On a slightly chilly, but still far from the usually frosty December afternoon in Montreal, I strutted from the Sharethebus office to McGill’s Trottier building. The walk uphill was, surprisingly, not as horrible as I had remembered from my own time there as a student (which, by the way, wasn’t that long ago).
Maybe my cardio got better. Or, more realistically (c’mon, let’s face it), the difference is that I wasn’t rushing to some late night class this time around. Instead, I was coming in for my first meeting with the organizing team from McHacks. As I entered the building, I immediately found myself navigating around the swarmed staircases of Trottier, dodging students left and right, and picking up on the slightest hint of samosa. Yup, that looked about right – final season is well upon McGill U.
“Room 3104” was what I’ve been told, and that’s precisely where I scurried off to.
Meeting the team
Upon arrival, I was promptly welcomed by Amiel (Head of Board), and we began chatting about his role within the organization. We were then shortly joined by Mike (Co-President and Director of Logistics), Ashique (Director of Sponsorships), Clare (board member), and Lucille (another board member who graciously helped orchestrate this meeting).
The first thing that caught my eye? Amiel’s laptop was decked out in stickers from various hackathon organizations, namely Major League Hacking, Hack Princeton, and PennApps – all very familiar names to hackers. Oh, and we can’t forget about McGill’s symbolic martlet, obviously!
What’s even more impressive is everybody’s diversified backgrounds, and what brought them here. We’ll be presenting special featurettes on members of the team all throughout this series, so you’ll get a chance to learn more about them too!
Pleasantries aside, it didn’t take very long for us to dive straight into business, and for things to be dished out as they truly are – no embellishment, no upselling, just hackathon organization in its rawest form with all of its ups and downs.
Planning for the months ahead
First item on the agenda was what’s on the plate for the last few months leading up to the big event.
The progress so far
For starters, the organizing committee had to be selected and put together. Once all the roles were filled out, the team was able to start planning for McHacks’ third edition. Event organization officially began back in May 2015. Since then, they’ve already hashed out the initial groundwork for sponsorship acquisition, but a task of that scale remains an ongoing initiative, as asserted by Ashique.
The sponsorship team will keep hammering on leads, and once finals are over, it’s full steam ahead for all things sponsorship related. The plan is to go to job fairs, follow up, and shoot out tons of cold emails to reach the last batch of companies that the team hasn’t gotten to yet. Basically, just do whatever it takes to secure more sponsors. Fundraising is a high priority and ultra time sensitive matter. Any later than the end of December would be too late to onboard sponsors in time for February. The plan is for the team to convene a few times over the holiday break to keep things moving and get shit done. There ain’t no rest for the wicked!
Other important items on the dashboard include sending out acceptance letters to hackers, meeting with people in charge of the venue, deciding on a first bus route, and ending the year on a high note!
Not to be outdone by December, January is packed to the brim with items to check off the list as well. The main focus for the month is finding volunteers to add a few extra helping hands, and putting them through a bit of training for the event. The organizing team usually opens up a Google form for sign-ups, and then starts processing applications as they roll in. Screening interviews are to take place a month before hack day to make sure that the candidate is genuinely interested. No one has ever been turned down for volunteering in the past, except for a few minor instances where people with absolutely no relation to hackathons were involved.
January is also the time to resolve all those bigger logistical issues, like booking the venue and figuring out the transportation. And doing so while making sure that everything gets written down on paper.
The couple of weeks left before hack day are synonymous with crunch time and last minute hustle. It’s during these last few days that smaller details, like floor plans and individual shift schedules, are going to be finalized. The team will be meeting with a rep from the SSMU, a.k.a. the Students’ Society of McGill University, building for a walkthrough of the venue, and to make sure that everything is in place. Organizers are also setting up one last info session to get everyone up to speed with what’s been done and what’s to come.
The closer you get to the event, the more unexpected situations are likely to arise. To account for the latter, some members of the organizing team go all in. The week before the event, they skim on a few classes here and there to plan during the day, and hold meetings every single night. Nothing great ever comes without some sacrifice, right? And, more often than not, that sacrifice is fairly justified.
For example, last year, Mike woke up early one day expecting to attend class, as it's usually the case. But then, his phone rang. [Insert outdated Adele joke.] It was someone from the SSMU building calling to say that there was a problem: the team had to come pick up a bunch of material, or otherwise get charged for a lot of money. You can’t always plan for things like that, so you need to be flexible enough to account for them.
Putting hackers first
As the conversation carried on, one thing that became clear to me was the team’s shared aspirations. And I’m not just talking objectives and hackathon success in the classical sense. Nope, it wasn’t just about getting swanky sponsors, offering the best prizes, nor was it about making it the largest hackathon to date. In fact, McHacks is *downsizing* this year. Why? To accommodate attendees within the best of the team’s ability, and to ensure everybody's comfort and overall well-being.
So, quickly enough, I caught on the team’s unanimous and collective dedication to putting hackers first. The discussion often veered towards figuring out what hackathon participants need, and what could be improved this year to satisfy those needs.
For me, this confirmed that McHacks is indeed the real deal, and that I had just sat down with, not only a well-organized team, but one that also knows which key player to put at the forefront. I'm definitely witnessing the beginning of something great. After getting a good sense of what the team stands for, I can attest to the fact that they’re looking to create the best and most memorable experience for everybody. And, they have a mean strategy put in place to make that happen.
You’re in good hands, McHackers.