Journey to McHacks: Tools for Team Communication

Decidedly cooler weather, a lot more of snow, and a holiday food baby later reminded me that that dainty walk uphill from last time is anything but dainty. But before this becomes a weekly update of my fragile fitness state and how I haul myself up University Street, let’s just dive into what really matters.

So here I found myself again, back to Trottier, back to the infamous room that has come to be known as McHacks’s homebase. Or, Room 3104 for those who have been following the journey. The notable difference this time is how many more pair of eyes darted towards my direction as I crashed their late night meeting – eleven in total*, if you were wondering.

The holiday break was a reminder for everyone that this time of the year is traditionally meant for some good ol’ R&R, and that’s exactly what the fine folks from McHacks indulged in. Honestly, there ain’t nothing wrong with that. Downtime exists. And what better way to make the most out of it than with holiday parties and family gatherings. Hey, I get it. I had this maniacal plan of getting so much work done over the break, but alas… That didn’t quite happen, and my Asana tasks didn’t budge much. More on that in another post.

With Hack Day merely four weeks away, the final sprint and subsequent frenzy is definitely still on. But with all 18 members of the team scattered across the nation, communications didn’t exactly come easy. On top of juggling their own personal schedule, the team had to figure out how to stay in touch to work through the logistics of registration and send out acceptance letters. 

Here’s how they managed it:

1 – Slack

When asked what’s their preferred method of communication, McHacks members responded in almost perfect unison with Slack across the board. No big surprise there – fast, easy, convenient, and now ubiquitous, Slack has become a staple tool for countless organizations.

To set meetings, the McHacks team starts by figuring out a time when everybody is available. This turns out to be hands down the most tedious part of the process especially when you’re trying to accommodate such a large number of people. Once they settle on a time, the plan is to have everybody give each other feedback, and see how the team is progressing. So far, so good. They might not have been able to do as much as they were hoping to over the break, but they’re definitely moving in the right direction. 

As for Slack itself, it lives up to their expectations, and is doing a good job at helping them communicate. On top of that, Ashique (Head of Sponsorships) let us in on a little secret: he also sets up personal reminders for himself through the app to keep track of his own tasks. Minimum efforts, maximum efficiency. The only minor drawback that came up was the lack of free (and good) integrations. And for times when they couldn’t reach each other through Slack? Good ol’ Facebook was the next best bet.

2 – Skype

Skype comes in as a solid plan B for urgent matters. The team mainly uses it for emergencies where people need to have one-on-one conversations surrounding a specific topic. Whenever possible, McHacks favours quick, straightforward, and direct communication without the annoying technical interruptions that often come with buggy video connections. So it makes sense for them to limit these virtual meet-ups, and instead opt for direct messaging.

3 – Phone calls

Phone calls are still a thing, but they’re starting to be of a rarer occurrence. Case in point: McHacks. Nope, phone conversations didn’t quite make it onto their agenda over the break. When pressed about the topic, Amiel (Head of Board) divulged that none of the members actually made or received phone calls. Instead, they favoured correspondence through Slack for the most part. But that’s not to say that phone calls are completely irrelevant. They’ll have their own moment of glory on Hack Day as organizers will have to remain in constant contact all throughout the event. We’ll get more into that after February 20th.

4 – In-person meetings

Not as convenient, but sometimes necessary, in-person meetings occur when possible. Over the course of the holidays, these were rare and reserved for people who stayed back in Montreal. The gang would head off to Room 3104 for a quick meet to catch-up and work. As for the rest of the team who couldn’t be there? They kept the hustle going on their end, and simply worked remotely.

5 – Google Drive

Google Drive is the team’s Holy Grail. Used extensively for task management and to keep their work organized, it’s where all McHacks related files are stored and shared. In doing so, Google Drive became an indispensable tool and goldmine for anybody involved in the hackathon’s organization. With a little bit of digging, you’ll namely find the team’s master list for all the companies they’ve gotten in touch with. Along with that, there’s also other important information, like when each company has been last contacted and all the subsequent follow-up updates.

A homemade tool is also in the works. Eventually, McHacks will be developing and implementing their own internal “keep track of tasks” system to streamline their operations. Can’t say I’m the slightest bit surprised. What else can you expect when you put a bunch of smart hackers together?

6 – Google Forms, Typeform and MailChimp

The biggest thing the team worked on during the break is sending out acceptance letters. Despite being a geographically weighted lottery, the task still demanded a great deal of preparation. Considering that McHacks would be paying for transportation, the team had to carefully decide on how many hackers to take from each location. This year, there will be buses departing from different cities to bring hackers straight to Montreal, and the team is expecting to welcome 600 of them. That’s a whole lot of people and information to keep track of. 

Google Forms, Typeform and MailChimp were the main tools used to organize all of that:

  • Google Forms were mostly used for smaller internal affairs that required a fast answer from members of the team.
  • Typeform was reserved for collecting applications and registering hackers.
  • MailChimp, as you probably guessed it, was for sending out the acceptance letters.

7 – A dedicated team and support

McHacks’ secret to hackathon organization success? A stealthy team within its team.

They have in their arsenal an internal group of people in charge of overseeing the agenda for the rest of the team. Quite frankly, I can’t see what beats having an unit on-hand whose primary duty is to keep everybody else on track. These members make sure that weekly goals are met, and that the whole team is moving along in all aspects of the organization. With all the sponsorships that need to be taken care of, even the most organized of people might forget a thing or two. This mini logistics team basically serves as a human checklist reminding everybody of what still needs to be done.

Bottom line

We like the team’s minimalist approach when it comes to staying organized. Just a handful of simple tools does the trick for them – nothing crazy, nothing that requires too much effort to set up, nothing distracting. We’re far too well aware that by being spread across multiple platforms, things can get harder to track, and that defeats the whole purpose. People often end up spending more time learning how to use new tools and switching from one to another rather than actually using them. Sometimes, it pays more to stick to the basics. So, we’d like to applaud McHacks for remaining on top of their game by keeping their operations so well streamlined.

During our most recent meeting, I’ve noticed that the team seemed a bit on edge, and understandably so. We’re getting closer and closer to Hack Day, and they still have a few details to iron out. Their focus for the next couple of weeks will be locking in the final sponsors, and we’ll be there to bring you all the details of their progress!

*You hawk-eyed folks probably caught this already: Yes there are nine people in these photos, but no I am not bad at counting. Two had already left when I started snapping.