How to Survive a Hackathon as a Sponsor

Surviving a hackathon as a sponsor without becoming a complete zombie is no joke. To start, you’ll have plenty of practical, technical concerns that have to be sorted (How do you get people to try your product? Will the hackers be familiar with your application’s language?). But once you’ve got the technical issues taken care of, you’ll likely have nearly as many questions about how to keep your team as sane and functional as possible––despite running on limited sleep, consuming excessive caffeine, and likely being completely out of their comfort zones.

I’ve boiled down these concerns to what I call the “human factor” in hackathons. They become particularly glaring when you’re approaching hackathons before you’ve got a Developer Relations team in place, which is the current case at Cockroach Labs. Some of the “human factor” questions I had included:

  • How and where do you sleep at a hackathon?
  • What (and when) will we be eating at a hackathon?
  • How do you mentally and emotionally prepare your developer volunteers?

When I sought answers to these questions, I discovered that most of the resources – both online and offline – are tailored for participants (Bring a sleeping bag! Drink all the red bulls!). I thought it would be useful, therefore, to share my thoughts on how to survive hackathons as a sponsor.

Surviving a Hackathon As a Sponsor

Sleep.

The importance of planning sleep for your team cannot be understated. Common schedules for university hackathons are Friday evening to Sunday afternoon – that’s 40+ hours straight that you’re expected to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

  • Set a sleep schedule. When possible, fit a sleep schedule to your team’s natural body clocks. I sent a survey asking when everyone preferred to sleep, and for those who didn’t respond, I intuited based on their daily behaviors in the office. If someone is at work at 9am, they’re probably a morning person and can tolerate an early wake-up. If someone arrives to work midway through lunch everyday, give them the night shift.
  • Get a bed for every person. Our interns told me, “I don’t really sleep at hackathons,” and “I fall asleep wherever I can.” Ha! This is the hysterical talk of college students. Your team will need sleep, and they’ll need a proper place to do it. Dark, quiet, and with a bed. Hotels, house rentals, whatever you need to do: don’t be stingy when it comes to sleep.

Food.

These days, hackathons are practically synonymous with “all you can eat.” The hidden caveat is “all you can eat… if you’re a college kid.” Foods like pizza, french fries, cotton candy, and fried dough are widely available – delicious treats, but not adult food. Especially when you’ve got people running on less sleep than normal, eating healthful, normal food is a must.

  • BYO Snacks. Hit the grocery store on your way to the hackathon, and pick up the kind of snacks people eat at the office. For us, that meant grocery bags full of nuts, granola, bananas, apples, string cheese, and jerky.
  • Eat off campus. Encourage (coerce) your volunteers to leave the event for their meals. Not only will they be able to purchase the kind of food their bodies are craving, but it will also provide a very necessary mental break. Plan these meals into your budget.

Awkwardness.

Hackathons are awkward, especially for sponsors and their team of developers intending to engage with the participants. You’re talking to strangers; you’re pitching your product; you’re soliciting resumes. Developing a shared sense of purpose and proper preparation will help your team muscle their way through the whole event.

  • Be clear about why you’re there. Explicit, realistic goal-setting does wonders for giving your team a sense of collective purpose. If you’re there to recruit, how many resumes should you collect? If you’re there to drive product adoption, what does “adoption” actually look like? When I sponsor hackathons, my event goal is to increase product adoption, with a target metric was “100 installations that show meaningful usage of CockroachDB.” For some products and teams, 100 installations is sandbagging, and you’ll want to aim higher.
  • Write a script. When we went to our first hackathon, our intern Will drafted a script for us to use for approaching participants and enticing them to try CockroachDB. Run through the script with your team to identify where there are holes and where they still may be uncomfortable. These exercises were a relief to the volunteers and helped us navigate the wee hours of the morning.

Surviving a hackathon as a sponsor without your whole team of volunteers zombifying – and by that I do mean eating each other and/or the participants – is something you can prepare for. Getting sleep, eating right, and setting goals are all tangible steps that will make your sponsorship successful and your team willing to volunteer for a hackathon again.

I know this list isn’t exhaustive, so if you’ve got other tips, I’d love to hear them. Feel free to share them on twitter @cockroachdb.  

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