How to run a high school hackathon
06 Feb 2020
I founded and organized hackPHS, a fairly large (200+ hacker) high school hackathon at Princeton High School. I started it my junior year, as a MLH (Major League Hacking) Local Hack Day (only around 50 hackers for 12 hours), and then expanded the event to over 200 hackers for 24 hours. This was a massive undertaking, and I definitely couldn’t have done it without the fantastic people at MLH. Their hackathon organizers guide (guide.mlh.io) and their peer groups were phenomenal, but since most hackathons are collegiate, I thought it would be a good idea to write some things I learned about organizing high school hackathons specifically. If you’re looking to start, or organize, a high school hackathon, definitely go through mlh in any way possible, or if you have any specific questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. The following tips and tricks are just general guides and may not apply to every situation, use your best judgment when making any and all decisions.
- Start planning as early as possible (at least 6 months (though I recommend 9) before the day of), getting through to hs admin can be a huge pain especially when dealing with venues.
- When choosing dates, make sure you check all standardized tests dates, so you can avoid missing a large potential group hackers due to the SATs (our first event, we probably lost 50% of our potential hacker pool because of the ACT).
- Finding sponsors:
- Go to other hackathon websites (especially hs) and contact all those companies
- Email all the companies in your local area. Even if they don’t sponsor, getting mentors from big companies is super beneficial to your event. They also don’t have to necessarily be tech companies, as long as they have developers.
- Linkedin is super helpful for finding specific people who are likely to be good points of contact. Look for dev advocates or people that could have any connection to your school.
- Always email people, never generic emails. To help find these emails, I recommend using a tool such as hunter.io.
- Try to send all of your emails on Monday mornings, your response rates will be much higher.
- Also probably send follow ups on around the thursday after and then the next week, also early in the morning if possible.
- Don’t be afraid to follow up a bunch of times if you aren’t getting responses.
- I know mlh uses mixmax for auto sending emails and follow ups at the best times, but it does cost a bit of money, but it could be helpful. Gmail now can send schedule emails, and there are other tools that can be used for tracking (I personally use snov.io)
- Don’t focus on getting them to just hand over money after your first email. Try to start a conversation. Try and get on a call with them, it’s much easier for them to reject you in an email than face to face or over a call.
- Don’t let companies take advantage of you because you are a high school event. Many companies will try and get you to give them free publicity, by trying to pitch their product as a sponsorship (“We’ll give out our API to all your hackers, if you put our logo on your website….”). I highly recommend against this. If you just slightly push back, they usually come back with a more reasonable offer. I personally am not a fan of trying to pad the bottom of your website with a billion sponsor names. Find sponsors who want to support you and don’t be afraid to reject sponsors who aren’t giving you any tangible benefit. However, fundraising for high school events can be extremely hard, so don’t be too choosy.
- When pitching your hackathon to potential sponsors (especially local ones), one aspect that can be really influential is community engagement. Many local companies will be willing to spare a few bucks to just to support local schools, without a tangible benefit for them.
- Showing up at a local business and directly speaking to them works really well. Just walk in (maybe call ahead) and start talking to the manager or owner and see if hey can spare a few bucks.
- Hackathons are expensive. I probably shouldn’t share specific budget data about hackPHS, but if you want to look at their budget, email firstname.lastname@example.org, they’ll probably be able to help you out. But I can say that each attendee at a hs hackathon probably costs any where $50-100. Be prepared for a long-haul on fundraising, getting that kind of cash can be either insanely hard or insanely easy depending on a million factors, but in more instances than not, finding 20k is tricky. This is why having a proper thought out budget is probably the most important and helpful thing you can do. Know every expense, so that you can accurately find sponsors who can directly help you out (e.g if you realize you have to spend 5k on wireless routers, maybe verizon would be a sponsor you should really go after).
Just as a heads up, this is the one subteam I didn’t really do to much work for, so it’s going to be very brief.
- Tap into literally all of your connections. You probably know more people than you think you do. Reach out to everyone you know and schools near you or programs or anything, and ask them to help you promote your event. One ting we did was we implemented a pseudo “campus ambassador program”, where we asked people at a variety of schools to help us reach out to people, and the school that had the most people attend, their ambassador got a little prize ($5 giftcard). It cost us literally nothing, but that program partially helped the event go from 200 to over 350 hackers the year after I graduated.
- Use every social media platform possible. There a ton of fantastic groups specifically for hackathons. On facebook there is Hackathon Hackers, High School Hackers, Ladies storm hackathons, and many more. The hackathon subreddit also is a good place to promote your event.
- Cross Promote: Find every hackathon within a 50 mile radius of you and email them asking to cross promote hackathons. You post about them, they post about you, everybody wins.
- Stay in contact with your registrants. If someone registers for your event, and then never hears from them for 4 months, until a week before the event, the likely-hood they forgot about the event or made other plans is quite high. Build hype and stay in contact with your registrants.
- If you’re hosting a high school hackathon, it probably pretty likely that there’s at least 1 cs class or teacher at your school. Have them give extra credit for everyone who demos at your event. Extra credit is a fantastic motivator.
- Go to all the math and cs classes at your school (and other schools if possible) and promote your event. If you can’t do this, email the teacher and ask them to promote the event for you. This works well for getting students from neighboring districts, teachers love having their students learn more outside of class, I’ve never had a teacher turn me down when I asked them to promote my event. Also advertise to different clubs, go to the science olympiad, the math team, whoever, and promote there.
Logistics is my absolute favorite part of hackathon organization, but it is a lot of random, disconnected information, so prepare for some discombobulation in this part.
- Food is way more expensive than you think, the majority of your costs will be food related. Have your finance team and logistics team work together to get as many food-related in kind sponsorships. We cut down our food costs to about a third of our initial estimates due to food sponsorships. And even with this huge reduction, food was still over half our total expenditures.
- Food restrictions are extremely important. You need to be prepared for everything, and getting this data from your applicants is extremely important. I recommend not having any foods that there are common allergies to (nuts), as well having at least half if not more of your food be vegetarian. Also if there are any other special food restrictions, set aside $10 or $20 a meal for each one and ask them what they want and order it for them, it’s oftentimes the easiest way to get food that they can eat and won’t hate.
- I personally subscribe to the philosophy that at a hackathon there should always be food for people. Always have snacks out so that people can grab them, nobody wants a hungry hacker, it always ends poorly.
- Even though it’s typically cheaper, try to avoid unhealthy food. Hackathon food shouldn’t just be pizza and soda. Having healthy food is great for hackers, it makes their brains work better and it puts them in better moods.
- I don’t know where you’re from, but I bet your town/city/state/whatever has some food-related thing that it’s famous for. Try and incorporate your local community into your event. For example, Rutgers is the home of the fat sandwich, so hackRU will sometimes have fat sandwiches for hackers.
- Power and wifi are so important, just double and triple check to make sure you have enough outlets for every hacker to have at least 2 devices plugged in, and your wifi can handle every hacker streaming on 1 or 2 devices concurrently.
- Talk to your schools tech department to see if they can help you out as well as to try and see if they can have someone on call to fix any issues that arise.
- Hacker experience is what makes your hackathon unique. Everything from your sponsors to your workshops to how smooth your event runs is super important and you should put as much time, money, and resources into having the best experience for you hackers.
- Swag is extremely important. Getting your stickers on as many people’s laptop as possible is very important. Also t-shirts are essentially turning your hundreds of attendees into walking billboards.
- MLH should give you sticker discounts, but if not most sticker companies (stickermule, stickergiant, etc…) will sponsor hackathons and give them free stickers.
- Shirts are expensive and annoying, so I also recommend using whomever is suggested by MLH. But if you find someone cheaper go with that option. We found some random guy who didn’t speak English to do our shirts super cheap and it was a lot more work, but anything to save a bit of money.
- Cool tech for organizing hackathons is kinda overrated, but is sometimes extremely useful.
- Make sure your website is good, it’s how 90% of you potential hackers will get an idea of what your event is, spend some time on it and make it god.
- Slack is really good as a communication for both day of, and for organizers. I highly recommend slack for everything.
- Gavel/Sledge is pretty good for judging, but only use it if you have months to set it up and test it properly so it doesn’t crash right before judging (definitely not speaking from experience)
- Google sheets is your absolute best friend. Make spreadsheets for everything, especially tracking sponsors.
- Look into mixmax for email Automation
- GSuite is worth whatever it costs (I think its 5 a month per email), having a team and sponsor google drive and gmail makes everything so much easier
- Fancy check in and check out systems are cool, but not really necessary, typeform or mymlh work just fine. But if you are looking for a fancy check in system, check out Clipboard which was built by the hackPHS Team!
This is honestly the most important. Your team is who are going to make your event happen, but working with them and being a good leader and making sure everyone is working to their potential is extremely challenging. I’m going to go a bit light on this section because I have another post coming soon which will be entirely on team management and leadership, so this section will be only hackathon specific information.
- Organization structure: Having a well structured organization allows people to be held responsible and better understand their responsibilities. Most hackathon teams are broke down into Finance, Logistics, Outreach, and Tech. Sometimes people change the name or number of groups, but these are the main ones. Also, there are usually a few directors who oversee everyone. Depending on your team, you might want sub-team leads as well, but that’s not necessary for smaller teams.
- Slack is a phenomenal tool for organizers to use for communication, it allows everyone to easily communicate and it does a great job of compartmentalizing conversations and groups of the leadership team.
- Having an organized central spot for resources and documents is of the essence. Having a google drive folder is pretty good, but make sure everything is in logical folders, and I recommend having a table of contents document linking to everything to make finding information as easy as possible.
- Meeting in person is so important as organizers. I personally really don’t like virtual meetings, but they are definitely better than nothing. I recommend meeting multiple times a week to make sure everyone is on task and up to date. If you want to do virtual meetings, I recommend using Zoom as a platform.
- I highly recommend having a wiki with all important information regarding how to organize your hackathon so that even in the case every organizer quit, a new team could use this document to continue your organization.
- Recruiting and training new organizers is as important as keeping your existing ones. I recommend spending a large amount of time and effort focused on getting as many people to apply to your leadership team as possible so that you have as many options as possible. I recommend an in depth application (similar to college apps but less writing) as well as an extensive interview process. Who your organizers are is so important - don’t half ass it.