What we learned by making both newcomers and experienced participants feel connected and engaged at the Vienna Hackathon

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The mentoring program started with an introductory session on the first day, where mentors introduced themselves and pitched project ideas. From left to right: mentors Amir Sarabadani and Aaron Halfaker, coordinator Sonja Fischbauer). Photo by Manfred Werner, CC BY-SA.

At the Wikimedia Hackathon, held from May 19–21 in Vienna, Austria, we wanted to create a warm, welcoming environment for newcomers—while also making it really easy for both new and experienced participants to learn from each other and work on their technical projects.
Below are a few things we did to make both newcomers and experienced developers feel connected and engaged before, during, and after the event. Feel free to adapt any of these for future events you run, and if you have ideas for our next event, please post your feedback.
We made it really easy for participants to find potential collaborators and projects before the Hackathon began.
With 260 people expected to come to Vienna from 48 nationalities and 27 chapters and user groups, we wanted to make it really easy for participants to connect and learn about the projects they could work on. We directed participants to introduce themselves along with their interests on MediaWiki, gave them a list of suggested ways to prepare for the hackathon, and invited them to a group chat with other attendees. We also created a list of featured hackathon tasks, tagging both their difficulty and whether they were appropriate for newcomers. Participants were also directed to a Phabricator board containing more proposed sessions and skills they could learn from others.
We created a hackathon that appealed to long-time MediaWiki developers while also making it easy for newcomers to jump right in.
Hackathons can be daunting for newcomers: there’s limited time to work on technical projects and a lot to learn. This year, we launched a successful mentoring program that paired our 56 mentees with 30 experienced hackathon participants who signed up specifically to welcome new people into the Wikimedia technical community. In addition to a group chat and mentoring area, participants in the mentoring program were invited to participate in daily meetings and provided with resources to make their hackathon experience less overwhelming.
To coordinate these efforts, Wikimedia Austria reinforced their team in the months leading up to the hackathon. They hired Sonja Fischbauer as a freelance outreach coordinator, and were the first host organisation to hire a person specifically for that role.
“To onboard all the wonderful newcomers we were able to bring to the hackathon, we developed the mentoring program,” says Fischbauer. “Mentors worked exclusively with newcomers for the weekend, on beginner-friendly tasks, with the aim that everyone could achieve a result by the end of the event. The program put structure to something that’s always been a core value of the Wikimedia community: the passion to share knowledge, to collaborate and to create something new together. It was amazing to see how much effort the mentors put towards helping others, and how much fun it was for everyone! We really hope that we created a spark here, something that will catch fire and grow in the future.”
Because mentors were exclusively paired for the mentees for the entire weekend, they reinforced working together in small groups on projects which were designed to make it easy to contribute. As a result, many newcomers could even demonstrate the results of their work during the showcase on the last day.
Wikimedia Austria (WMAT) also invited local newcomers to pre-hackathon sessions specifically designed for them, so that they could dip their toes into the world of MediaWiki before committing to a three-day hackathon, and meet other participants in advance. . One of these preparation workshops was held exclusively for women and LGBT participants, to create a safe and inclusive learning space. These events helped newcomers feel welcome and gave them the opportunity to load any necessary software items onto their computers before the hackathon, so they could start hacking immediately once they arrived at the event. In addition, WMAT encouraged organizing pre-hackathons by partner communities across Central and Eastern Europe  in Hungary, Romania, Greece and the Czech Republic and each of them sent some of their local newcomers to the main event in Vienna.
We made it easy for attendees to document their experiences, which helped let others know about the hackathon.
Anyone who has attended a hackathon knows that it’s important to document what happens during or shortly after the event before people return to their normal lives. This year, we created a volunteer group specifically for people interested in blogging about their experiences in Vienna. Participants were given ideas, resources, and shown example posts to help them get their creative juices flowing.
Participants included:

Inviting people to blog and giving them resources and guidance not only helps participants write; it also helps us reach potential new collaborators or contributors who find out about the event through a personal blog.
We organized the hackathon as a partnership with our attendees, which made people feel included in the process and the outcome.
Like all of our technical events, the Vienna Hackathon was developed and run in conjunction with community members and staff in Vienna and around the globe. There were several ways for people to get involved and share their expertise, including:

  • Participating in a robust volunteer program, which included photography, blogging, being a social host, and helping document the hackathon throughout the event.
  • Adding their skills and expertise to a skillshare wall—people were asked to either offer a skill they could teach others or request help from others on a specific topic. This ended up working really well, and is one of the benefits of getting people together in person.
  • Making announcements during the opening of the event. We heard from 45 attendees about how they could help teams or people who could use a specific skillset throughout the event.
  • Participating in the project showcase, which took place on the last day of the hackathon and detailed more than 40 projects that emerged over the event.

We saw the hackathon not just as a singular event, but a way to bring people together to learn before going home to work on their projects.
Hackathons bring people together in person for short periods of time in order to learn new skills, find new collaborators, and plan future work that can be completed asynchronously. But that also means that hackathons shouldn’t be thought of as a singular event  in time—in other words, they shouldn’t end when participants go home. We see technical hackathons as a way to jumpstart ideas, bring collaborators together, and help them learn from each other before taking those ideas and conversations home to inspire new, creative ways of thinking about projects.
This also means that our hackathon projects are ongoing and available if you’re looking for a new project to work on. Some of the projects that came out of this hackathon include:

How to start working on any of these projects
By now, you may be thinking “These are awesome projects! How can I work on them or the many other amazing things people made at the Hackathon?”
You can start working on any of these projects by looking at this list. There, you can express your interest by commenting on the Phabricator task. You can also always reach out on wikitech-l, our mailing list aimed at the technical community.
And looking ahead, the next Wikimedia Hackathon will take place at Wikimania in Montreal (Canada) on August 9-10 2017. The next European Hackathon will be at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (Spain) in Spring 2018. We hope to see you at one of our events!
Rachel Farrand, Events Program Manager, Developer Relations, Wikimedia Foundation
Srishti Sethi, Developer Advocate, Developer Relations, Wikimedia Foundation
Claudia Garad, Executive Director, Wikimedia Austria (Österreich)
Sonja Fischbauer, Freelancer, Wikimedia Austria (Österreich)

Thank you to Melody Kramer (Wikimedia Foundation Communications) for her help putting together this post.

Archive notice: This is an archived post from blog.wikimedia.org, which operated under different editorial and content guidelines than Diff.

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