How do we make Hackathons more Inclusive?

One of the things that I do as part of a technology community event organizer and contributor is to try to introduce new things to each community.  Reducing the echo chamber effect is one if the better ways to grow the skills of the members and also increases the ability to bring in new people into the group.  Many of my communities are more Ops-focused.

VMware User Groups (VMUG) is one of the more prominent parts of the last decade of my time building and participating in communities.  The VMUG community is a great example of one traditionally Ops-focused but leaning towards bringing more coding and development as automation and other new skills are brought to the fore.

When I ask about making a hackathon more inclusive, it’s not even in the sense of diversity of cultural, gender, or ethnic backgrounds.  That’s a separate challenge unto itself that isn’t being covered here.  I mean very simply:  how do we get more IT Operations folks to feel welcome at a hackathon?

The Challenge with Adding Development to an Ops Community

There are many books and psychological studies that point to the importance in company and team culture of a sense of belonging.  The safety in being able to fail and learn among your peers is what creates stronger teams.  I’ve seen this become a company-wide culture and it is amazing to watch how well the dynamics work at full-scale.

When it doesn’t work, it is brutally obvious.  We do enjoy watching development activities happening, and as a non-coder myself, I love embracing and welcoming more development activities into the Ops communities.  One thing that does happen a lot of times is the sense that the strong developer showing these nifty processes and code off as apparently easy can create a sense of heroism in the way they do it.  It’s often seen as inaccessible.

The discomfort and disconnection that people feel when a hero and unicorn culture is very real.  To the people who’ve crossed the chasm to take on and learn the development skills (which come from a different part of the brain than many IT operations tasks), it feels natural and is often difficult to “teach”.  It’s like inviting a seasoned guitarist to teach a simple song.  Teaching and playing are very different skills as well.

During the organizing of a big event I posed the idea of a hackathon as an idea.  There were numerous responses from people that they felt put off by the term and the activity.  As non-developers, there is a real sense of not belonging or an anxiety of getting involved.  The reactions were visceral and very strong.

Being a Non-Developer at a Hackathon is Eye (and Mind) Opening

We should all make a point of doing some uncomfortable things.  It helps you to grow your skills.  My foray into this was supporting development teams for a long time as an Ops architect.  I made a point of learning how they interact with the system, what they use, the way the think about and architect their application, and then I learned to better map the infrastructure to what the app needed.  It was like watching a magician and knowing how they did the trick.  I may not be able to do the trick, but I knew what was involved if that makes sense.

Going to a hackathon as a non-developer can feel daunting.  What will I do there?! How do I participate?! I don’t know how to code so I’ll probably feel stupid, right?!  These are genuine concerns (maybe even fears) for a lot of people.  At VMworld 2018 I decided to lead a hackathon team.  That opened my eyes to the challenge of a very short timeframe to both teach, involve, and build for folks who had not come from a development background.  It was fun but it could have definitely gone much better if I had prepared the team more.  I needed to see how it would go.

I attended a company hackathon and became deeply involved.  Not in codiing directly, but in creating a team, sharing an idea, iterating on the prototype design, then on testing and presenting the output.  I was included because as a team, we needed various skills.  The value was immediately felt as the groups almost self-organized into developers, testers, presenters, ops builders, and even just viewers who wanted to be close to it as it happened and see the inner workings.

What made this hackathon successful was that there was a familiarity within many of the people involved so the self-organizing happened very quickly.

Crossing the Hackathon Chasm

This more of a question than a statement I’m making here.  How do we make hackathons more inclusive?  How do we open the activity up more effectively to let non-developers learn and dabble in some of these introductory development skills, and feel safe and a sense of belonging while doing so?   It’s interesting that some of the development communities decry exclusivity, but the very nature of hackathons breeds exclusivity.

Over the course of this year I’m doing more research into how effective community growth works and the science behind it.  That includes getting people to do things they have not done before as a part of involvement in these tech communities.  How can we make it easier to allow for unfamiliar groups of people self-organize into teams to create a development-focused prototype and feel included and comfortable to learn together.

Have you got experience in joining more dev-focused events or activities as a non-developer?  I would love to hear from you on this and learn more.  Please share in the comments below.

My hope is that we can figure out how to introduce more fun activities for folks who need a little boost of confidence to get started.  It’s how we all get better at it together.



4 thoughts on “How do we make Hackathons more Inclusive?”

  1. I’m an ops/ifra person. I do system scripting – something that hackathons look down their noses at.

    I went to one, and left after a couple hours, because there was nothing for me to do.

    It was made abundantly clear that there was no sysadmin, scripting or documentation that needed doing – it was only for “real programmers”.

    What you propose still doesn’t seem to address that.

    • Great question! The teams built are going to be mostly made up of sysadmin folks and with some coaching and participation from more dev-oriented team members as well to help mix up the audience a bit. I led a hackathon team at a couple of events and made a point of bringing up folks who had little to no dev experience to prevent just what you highlighted in your comment.


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