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Ellie Harries
19 Jul 2017

So you want to organise a hack day… here’s what you need to think about!

We love a good hack day at Outlandish, whether that means attending as participants, organising them ourselves, or supporting other people to run them. Our approach to hack days is to see them as a day-long problem-solving parties, with a healthy dose of programming.

Some of the hack’s we’ve run in recent years include:

  • SchoolCuts – National Union of Teachers, London (July 2017)
  • Tech for Good? – Newspeak House, London (November 2016)
  • Momentum Hack Day – Newspeak House, London (August 2016)
  • DotComrades – Mozilla, London (June 2015)
  • Culture Hive – British Council, Lagos, Nigeria (December 2012)

Most of these have been client projects where we’ve been the main tech partners organising and designing the events. However, last week we all went on an Outlandish-only hack retreat where the Outlanders worked on internal projects.

The job of organising this latest Outlandish hack fell to me, and I thought it was a good opportunity to spend some time reflecting on how we approached our hack and some of the key things to consider if you’re organising your own.

Theme and name

One of the first things to decide on is the theme of the hack. Lots of things will be affected by this decision, especially the type of people who might come along. If you’re running a hack on homelessness then you might want charity and housing folk there. If you’re running a news hack for the BBC, then some journalists might not go amiss.

Coming up with a theme for the Outlandish hack was pretty easy – we knew we wanted to spend some quality time together and work on Outlandish-specific issues. After a little bit of head scratching, we opted for a straightforward name – “Outlandish Hack Re:Treat” – and devised a set of internally-focused challenges. It isn’t always so easy, though. Coming up with a theme for the #techforgood hack we ran last year was more of a challenge – so much has already been done in this space and we didn’t want to repeat anything that had been done before. A key bit of advice on picking a theme is to think about the challenge that you are trying to address and work from there. Also, make sure the name of the event is relevant to the task at hand.

Branding

Once you’ve settled on the theme of your hack you can move onto logos and branding. Here you should think about relevance, as well as impact. For example, it’d be a shame to create a logo for a science hack day without any reference to science. Here are a few distinctive logos which have been used to brand and promote hackdays over the years:

Hack day logos 2

We decided pretty quickly not to have a logo for the Outlandish Hack Re:Treat as it was an internal event, and would have been a bit over the top.

Location

Hacking in a beautiful environment will not only get people’s creative juices flowing, but will also make people feel like their time is valued. People often volunteer their time for free at Hackdays, so you want them to feel the love. Put simply, avoid crap rooms with no windows.

On top of picking a beautiful space to hold a hack day in, the space needs to be usable. Investigate the reliability of the wifi and whether there are appropriate areas for breakouts and group presentations. If you’re scoping out venues you should also find out how late you can stay there. Some people champion hackathons that last all night, others think they aren’t particularly productive, but whichever you want to go for, make sure the venue you pick will be open for however long you want to stay in the space.

The Outlandish Hack Re:Treat was part hack and part retreat, and to reflect this we had two locations. The first was a grand old house just outside Norwich, where we slept, partied, chilled and ate. The house was equipped with a cupboard full of board games, a tennis court and various living rooms, dining rooms, and drawing rooms to hang out and natter in. Lots of space for lots of fun.

Photos from hack 1

The second space we used was the beautiful Enterprise Centre at the University of East Anglia. It was a short drive away from the house, had guaranteed wifi (hurrah!) and provided a more traditional setting to code in.

Photos from hack 2

Itinerary

Hackdays and retreats need some structure. Things to think about are group dynamics, energy levels, food and travel timings. My suggestion is to leave plenty of wriggle room in the schedule and make sure people are aware that they don’t need to take part in everything.

Each hack will be different, and the Outlandish Hack Re:Treat wasn’t a conventional hackday because it explicitly involved LOTS of fun and chilling as well as some hardcore hacking. The schedule went like this…

On the first night we tucked into food in the garden, and started to brainstorm our ideas for the main hack taking place the next day.

Photos from hack 3

We woke up early on the hackday, drove to the venue, split into teams, rolled up our sleeves and got to work. The hackathon lasted from 10.30am till 5.30pm, with a break for lunch in the middle of the day, and a break for a game of 40 40 to get us through the mid-afternoon lull.

The final presentations started at 5pm and ran for half an hour, with teams presenting what they had achieved. The range and quantity of work was astounding. In a few short hours, we had produced a new and fully functional internal dashboard to help people manage their work packages, two promotional videos, research into new ways we can deliver social media analytics and a start on the infrastructure and re-design of our website. Once the hacking was finished, we returned to the big house for a feast and a boogie.

The next and final day of the retreat was purely focused on having fun. We played football in the garden, followed by an afternoon tea break with scones and strawberries, and eventually travelled into Norwich for an ‘escape the room’ challenge. If you haven’t played these games before they are a great way to really get to know your colleagues and understand how they respond to pressure.

Hack photos 4

Food

A short note on food, because keeping people well fed and watered will help them fire on all cylinders. We also have a few foodies in our midst, as well as a good helping of veggies and vegans, so getting this right mattered.

Before the event I organised for a large food and drink shop to be delivered to the house, and when we were there everyone self-organised into teams, taking turns to cook and clean. Our meals included a lush three bean strew, and a delicious huevos rancheros for brekkie. The cost of 20 people for 3 breakfasts, lunches and dinners was about £700. Much cheaper than eating out.

During the hack day itself we ate a packed lunch in the park, complete with biscuits, Babybels and Braeburns. That said, for most of our other hacks we’ve run we decided to order the food in. However you do it, count your people carefully and over-order slightly just in case! Having lots of snacks and enough booze is also a must, especially if it’s a residential.

Diversity

Diversity is something we care about A LOT at Outlandish (check out our recent blog on the subject). It not only makes a good working environment but is essential for a good hackathon. You need to have people with all sorts of skills – developers (obvs), designers, project managers, content producers, infrastructure engineers – and you need people from all sorts of backgrounds. A third of the people at the Outlandish Hack Re:Treat were women, which isn’t too bad, but we still want to do better.

If you’re organising your own hack then keep an eye on the balance of skills and backgrounds that people have. If you have an application process, then you might be able to control the balance somewhat, and if you have money available you could use travel bursaries to recruit groups of people who are underrepresented. We didn’t have to do any of this at the Outlandish hack because it was an internal thing, but if you’re putting on a public event there are ways you can make hacks more diverse and more inclusive.

Goody bags and t-shirts

Do not underestimate how much people love branded t-shirts. They are a way of thanking people for their time, creating a sense of group-ness, and can really boost your brand if everyone wears them out and about.

Hack photos 5

Another way of showing attendees the love is to give them goody bags. I got to the venue a bit early on the first day and laid out the goody bags waiting for everyone to arrive. It started things off very nicely and now no one at Outlandish can complain that they don’t have a USB stick!

Hack photos 6

Final thought

Hacks take on lives of their own. Planning is essential but ultimately if you throw enough people together with different skills, powerful wifi and a clear challenge to tackle, it will come together.