Behind-the-Scenes of a 350-Person Hackathon

LUMOHACKSLUMOHACKS was everything I wanted it to be, and more.

674 people applied and we chose 350 people to create something that improves a cancer patient’s life, in 24 hours.

350 people. 12 3D printers. 5 workshops. World-class speakers from medicine & tech.

That was last week, and now I am sick. I am sniffing and coughing and I sound like a frog but I’m waiting for my next meeting to begin, so I will share some behind-the-scenes moments of a 350-person event.

 

Everyone is fresh on the first day. People who bus or fly in arrive while we are setting up. We tell them to go explore Vancouver.

My logistics coordinator let our day-of volunteers choose roles and no one chooses to show up at 8am on a Saturday, so please assign volunteer roles if you are ever recruiting.

The core team runs around sweating our fresh butts off because no day-of volunteers showed up that morning. And honey, I did not invite world-class speakers to fly into my event to make them wait while I move a table.

 

“I love the shirts,” I overhear. “They are unique.” One of the speakers tells me this; she is the one wearing purple eyeliner and I tell her that I am a big fan of her style.

“It represents luminosity,” I say.

Some hackers request to trade for a grey shirt, but we only have 6 for the core team.

At our event debrief, a teammate says, people pointed out that the white logo wasn’t too visible.

“Do we look blind?” I say. I’d been on the phone with the t-shirt company for two hours because we were expecting darker green shirts.

Print proofs before you print several hundred t-shirts, and be prepared: people will poke at things that you have run through your head a hundred times.

“I would wear these shirts,” I say. “I love neon.”

Our main demographic is male and almost every guy says they are Large on their registration form, so we ordered many Large t-shirts. Take these requests with a grain of salt; I have boxes of leftover L / XL shirts to prove that most guys think they’re Larger than they really are.

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We feature twelve 3D printers at the event, for hackers to use. You can print anything–casts, mechanical joints, figures, prototypes–we had industrial-grade printers for plastics and resins. 3D printed casts for broken bones are more comfortable (and cheaper) than traditional casts, but doctors don’t know how to 3D print. That’s why we bring these people.

One company makes pancakes on their 3D printers for fun and it was so cute but it also blows my mind that these people are like magicians.

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We try to start the opening ceremony on time. But this is the West Coast so people are still trickling into the auditorium at 10 minutes past, and then I insist on turning on the mics.

“I have to be in another city in a few hours,” one speaker says.

Almost every introductory speaker onstage goes overtime and Marinah waves her time-up signs but no one pays attention. Who will stop when 350 people are hanging onto your every word?

We agree that our next event will have a beeping timer and then the host will interrupt and say “Thank you.”

Event organizers have to be respectful of people’s time, and it’s a good idea to plan what to do if: a speaker runs overtime (make a sound, like you can’t help it but they have to get off), if there’s no wifi (backup on a USB), if the audience is late (start no more than 15 mins behind because that reflects on your event/organization as a whole).

 

One speaker is livid. Arriving part way through the Ceremony, he is directed to an empty room to test his slides, then discovers that he is not meant to be in that room at all. Benta waves me over during a break and asks me to talk to him. I give him my seat at the front of the theatre.

We split the crowd into two groups for the Project Ideation Sessions with the top experts in General Cancer, Mobility, Early Detection/Prevention, and Family/Social/Emotional aspects of the cancer.

Some speakers are cancer survivors, and I am impressed by their bravery and candidness because it is one thing to discuss research and another to share personal pain with 350 people.

During the speaker panel, one person asks about wifi, and then there is one question about a dataset, then I let the crowd go for lunch and grab their hardware.

Around 50 people stay to ask questions to the speakers and it worked out better than planned; the questions are intelligent and well-formed and although the registration list had 674 people, seeing real people in real life is a different feeling and I am blown away at how many smart people took their Saturday to attend.

One speaker even shares his phone number so he can answer questions when he is gone.

The warmth and heart that everyone has here blows me away; I have a hunch that everyone is hacking cancer for that special person in their lives.

 

“We have to make two trips,” I say. “The car is too small.”

We are contemplating the state of the car’s trunk; it’s a good lesson that one normal-sized car only fits enough for one meal for 350 people.

Dinner is 30 minutes late when we drop off a car full of snacks from Costco. Do you remember the bird scene from A Bug’s Life where the mother bird keeps bringing home bugs and worms for her babies? That is what we were, the mother bird.

We are constantly feeding people and they are forever hungry. Lunch is over? Great. Let’s hunt dinner.

I text the core team; Sorry, dinner will be later. Feed snacks.

At Chipotle, the boxes are humongously heavy and the two guys who made the three-hundred-some burritos help carry it to the car after their shift. By the time we pick up coffee, we are 2 hours behind.

“People keep coming back to line up for food,” the team says.

“Why are they sitting around?” I say. “Cancer patients are still getting cancer!”

We bring back the burritos and set them out and people sprint to the food—this was caught on video.

 

At midnight, I hop between teams. I wanted to see how they were doing, but then it turns out that everyone wants feedback and I become the midnight consultant.

One team has an Alexa, a personal assistant device that responds when you talk to it. The team wants to make it useful for a cancer patient, perhaps reminders to take your pills or go for a walk outside.

“This is good for a specific use case,” I say. “For elderly patients who are stuck at home. Because, who will carry around a huge Alexa all day?”

They look exhausted.

“But if you are stuck at home, you probably have a caregiver who reminds you to take the pills,” I say.

I want to push people to create awesome things that make an impact. We worked really hard to give them resources with entrepreneurs and software and hardware, and it’s coming down to the last 10 hours.

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At 6am, I look like a drug addict.

I am walking back to our team room wearing a white hoodie and clutching my sleeping bag; as I pass a group typing on their laptops, I say, “Did you guys hack all night?” My voice is gravelly and it hurts my throat so much to speak, eyes bloodshot.

They grunt.

I’ve almost passed them, and one guy says, “Did you stay up hacking?”

One guy jumps up. “You’re one of the organizers!”

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The hackathon winners created an app that helps young cancer patients understand their disease. They will be presenting at a 1000-person entrepreneur conference and introduced to VCs, funders, and accelerators, who will help them move forward and perhaps fund their app.

That was all I wanted: to make an impact. On even one person.

If you are going to attempt to make any impact on anything at all, you have to be prepared to put 110% of everything into it.

I recall a conversation I had with a successful entrepreneur years ago: her team missed the US presidential elections because they were so busy getting their startup off the ground.

When you find a mission that you truly believe in, that’s bigger than yourself, it will feel right to give it all you’ve got. Be strong about it, and be smart.

(Part 2 Coming Soon)

Thanks June Lu for the amazing photography!

2 Comments

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2 Comments

  • Reply Bill November 17, 2016 at 1:23 pm

    Normally I’d say “this isn’t piano”, but it’s great to hear what it takes on the back-end to run something like this. And I’m sure the more you can share on this, the more people can apply it to even small events (music shows, recitals, etc.) so it might be wonderfully relevant!

    I’ve done a few events that were much smaller and shorter – I found the hardest part was delegating things in advance. I ended up doing WAY too much of the prep stuff (soliciting prizes, contacting registrants, etc).

    It also seems like the “day-of” volunteering is a lot more sexy – so the more boring stuff was harder to get reliable (!) help with as well.

    But it does so happen that I was toying with the idea of doing something like this to bring together people that listen to podcasts – so they can finally meet in person. So I’m looking forward to “Part 2”!

    • Reply Grace Lam November 18, 2016 at 5:51 pm

      Thank you, Bill! I could’ve connected the dots and compared producing an event like this, to a specific music event. Maybe that will be helpful.

      You’re right. I did every single thing at my first event. Then I learned that building a good team was just as important as delegating. It’s so important that your team has your back. The day-of volunteering is more fun – you get to say that you’re involved with this cool event without putting as much effort into it. And you get perks like exclusive time with speakers.

      And your podcast idea sounds like something that could be fleshed out!

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