A Chicago Hacks Weekend

Before:

The Chicago Hacks planning expedition started out wide-eyed and at full throttle speed. 6 months ago we expected that we would be drowning in sponsor money from Google, Microsoft, Palantir, and the likes. The website was whipped up by Evan Eckels in a matter of 2 days and it felt like Chicago Hacks was going to be an instant success. Once the real work of the event planning began, things started to pile up.

Sponsorships, emails, attendees, and advertising quickly filled our plates on top of school and sports commitments. It was tough to juggle all of this and on top of that, a sponsor pulled out of their partnership. This sponsor’s withdrawal of a major contribution was the turning point in our event. Once that happened, the mentality towards making Chicago Hacks happen changed, and we seriously got to work. We quickly partnered with Hack+ (shoutout to Sanil!) and were able to accept sponsorships under a non-profit status which helped us secure much needed money.

A huge turning point in planning Chicago Hacks had to do with our shirts. Unfortunately, a week out from the event, we weren’t able to keep our promise to get t-shirts for every attendee. However, the Monday of the event week we secured $800 and were able to purchase shirts for every attendee. In fact, that money was secured the day we made the order for the shirts. The team and I spent 2 periods of school that day sitting in the computer lab proofing and making sure everything was ready for order.

Front of shirt
Back of shirt

Once we got the shirts, we felt like we were rolling.

Since the event was less than a week out, we dedicated most of our nights to planning and getting quotes for the food. Almost every night we were up until midnight with the Hack Club staff figuring out how everything will go in 15 minute increments. This type of detailed planning allowed the event to run without any major hiccups. It’s funny looking back and seeing how much we pushed those last two weeks. For perspective, before the last two weeks we were just sending sporadic sponsor emails hoping that we would get enough money for Chicago Hacks. With 2 weeks and less until the event I was sending about 10+ emails a day, and Chicago Hacks practically became our lives.

The Costco trip we had 2 nights before the event was probably one of the most interesting and fun experiences I have had in planning for Chicago Hacks. Robbie, Avi, Rahul, and I all went out to Costco to get the snacks and drinks for the event and we filled 2 pallets and 2 carts with items. We received so many comments and weird looks while shopping, but in the end it was worth it. Actually, my debit card was denied due to a max limit placed on it since it was such a large purchase (not a fun thing to hear from the cashier). This picture doesn’t capture the scale of the situation, but you get the idea.

The night before the event, the team and I went out to Tech Nexus (our venue) to meet in person with the Hack Club team. It felt great finally seeing them in person after months of planning. That night we sat in the conference room and fully fleshed out the logistics and even set up the spaces for the hardware lab. After the planning, we went out for dinner in the rainy weather and it really felt like we had gelled as a team. Obviously there was a lot of work in front of us, but it was a moment in which I thought we had already succeeded.

Night before meeting

During:

We arrived at Tech Nexus at around 8:00 am on Saturday and quickly started loading all of our items from the ground floor to the 12th floor of the Civic Opera House. That experience was a fun manual labor exercise and the stacked fridges looked really cool in the end. Barring a lot of pre-event madness, once the people started flowing in, our signups led my Max, Robbie, and Sean worked flawlessly.

Pre-event

It was a little awkward having a gap between lunch and the opening ceremony, but it worked out in the end. Our opening ceremony was a wild success and I think the hackers were super excited for all that we had planned for the weekend.

People still filing in, pre-opening ceremony

Honestly, thanks to Hack Club, there wasn’t much pressure on us the organizers during the event (besides meals) to do anything crazy. They did a great job making the first time hackers excited and open to programming. Overall, during the event we had a lot of free time and were mostly making sure no disasters happened.

Hack Club Build Your First Website Workshop

Here I would like to thank our mentors from Neighborhoods.com for coming and helping out during the workshop. You guys are driving forward youth in Chicago to pursue tech/CS! After the workshops, we had an awesome tech talk by the Linwood Ma (CTO) and Ryan Grace from tastyworks. They got the hackers interested in trading and the development process and there were so many questions that we had to cut it off for dinner.

tastyworks tech talk

The hackers were especially excited for our Insomnia Cookies midnight snack, and after a weird late Saturday night Chicago experience, hackers had the warm cookies delivered by Max, Harrison, and me at around 12:30 am.

After getting an hour of sleep, I got to work on making the closing ceremony slides and the prize distribution. Sean and Zach handled judging and made sure the science fair style and presentations flowed seamlessly. This was truly a team effort since we had to make sure that the opening ceremony room could be transformed to science fair style and then back to theater style. The cleanup process after the event exhausted us but we finished it in record time so we could get out as soon as possible. 24 hours with no AC in 76 degree weather gets to you.

Reflections:

When students left Chicago Hacks, we really felt like they had a great time. You can never take someone’s words as the complete truth, but from the expressions and body language of every hacker, it seemed like we had run a very successful and engaging event. One thing I was disappointed with is the fact that we were not able to get any media coverage at the event. Other smaller scale hackathons were able to get outlets like the Daily Herald to cover them, but no matter how much we tried we couldn’t get anyone to cover the event. I guess now that we have the first iteration of Chicago Hacks under our belt, we can build credibility so news outlets will cover us next time.

On Memorial Day we were getting tweets saying that people wished they could come to Chicago Hacks as college students and that they loved the event. When people are still thinking of the event the day after is the ultimate gratification. After 6 months of work, having someone say that they loved what you did is a feeling that is hard to top.

The winners had some awesome hacks and it seemed like they all had a positive impact on the issue they were trying to tackle. Whether it be dyslexia or making a community safer, I think the hackers at Chicago Hacks had their eyes on not just winning an event, but instead on making a difference with technology.

Isn’t that the reason why tech and hackathons exist in the first place? Isn’t it our mission to make computer science more accessible? Isn’t it our goal to make new friends, connections, and help others learn?

I think that Chicago Hacks succeeded on all of these fronts. We were able to accomplish our major goals while serving over 120 hackers.

I would like to give a massive thank you to my team. Evan Eckels, Sean Kim, Robert McCracken, Rahul Gudivada, Avi Saxena, and Rohith Gudivada were all instrumental to the success of this event. We started this thing from the ground up and I am so happy that it turned out the way we wanted. Another huge thank you goes out to Zach Latta, Max Wofford, Harrison Shoebridge, and Gemma Busoni. Check out Hack Club and Gemma’s company Discovr Labs. You guys completed this event and helped plan it. I know it was a huge commitment to fly out to Chicago and help us through this process since we were so new at organizing, but without your help Chicago Hacks wouldn’t have existed.

Tech Nexus was our amazing venue for the event and we were ecstatic when they gave us a great price for Chicago Hacks. Our venue made our event feel that much more premium and we know that our hackers loved it. Thanks to Aldo at Tech Nexus for onsite support as well.

Another thank you goes out to our sponsors. A hackathon starts with its organizers and sponsors and we very grateful that you guys put your trust in us. Special thanks to tastyworks and Neighborhoods for your tech talk and onsite support. Major League Hacking deserve a huge shoutout. Marisa Gomez from MLH helped set up and man the hardware lab which so many hackers ended up using and loving. MLH also gave us the opportunity to get a $1,000 first time grant from Github which was a huge help.

Thanks to our mentors Artur Oganezov from Depaul University and Raphael Kats from Harvard University who helped out hackers when they had issues and also helped man the hardware lab and the front desk.

Almost there with the thank yous :)

I’d also like to thank our judges Abu Qader from Glialab, Max Temkin of Cards Against Humanity, and Prem Bangole from Gogo for judging on such short notice. You guys were great and everyone loved how nice and thoughtful you were.

Last but definitely not least, I would like to thank our parents for their help cleaning up and their support throughout the event. You guys believed in Chicago Hacks through its high points and its low points.

Overall, Chicago Hacks was an event that boldly set out to accomplish a set of goals. To open doors for youth in Chicago in technology and be the premier high school hackathon in Chicago are lofty objectives. We definitely succeeded with both goals as about 40% of our attendees had their first hackathon experience at Chicago Hacks! That’s a statistic that has impact. If you couldn’t tell from my tone throughout this post, I loved organizing Chicago Hacks and I am so thrilled for the next one. Until Chicago Hacks 2.0, we hope everyone involved had a phenomenal time. Below there is a link to our post-event video edited by Evan Eckels.

We did it!

If the video says unable to play, just view it on YouTube itself.