,’ they can do research, but it is likely that they don’t have the hardware yet.”
The biggest lesson? Plan for workshops. Day one starts with providing participants with proper workshops around the hardware they will be using—a crash course, if you will—so they can figure out how to start and where to go for libraries, code samples, and specifications. You don’t start working on the project until the middle of the first day, and then you work to finish everything up the following day, which can go pretty quickly.
“Just to get to that point is three to four times more time-consuming than software,” Benzion says.
2. Ditch the Pizza. One of Benzion’s ultimate goals is for the hackathons to be really nurturing events—not just two days of junk food, sugar, and caffeine. He supplies quality food and fresh fruit, no sodas or candy.
“It’s hard for people to be there all day long, especially if they are consuming junk food and candy for eight hours,” he says. “In fact, procuring quality food was proven the most costly line item of our events, but one that we noticed was appreciated by our participants many times over.”
3. The Big-Prize Trap. Benzion thinks that hackathons are best when positioned as community events focused on empowerment and education. When focusing the events on mega cash prizes, you lose sight of what’s important.
“We feel it should be more about learning and a community helping each other learn,” he says, “not a place to compete for attention or a means to earn money.” Prizes are symbolic, and learning something new is the real reward, shared by everyone.
4. Respectful Conduct. To Benzion, all of these things work in tandem to create the kind of vibe he hopes people experience at a hackathon.
“We’ve noticed that participants in hackathons come from all walks of life,” he says. “While many are advanced electronics and software engineers, others are high school teachers, artists, inexperienced teenagers, and retired professionals.
“It is important to understand why people are there, what can they bring to the table, and what they wish to learn—then help them meet their goals for the weekend by providing a respectful and nurturing environment,” Benzion continues. “We kick off every event articulating these principles and ask people to adhere by them. And it always works like a charm—innovation, community, and creation.”