Sharing the experience of building an inclusive event to serve the students of Florida International University. This is a modified version of my retrospective on Medium.
A Celebration With Hackathon Elements
MangoHacks was founded by Juan Alvarado and Alexis Calatayud in 2015. Juan Alvarado, a seasoned hackathon veteran, noticed that the events hosted in the Miami area were too focused on pitching rather than creation. In parallel, the student hacker movement was catalyzing across multiple universities due to the rise in popularity of MHacks and PennApps. As a result, Florida based hackathons started to take shape and transport students to each of those events: resulting in a tight knit community. I attended my first event fresh from the turn on 2016: HackFSU 3. On Feb 2nd 2016; I discovered what Computer Science was really about, programming jokes, Soylent and great company. The days after- I rushed to find out how I can help out with organizing FIU’s own hackathon and there I was, responsible to get Mangoes when none could be found.
Florida International University is a commuter school with an acceptance rate hovering around 55 percent. Being a state school in Florida, the university's mandate is to educate the students of South Florida while providing a global education. Since it is not a specialized engineering university, many of the students don't have existing context about programming and engineering.
As a result, universities usually resemble two types: are they "talent agencies" or "bootcamps". This is a concept explored better by Dr. Dan Zhang's Quora response. The likelihood of a talented software developer who has been programming since an early age is higher at Penn than FIU: which is not to say there are none at FIU. Rather, the FIU student's passion for software development wasn't discovered yet.
Because of that: MangoHacks originated from a movement. Or rather an open table, culminating from sustained effort from multiple clubs with the then latent desire to participate in the information economy. In layman's terms: programming with your friends is fun.
The organizing team and I knew that we were never going to be a hackathon that epitomized the competitive spirit. During this time, there was also the focus from certain organizers to create mega-hackathons. Instead, we wanted to be the most fun hackathon that was also most likely the participant's first hackathon. As such: we focused our efforts within that positioning.
Evolution of the Event
One year on from the event's founding: the word of mouth spread and attracted more participants from beyond the state's boundaries. At the time, I was co-directing with Juan and we spent more time on polishing the event and experience. The slight change of the attendee profile made us spend more effort on the check-in experience and the judging of the projects.
This is notable because over time: the expectations rose. MangoHacks was growing in its shoes beyond a charming haphazard event short on snacks, to accepting the responsibility it had in being a steward of the hackathon spirit.
Hiring* A New Team
After MangoHacks 2017, the old organizing team was ready to move on and graduate. I feel it is oft mentioned the amount of stress that putting on one of these events do to you. Organizing a hackathon of any magnitude is one of consistent worry. It was time for MangoHacks Founder Juan Alvarado to retire and pass on the reins to me. In terms of the returning team, it was just myself.
Luckily, there was an enterprising young student by the name of Cesia who approached Juan and started listing the ways on how MangoHacks 2017 was inadequate. In short that was what we needed. Cesia became my new Co-Director and we began our work.
In the first MangoHacks, the core organizing team was around 4 people for an event of 200, during the second iteration the number was 6 for an event of 260 people. One of the constraints of organizing last year was how short staffed we were.
Part of the reason why we didn’t scale the team drastically from the first to the second is because of the logistics of managing a larger team. Unfortunately, oral history doesn’t carry on when you don’t have a steady and consistently young organizing team. In our case, we had a lot of ground to make up for when it came to picking and training our team.
I came from a background where managing and getting the best out of people was ingrained in me from an early age. Running cross-country for a non-private school made me understand that in some cases you can’t hire for talent but instead for potential. In some cases you can coach and train people to reach theirs. Working on numerous club executive boards gave me perspective on how to handle egos and different points of view- subsequently synthesizing those views into one where everyone was moderately satisfied with the outcome.
One’s personal story on how they became a developer or how they got into tech is important and world view shaping. We wanted the team to see themselves in the event, it was important for the team to reflect the participants. We were looking for the following, agreeableness, diversity of background, and enthusiasm, I will go into why that was important for us.
Important Team Traits
Agreeableness — First and foremost is this one, so why did we screen for this trait above all else? Well, mostly because there are going to be many different viewpoints and we need to be able to converge on one solution. Many people confuse Agreeableness as just being a “yes-person” but that is not the case. In fact the opposite, we want people to feel comfortable providing alternate viewpoints to challenge each other to help us build a better event. What matters is, delivery, Agreeableness is key to having a team that respects each other and become good friends and bond. Usually hiring for talent and not focusing on this trait tends to have people who do tend to perform very good technically or rank very high on productivity at the cost of team cohesion. As mentioned before- organizing these events cause quite a bit of stress so we wanted the ability of the team to fall back on each other and even more so, fight for each other when it became the time to. Although I don’t subscribe into personality tests at the risk of typecasting folks- I can say with a fair bit of confidence that warm, friendly, and tactful are all adjectives that can be used to describe our team- which is especially important when considering that a hackathon first and foremost is a hospitality event.
Diversity of Background — Many folks see diversity as some sort of affirmative action metric which is an unfair characterization. Regardless of the moral imperative it carries, it is more so pragmatic to be as diverse as possible. The anecdotal and economic evidence is there, if your teams carry different experiences then the empathy that your team is able to practice increases for the attendees. Out of our 11 core organizers, we had a 5 women/6 men split where of that group, 3 of us were people of color and the rest of us identified as White/Hispanic (or Latino). If you look beyond the numbers- that group in of it’s self had folks who were older than the average undergrad and younger than the average undergrad, people who recently arrived to the US and people who have lived in many places before coming to FIU. Such stories of our upbringings challenged people to look and empathize with our potential attendees building a more holistic profile of who belongs at MangoHacks (everyone) while really taking that to heart as we moved forward. For us, it was dispelling the notion that the “successful” student in tech was someone who was coding ever since 12 and had a multitude of projects their belt. That wasn’t the reality for any of us at all.
Keep in mind: in Miami, it is very easy to recruit for one type of person considering how segregated our demographics can be.
Enthusiasm — When you are picking up a team on who might be short on finished product, the enthusiasm makes up for it. When you have newer people on the list, one’s curiosity and will to learn makes up for the fact that they aren’t ready yet. That’s perfectly fine, over the span of 9+ months, the team is going to grow and learn to together so with the foundation of the previous two traits it really turns out to be a fun environment for the team. We found that because everyone liked, respected and grew with each other we built a good foundation where that affability carried on to the day of event where our team members were still pleasant even on 3 hours of sleep on the day. That enthusiasm carries on when the team runs into roadblocks. To quote Chris Coleman, former Wales football manager “You don’t want people like wheelbarrows who are only good or useful when you push them. First bump in the road they fall over anyway.” That same applies to anyone learning anything extensive when they start. Usually self-motivation is a trait abused by management to get people to work more hours and deal with poor management, but in this case- we don’t want to exploit our own team members but filter for people who do well when the project requirements aren’t so clear until later on as the entire team discovers what is needed. Such curiosity is key when it comes to having teammates ask the right questions about their role or the role they want to work in.
As mentioned, FIU is a commuter school with unique challenges and its students sometimes share those challenges. First off, some of our team members work full time, or near full time hours. Second, some of our students are transfers that are sometime making up classes or are behind the normal school schedule. Lastly, MangoHacks along with all of our team members responsibilities (to their parents or to their other obligations) we face a unique issue where the team members in some cases can only put in around 5 hours of work each week. So the first challenge was to get the team comfortable with picking up each other’s weight when it was time. (Reinforcing why agreeableness and diversity worked in our favor.)
It is not enough to just assign tasks and let your team go on to do its work. Notice how we didn’t screen for people who went to a hackathon before. So we spent effort attending other school's events. The goal was to build empathy on the work that goes into the events that other people host and understanding how the participant experience is like. Then applying those learning to our own event: not to mention it was a team building exercise in its self.
A common mistake that teams do of any discipline tend to put up organizational walls that separate the teams. In teams from 1 to 13, sometimes too much structure can be a bad thing when it comes to working with people who do have limited time. We intentionally kept tooling to a minimum. Long term recall and meeting notes in Slack, day to day comms in FB Messenger, and a well managed Trello board.
The first step of any team getting on with each other is regular team meetings and proposing simple questions. We spent the first few meetings slowly: asking how they felt about the state of tech, how did they end up getting interested and involved, what goals do they hope to accomplish.
Having meetings like this over the summer where they were more conversational than on the execution end allowed ideas to flow freely and have team members listen to each other leading to pretty good sessions.
The next step before really getting to work was profiling who was really passionate about what they wanted to work on. The result was sections of teams that really went head first into development and the structure was built around exploration. Example- “I really want to learn React” we let them apply an end goal of the event to their personal goals… “MangoHacks needs a check-in system” and the end result was a check in system built in React.
It was a win-win scenario: both the team members and the event could have something they are really proud of.
One of the most important elements of an event is experience.
We wanted an event where someone can fondly remember their time at MangoHacks. Traditionally we had the highest amount of first time hackers at our event. Even though the event is not a “speciality” beginner event we did try our best to accomodate everyone having fun at the event. Veteran hackathon attendees could experience a fun and rambunctious atmosphere, simultaneously first time attendees and realize that the Computer Arts is more than just staring at a laptop.
So we chose three words that embodied the spirit of the event.
Imagine, we wanted our design language to be not intrusive where people can see themselves building their ideas on their own hardware or other products.
Innovate, we wanted to have our design language to have people push the boundaries of themselves. People confuse innovation applying to only technology, but the same ideals apply to personal development.
Inspire, we wanted to honor the past submissions and the past stories of other attendees.
However, we had some house keeping in regards to the logo.
We received comments that the MangoHacks 2017 logo resembled a chili.
We then looked back at the MangoHacks 2016 logo and wanted to synthesize a better logo moving forward.
One thing we did want to keep was the modern curves and the friendliness that this logo seemed to exude.
After quite a bit of discussion we ended up landing on a happy medium between the two. We didn’t want the logo-mark to be prominent. Instead added the stem and modified the shape of the logo. Once we were happy with the logo, we could then focus on the brand and voice of the event.
Phil Chang defines brand as what customers feel whenever they interact with your organization.
It was important for us to be very intentional on how we communicated ourselves to attendees.
We had a few directions on where we wanted to head. Considering our team has minimal UI/UX design experience- it posed an additional constraint since I was the sole designer. I wanted everyone to be able to create graphics on behalf of the organization.
Initial explorations resembled the following: graphically complex but striking. It would prove to be difficult to have the rest of the team contribute if we went in this direction.
I asked the team to provide graphics from artifacts that they liked and spent a good amount of time how it ties to emotions we wanted participants to feel.
I noticed off the bat three things on what made these picks look inviting. The use of color, the use of motion (or the way how the appearance of motion was being used) and the spacing of objects- many of the subjects in these studies where unobstructed and really focused on the subject matter. After mulling over another set of failed iterations. We were able to agree on the following mock ups.
I made three heroes to show to our team. The usage of “pills” floating around to gave the sense of motion. The use of technological subjects grounded the focus of the event. The use of contrast helped the event stand out.
We wanted folks who were walking by to their classrooms and really see what a delightful event we were hosting. The color really got people’s attention without being obnoxiously loud.
In addition to how striking we found it to be, it met our requirements of being easily to implement. The team was easily able to remixed and stay within guidelines.
Accidentally, the minimal nature meant that it played nicely with sponsor logos.
One thing of note was to keep a very positive message coming into the event. Participants have varying levels of experience and was important for us to account for those attendees.
Many people at the time feel that hackathons are all about staying up late. However we felt in the state of this industry where burnout is common- we emphasized health. It was also key that the messaging didn’t feel like event propaganda.
Ivette- our Outreach Coordinator helped provide the communication pipelines to club leaders around the state and helped them give resources they can use to help drive up signups. We also collaborated on pre-events to help get people out to the event and help team build. We also felt we were able to execute on a really good website. On our website, we were able to do some nice CSS trickery to get the motion we wanted from the pills.
However, not everything designed made it in- we had plans for an app but at the time the development time would have been too costly in person hours to follow through on. The idea was to help make the processes that usually happen once or twice (team-building, announcements) turn into continuous availability of help delivered on the phone but felt that instead of trying to build a new product- we focused on the execution of those concerns instead.
Raising and Delivering On A Great Event
Juan and I did a retrospective before we started planning the 2018 edition of MangoHacks. We identified 5 major areas of improvement.
We wanted to refine the experience in five major opportunities of improvement.
- Sponsor Relations
We addressed these concerns by responding with an action plan to address these concerns.
- Judging - We refined our criteria to Originality, Execution and Polish and dedicated a section in the live site. We set up the expo earlier in time to account for hiccups to end the event on time. We made sure the judges were technical to make sure that judges had empathy for what was accomplished.
- Marketing - Team members shouldered additional responsibility to send more content to people who have registered or people who previously signed on our interest forms. With our designs, we made more of a point to do more print marketing and make the designs be striking enough to carry on our message. Day of the event, we gave credentials out to the team members and encouraged more content on the event's socials.
- Design/Products - Released a volunteer dashboard, it was easier for us to track people who signed up day of event, we had almost no queues. Proactive messaging with pamphlets avoided frustration from sponsors allowing them to set up efficiently.
- Sponsor Relations - Dedicated team resources into emailing and managing leads. Refined the sponsor prospectus to recommend how to get the most out of their investment.
- Inclusiveness - We improved advertising campaigns and reaching out to SHEP, NSBE, SWE and WICS clubs. We made more of an effort to speak to local community colleges and while using the state network of Florida Hackers to help get the word out helped drive registrations to its highest point.
By being more upfront and intentional: we were able to drastically improve fundraising and attendance. Here is an example artifact that came from addressing these shortcomings head-on.
We had a large check-in table. We had a ton of mentors. We had our sponsors show up with a bunch of swag. We had music, workshops and friendly smiles from everyone. We aimed to put on a lively event. We realized in our talks that usually opening ceremonies set the mood of the event so Cesia and I worked really hard in the coming days to practice our speech and give the people an event they would get excited for. We made a generative art piece for production value and then a last minute small animation that got people ready to hack.
I went up on stage and gave the keynote. It was focused on one topic.
Anyone Can Hack
Out of 1,000 registrations, we had confirmed 600 people’s attendance, that wasn’t intended to happen but after we accepted them: we couldn’t necessarily turn them away. We had to expand our hacking space and order more food last minute adding more budgetary pressures.
It was a big pressure to handle the sudden influx of people. The number was climbing on our dashboard, we hit 492 people who showed up. We handled check-in with relative ease, and then it was time for food- and then we had issues with setting up enough lanes for food causing queuing issues for people. We messed up. However, despite the packed house we had people enjoy tonnes of workshops, snacks and great company.
We had salsa lessons, startup office hours, onsite interviews, meetups, cup stacking, Soylent pong, battle rap and 68 submissions with a total of $6,000 worth of prizes given out.
We had an overwhelming response of positive feedback from our sponsors and our attendees and hopefully we were the best on-ramp into the tech industry while being welcoming to all.
It's an honor that anyone would spend an hour, even, 36 hours with us. It means a lot that they gave up a weekend to work on something cool. We had 492 people from across multiple countries with 125+ women and non-binary folks represented.
It was our hope that our attendees noticed the love and effort we put into this event.
Hackathons are life changing and hopefully other programming events consider themselves to be the best homecoming for many people who pick up the Computer Arts.
A Final Word
I am writing this note on May 5th, 2021. All of the people you see in this photo have graduated or unceremoniously dropped-out. All them are either senior software engineers at well known tech companies, successful startup founders or employees, or distinguished product operators.
The best contribution that any university student can provide is their eventual absence. The negative space left behind is a gift to the next generation of students. The gift of a new canvas allows new students to imprint their ideas of what their ideal community should resemble.
A community is what drives the interesting things. It's what makes the things that happen interesting to the people involved, because of the people involved. It’s what drives the: let’s go to another state for this event. The 12 hour bus rides. The last minute impulse to escape on the middle of finals week and have fun. The community inspires people to see how far they could take their ideas.
MangoHacks no longer exists, at this moment, for a variety of reasons. But, MangoHacks didn't fail. It proved that, anyone, anywhere, can hack. It proved that the hacker spirit can live in Miami. Although it no longer exists physically, its spirit persists to this very day in the people who choose to carry it. I hope the events of the future commit to the same values of openness and experimentation like the early hackers of yesteryear.