HackMIT hosts eighth annual student hackathon

878 students took part in the hybrid event

HackMIT 2021, MIT’s student-run 24-hour undergraduate hackathon, took place over the weekend of September 18–19. The hackathon first took place in 2013, and has been run in every successive year.

HackMIT was hosted as a hybrid event — MIT-affiliated participants were permitted to attend in person, while non-MIT affiliates attended virtually. 878 students participated in total — 345 students in-person, and 533 virtually. Participants worked in teams of up to four; 180 teams submitted projects.

Hack was also attended by several sponsor companies, including Microsoft, Hudson River Trading, Scale AI, Tangram, and Gather. Sponsor companies gave tech talks and hosted workshops; some companies instated special prizes as well. A complete list of sponsors, ordered by tier (most expensive to least expensive sponsorship packages), and sponsor prizes, can be found on HackMIT’s website

Participants submitted projects to HackMIT across four tracks, or impact areas — healthcare, community, education, and sustainability. Winning teams were selected in each of the four categories; three overarching winning teams were also selected. 

The Tech spoke to the heads of HackMIT’s four internal teams: logistics, corporate relations (CR), marketing, and development (dev), about the process of running HackMIT. 

Katherine He ’24 (co-director of HackMIT 2021), Hannah Kim ’24, Jessica Xu ’24, and Natalie Huang ’24 represented logistics, CR, marketing, and dev respectively. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

The Tech: What is the timeline for planning and running an event like HackMIT? 

Katherine He: We start planning Hack typically in March, right after our spring recruiting cycle ends, and we go throughout the summer, until Hack happens, which is mid September to late September. So it’s a whole half year process.

Hannah Kim: For the CR team, we start at the same time as the rest of the teams. Basically all we do for the entire cycle is email a bunch of different companies that we think are willing to sponsor us. And usually, that's just cold emailing people or reaching out to recruiters that we know at different companies and basically asking them to come out to the event in the fall. That pretty much stretches the entire cycle. As we get closer to Hack, we start scheduling events for the sponsors — they can run workshops or mini events or tech talks — and we start sending information to our participants so that everyone knows which sponsors are coming out and when.

Jessica Xu: For marketing, we focus on the branding for the event. This includes the website, swag, and overarching theme.

Natalie Huang: In dev, we handle technology projects. We work on them weekly, and, starting in June, have more time sensitive ones. We do our splashed landing page in June, then work on the registration page and deploy that site in July. Throughout July and August we work on our admissions puzzle. We also work on day-of technology, our judging platforms, and projects’ mission platforms in August. 

TT: How did the pandemic affect planning Hack?

KH: From a logistics perspective, it was definitely a lot more challenging than running either a [fully] in-person or virtual event. I think the main issue was that we didn't really have a concrete set of guidelines from MIT until late into the summer. We were basically planning for several different scenarios at once. What if we have to go full virtual? What if we have to restrict the event to MIT students only? The lack of guidelines made it very difficult for us to order large quantities of food or book spaces. 

Another challenge was trying to figure out what types of guidelines to put in place for virtual vs. in-person hackers, since we wanted both to have the best experience possible. In the hybrid environment, how do we make sure that that takes place? How do we make sure that we’re not accidentally prioritizing the in-person hackers?

HK: We weren’t too affected in the beginning for the most part, for CR, since all we had to do is get in contact with sponsors. As we got closer to the event, we had to figure out how to balance the interactions between sponsors and virtual and in-person hackers. For example, we had to figure out how we could make sure that virtual sponsors could interact with in-person hackers. Or how virtual hackers could interact with in-person sponsors, which is much more difficult. We had to think about how sponsors could make the most out of it, and how to ensure that they were satisfied with how things run.

NH: For dev, I honestly don’t think that much changed, because we don’t handle interactions between hackers and sponsors. The biggest change was that we adapted some of our apps, creating in-person and virtual mentoring apps. We did choose to keep a lot of our other apps fully virtual. 

TT: What turned out really well? On the flip side, was there anything that didn’t go as well as you’d hoped, or something you’d be looking to improve?

KH: We have a feedback form that we send out to hackers. One of the pros was that the hackers overwhelmingly had a very positive response to the hackathon. We’re especially happy to hear that both virtual and in-person hackers had a good experience. 

The biggest con is that running a hybrid event is very draining on the overall energy of the hackathon. When there’s a really big space, but fewer in-person hackers and many online hackers, you don’t see the excitement. It’s harder to get everyone hyped up about the hackathon and excited to participate. The main thing we found difficult was keeping up the energy throughout the 24 hours. 

HK: We used Gather to give virtual sponsors a booth to interact with hackers, and got a lot of good feedback about interaction between virtual hackers on Gather. 

NH: For dev, we implemented a lot of new projects this year, like a new registration system. Those got up in a relatively reasonable time. In terms of cons, our judging and project submission is always a little messy because of the amount of communication between hackers, judges, sponsors, and the team. It wasn’t significantly worse this year than any other year, but it’s definitely a process that we could improve every time.

TT: A big thing at hackathons is accessibility. Are there resources for beginners, is the event accessible to new coders and experienced coders alike, etc.? Is this a priority for Hack? How do you ensure accessibility?

KH: This is definitely something we think about a lot. First of all, we definitely value beginner coders. We’re super excited to be able to give them an experience where they’re able to learn in an individualistic way, and have experiential learning. We also plan a high school hackathon in the spring, called Blueprint. 

For some specifics, we host a lot of workshops to help students learn about sponsors, APIs, or even just skill sets and basic coding, like learning how to code in React. The dev team teaches a beginner workshop during Hack Week. And in our project submission process, we allow teams to self-tag as beginners. We have a beginner prize for that pool. Our admissions process is also pretty simple. We emphasize to our team that coding experience is not necessary, and that we should evaluate the applications without considering coding experience as the main factor. Nearly half of our coders are beginner coders. 

We also look at the number of beginner hackers who were accepted, how many of them submitted projects, and how many beginners signed up for a mentor in our mentoring process.

TT: How do you pick sponsors? What are you looking for in sponsors?

HK: We don’t pick and choose too much when we reach out to companies. They can be as big as Microsoft, Facebook, and Google, or they can be small startups that are just a couple years old. Every year we host a few startups that are created by MIT alumni. We provide packages to the sponsors — for different prices, they get different benefits, like running tech talks or workshops, speaking in our opening ceremony, access to hacker skill sheets, hosting their own challenge with a prize.