UofTHacks and it was Amazing!

November 01, 2013

I haven’t blogged in a while due to technical (and other) issues, but I’ll explain that in a future blog post. This one is reserved specifically for UofTHacks. It happened about a month ago, and I figured I should post this story up sooner rather than later especially since I had spent the better part of my summer planning UofTHacks, and as of Sunday September 29th at 8pm, it was all over (ok, so there’s still some follow up stuff I’m working on… but other than that it was over).

UofTHacks is the largest student run and student hosted hackathon in Canada. Many of you may be wondering what a Hackathon is - I’ve gotten this question so many times, so I’ll definitely spend some time trying to explain it. Taken from Wikipedia, you have the following definition for “Hackathon”:

The word “hackathon” is a portmanteau of the words “hack” and “marathon”, where “hack” is used in the sense of playful, exploratory programming.

My slightly more expanded explanation of “Hackathon”, specifically in context with programmers, goes:

A Hackathon is a marathon event ranging from 45 minutes to a few days, where participants may be given a problem. They must use their time to come up with and subsequently develop a solution.

Basics of Plannng

I should preface this planning section with a few notes: I have only been to a few hackathons in the past, nothing to the scale that we were planning our hackathon on. I was also back home in Kenya for the whole summer, while the rest of my team was in Canada (mostly). This meant a lot of Skype meetings starting at 2am my time.

I came up with the idea of hosting a Hackathon while going over the CSSU Budget Request from last year, and noticing that we had a small budget allowance for a hackathon that we never really used or planned. I really loved the concept of having a hackathon, and managed to get some friends interested in planning it as well. We started listing out some of the basic details we would need to go over such as picking the date, the venue and rooms, and the general structure we would like to have. We talked about things we saw at other hackathons, and the types of things we would like to try and feature in our hackathon such as a Tech Expo and Job Fair, and a Hack Demo where students could show off everything they worked on. We also liked the idea of hosting a few seminars. We knew one of the most important things we needed to sort out was getting funding from sponsors, so we started working on this straight away.

As we got deeper into the planning, we got more and more excited. Word started spreading, and sponsors were getting back to us about the hackathon. We figured out the schedule, meals, got more sponsors together, and when we opened up registrations, we started filling up fast. It was real - it was happening! We jokingly came up with “UofTHacks: Where will you be?”, and it stuck as our slogan. When we decided to design our T-Shirts and Tote bags, we decided to put “UofTHacks: And I did too” on them, as these would be going to people who attended the event.

We were hosting UofTHacks at the Bahen Center, University of Toronto. The Bahen Center is where most CS Students can be found as our labs and spaces are located here, as well as many faculty offices and the Computer Science Student Union’s office and Undergrad Lounge (amongst many other things). We thought we would have a really easy time getting the rooms, security and care taking sorted out. Unfortunately we were wrong. The University has never really had a student-run event of this size before, and so we didn’t really know who to talk to about getting access to rooms overnight, where to go for security for the event and how to minimize custodial issues. We eventually managed to get in touch with the “head” of the Office of Space Management (OSM). We scheduled a meeting, described our event and managed to figure out a lot of the logistics for the event. The OSM team were absolutely amazing and helpful, and managed to get everything we needed sorted out for us.

The week before school started, I got back to Toronto and met with the UofTHacks team in person (finally!). We were overjoyed about the fact that our event was sold out even before school was back in session. We knew that the turnout is never 100%, and tried to estimate “swag” bags and other costs appropriately. We kept planning, making sure we had all the details we could plan for, and finalizing food orders. And then, without knowing where the time disappeared, the hackathon was upon us.

UofTHacks is Happening!

The Hackathon was here! It started on Friday the 27th of September, and went on till Sunday 29th September. I, along with the exec team, spent the day setting up and making sure that things were ready for the big day. Registration officially opened at 5pm, and people started showing up. I was ecstatic with the fact that more than 5 people had showed up!

We had the opening ceremony with a Keynote Speech by Tobi Lutke, the CEO of Shopify. This was promptly followed by dinner, and then the hackers were off! They spent the next 36 hours putting together some truly amazing hacks. We did our best to offer people other forms of entertainment as the hackathon went on. Overnight we held lots of raffles for the people who stayed overnight and were still awake. We may have had impromptu dance-offs going on, as well as an endless supply of pop and red bull. One of the execs and I decided to visit every room, talk to all the teams, and give out little bits of swag out as well if they answered simple trivia questions correctly.

Day 2 began, and we had a lot planned. We started the morning off with a really busy Tech Expo with a Job Fair twist. Here sponsoring companies were able to show off some of the amazing things that they’re working on, as well as talk to students about possible future jobs at their company. We had some amazing companies out, and even got to see a 3D Machine! In there afternoon we hosted some seminars ranging from API use to Legal issues you should be aware of when it comes to starting your own company. We continued having raffles overnight, but we had a special surprise for the hackers on that night as well. One of the execs got an Ice Cream Truck. Yup, an Ice Cream Truck. Unlimited ice cream all night for anyone at the event! It was absolutely delicious!

All of a sudden it was already Day 3: Demo day. Hackers finished working on their apps and managed to submit them all in time. We then had a Hack Expo, where each team showed off what they had been working on, and the judges used this time to go around and decide which hacks are the best. Once the first round of judging was over, we had the closing ceremony where the finalists demo’ed their hacks and we announced the winners. We said a huge thanks to all the participants, the sponsors, and the volunteers who helped us out during the event.

And before we knew, it was all over. UofTHacks took months to prepare, and now it was finished. We headed back to the main hacking building to clean out the rooms and sort out all the left over stuff we had. And then we made our way home, and slept.

My Thoughts, Opinions and Advice

I absolutely loved the event. There were many problems, which we expected and figured out how to deal with. It was our first time hosting a hackathon, let alone an event of this size, and we got such amazing feedback from participants and sponsors. I wish I had more time to view all the hacks that were put together, and get to know more of the participants.

I’m definitely interested in planning UofTHacks again next year, as long as I’m in Toronto and not working somewhere else for my PEY. I honestly feel the hardest part of the planning process was figuring out who to get in touch with for the room space, security and care taking, but as soon as we got this done, a lot of the other pieces fell into place.

My advice would definitely be to make sure your exec team comprises of people you trust, and people who will definitely be there throughout the event to help you with the different problems that you might run into. I took on a huge project, and I definitely don’t think it would have been possible without the amazing exec team that I worked with. That and keep a positive attitude. One of the nicest comments I got was from one of the hackers who came up to me and said “this is amazing for a first time hackathon. And I haven’t even seen you get angry or annoyed, and I’m having such a great time too”. He definitely made me laugh :)