Hey Reddit! We are the organizing team behind HackMIT, a hackathon in September where over 1,000 university students team up and work on software and hardware projects for 24 hours in an arena on MIT campus.

Projects range from practical to punny (to both), but we don't impose any rules on what you can make, besides that you can't start before you get here. Notable past projects include indico, Lean0nMe, and Naptha.

In addition to cool hacker projects, our organizing team has developed some cool software to make the event better. These projects include a mentorship queue, a pairwise-comparison-based judging system, and a registration system. You can learn more about these and other projects at http://code.hackmit.org.

In order to make this whole event happen, a team of around 20 MIT students work from May to November on the logistics, sponsorship, marketing, and both internal-facing and external-facing software development for the event. You can read more behind-the-scenes things at https://medium.com/hackmit-stories.

Ask us anything about HackMIT itself, what it's like to organize it, and about our open-source software!

Proof: https://twitter.com/HackMIT/status/885933725317332992

Edit: We've now got to sign off. Thank you so much for a great AMA!

Comments: 71 • Responses: 34  • Date: 

Miserycorde12 karma

Ooc, how do you guys feel about the disparity between the more hardcore hackers and the amateurs and how do you try to balance the hackathon for both? When I was still in the scene, my team and I placed at a few majors. We spent a decent amount of time talking to the other top teams, and it seemed to me that that the people who made it to top 10 or so generally "came to win". They had already planned their projects ahead of time, had prebuilt teams, and didn't really take part of the festivities (like they just locked themselves into a quiet room and grinded for 2 days). That doesn't really seem like what hackathons are supposed to be about, but with everything at stake in terms of VC money, jobs, whatever, it's hard to blame them for doing so.

Also, thoughts on the increasing commercialization of hackathons/the plateauing of outside sponsorship money? It kinda feels like the scene peaked 2 years ago in terms of size/money.

Lastly, shoutouts for all the open sourcing you guys do. You guys had the best judging system of any hackathon I've ever been to.

HackMIT9 karma

Thanks for the great question! :)

Re: the beginner/advanced hacker disparity: Honestly, designing the event to such a diverse crowd and thinking about how much we should serve beginners vs. those "hardcore hackers" is something we struggle with every year. I think we're converged on the hope that people come to HackMIT to push their own personal boundaries and do something they've never done before -- and our role is to encourage that and offer the support/environment to do it.

For beginners, it's easier to justify the value HackMIT adds: we offer the workshops, fireside chats, and HackWeek (for MIT students the week before the event) to expose them to new technology they haven't played around with before. We also put a lot of emphasis on having access to quality mentorship, so people who want to make something aren't impeded by not knowing how.

For advanced hackers, we try to make it so that they aren't just going through the motions of doing something they've done or seen a thousand times before for the sake of impressing a sponsor/event judge or a flashy cash prize. This factors into things like our pre-admissions puzzle, our judging criteria, or making the 2016 prizes less about giant flashy checks and more about continuing to learn new things (a 3D printer kit, tickets to a dev conference). Generally, we can't stop people from aiming for the prizes, but we try to align that with doing something challenging.

tl;dr Yes, there's a big gap between the reasons advanced hackers and beginners come to HackMIT. We'd love more people to participate in the mini-events/workshops/festivities of HackMIT, but in the end these are all about providing an experience that people can't get just by hacking away in their dorm rooms. If advanced hackers get that experience by doing a moonshot project they wouldn't try otherwise, we think we've succeeded :)

-- Jessy

HackMIT2 karma

Can you clarify what you're asking in your second question on the "increasing commercialization of hackathons..."?

SimmeP7 karma

How can I get "into" hacking? I'm interested in both software and hardware hacking, but I have no clue where to start. Are there books/Websites on the subject?

HackMIT12 karma

Hi SimmeP, glad you're interested in getting into hacking! ๐Ÿ™‚ To get started, I'd recommend doing at least one course on Codecademy, then choosing further Codecademy courses or Edx or Coursera courses based on what seems interesting. You can also take a look at StartHacking, which was made by hackathon organizers!

Python is a great first language because itโ€™s designed to be straightforward to learn, and simple to write with. I highly recommend the Codecademy course. You can do a lot of neat things with Python, including make websites, create games, do machine learning, and even program robots.

I think learning programming is always a lot more fun and easy with a mentor. Try to find a friend, family member, someone at school, or a mentor online who can help you!

Best of luck with your journey ahead :)


EDIT: add name, fix grammar

HackMIT6 karma

Good question - I love hardware hacking! I think one of the most common ways to get into hardware would be the Arduino. Arduino is an ecosystem of easy-to-use microcontrollers with a huge community behind them with tons of tutorials, tips, and fun projects. Sparkfun is an amazing resource for learning - check out their blog posts for great tutorials and inspiration for projects. They also sell a variety of intro kits complete with learning material, such as the Arduino Inventor's Kit. -- Noah

Alethearyes6 karma

Who's the cutest member of exec?

HackMIT7 karma

vjs35 karma

Hey guys, just wanted to know why HackMIT doesn't give a chance to recent graduates. I will get my degree at the end of September 2017 but unable to apply as there is no option for final year students/recent grads. Most of the other hackathons allow such cases. Let me know if people like me can apply?

HackMIT10 karma

I'm sorry and I get why this is frustrating, but we get many more applications than we can accept each year and we've made a decision as an organizing team to focus our event on serving the undergraduate community. That being said, check out those other wonderful hackathons! They're probably (almost) as great as HackMIT ;)

quantumflux12 karma

I'm kind of curious as to the business aspect of HackMIT- with all the amazing events the hackathon holds each year, how much does it cost total to run HackMIT? If possible, do you think you can provide a breakdown of costs? HackMIT was the first and best hackathon I've been to last year, and I'm really interested of the costs of this incredible event.

HackMIT1 karma

Hi quantumflux1, HackMIT is indeed a big endeavor! We keep our finances private, but I'm really glad you enjoyed the event. --Claire

shark_byt31 karma

Is the ice-rink going to be freezing code again this year?

HackMIT3 karma

There will be a code freeze on Sunday at 9am. But in all seriousness, sorry that the venue was uncomfortable last year! I'm not sure we can control the temp in the rink, so maybe bring a blanket this year? :P

Jeffthedog1 karma

What's the most difficult part of organizing the event? What's your favorite part?

HackMIT5 karma

It can be difficult sometimes for all of us to balance Hack responsibilities with school stuff/work stuff over the summer (although that probably goes without saying). For me, the best part is hearing from attendees who go to our events and absolutely love it! I know this thread is about HackMIT, but this is even more true for me during Blueprint, the high school hackathon we host in the spring.

-- Noah

HackMIT3 karma

My favorite part is getting to know everyone on the organizing team and getting to make all of our ideas tossed out in weekly meetings into something real. It's really exciting to see the evolution of our theme and implementation this year actually play out! Most difficult so far for me has been coordinating time zones for meetings lol. The marketing team is in like 5 different time zones x.x --Jierui

EDIT: added name

HackMIT2 karma

Most difficult to me is making sure the many small pieces fit together, like all the different sponsor emails or package deliveries or workshop spaces. My favorite part is seeing it all work, as well as seeing how every individual organizing team member adds something special to the event! --Claire

HackMIT2 karma

+1 what Noah said, balancing work and Hack over the summer is probably the most difficult for me. Another challenge is working together when everyone is located in different countries and time zones -- all of our meetings are via Hangouts, and some at odd hours of the day. The marketing committee has 5 members in 5 different time zones, so when some of us are working and need to ask questions/get feedback on designs, other people are asleep, which makes it hard to coordinate time-sensitive things like the social media countdown. We always work it out though :)

My favorite parts are seeing the impact HackMIT has on everyone involved and seeing everything come together after all the planning <3


SirSwagtastic1 karma

Who's your favorite member of the team past or present?

HackMIT3 karma

Hackbot is our most loyal team member ๐Ÿค– You can read more about hackbot here! And as far as humans, too many to choose <3


EDIT: add name

Jacckdm1 karma

Oh hey!! I participated in the past blueprint event, didnt win but met some new faces. Still in contact with the people I met at blueprint, and I participated metrohacks with them. Needless to say Iโ€™m pretty psyched for next year, and love what you guys do. What would you say the hardest part of organizing such a fun hackathon was?

HackMIT1 karma

Hey! Great to hear you had a good time at Blueprint and got to meet some new people! I'd say the hardest thing about organizing the event is deciding how to cater to the variety of hackers we get (see this post for a discussion). With Blueprint we've been doing the Saturday learnathon to help teach our participants skills that they'll find useful at the Sunday hackathon. Still, it's often difficult to make sure every single person in the audience is keeping up. To remedy this, we've been using the HELPq to try to deliver continuous mentorship on-demand throughout both days. We also let our participants submit their projects to a Rookie or Main devision for judging, by choice of the hacker.

In the past, we've limited Blueprint to hackers with at least some programming experience. We've been considering hosting a programming 101 workshop during the Saturday learnathon to enable Blueprint to be accessible to completely novice programmers. It's not an easy task to take someone from zero programming experience to a hackathon in the course of 1 day, and it's also up for discussion how much they'll benefit from the hackathon. Will it be a useful experience, or completely frustrating because they've had so little time to try programming? Deciding who to cater to with our events is one of the most difficult challenges in organizing. -- Michael

frogleaper1 karma

How tough is it to find questions / projects that are impactful and properly scoped to meet this event's time constraints?

How many ideas / projects don't make the cut?

HackMIT2 karma

We don't admit by project if that's what your asking: many hackers don't decide what they want to do until they get to the event itself.

If you're asking about how hackers actually choose their projects, that can definitely be challenging. As with all things engineering, it can be pretty tough to estimate how difficult something will be/how long it'll take to complete. That being said, we hope that as long as attendees can make progress towards building something cool over the course of 24 hours, they'll be happy and have learned something new :)

-- Noah

MattMerrill1 karma

With all the coding done internally for puzzle, registration, etc., what's your approach to maintaining code quality (testing, https, security, etc.) without undergrads feeling like it's "become a job", as Gilfoyle would say?

Is working on projects incentivized, or are the people working on these systems completely self-driven?

HackMIT3 karma

One thing that's important for maintaining code quality for small projects like ours is having an opinionated maintainer who knows the code inside out and helps enforce good practices. If you just have a bunch of people pushing to the same repository without any kind of coordination, it's easy for it to turn into a mess.

We rely on having our team members do testing and QA. For example, before opening up registration, we set it up on a staging server a week ahead of time and have people play with the system to see if they find any bugs.

For security, there are a couple of us who periodically do security-focused reviews of our more critical systems such as registration and judging.

Also, note that the code quality varies greatly between projects. We don't spend tons of energy on code quality for the puzzle, because it's basically a one-time-use project. We do try to have good code quality for our open-source projects published on code.hackmit.org.

I'm not sure what you mean by incentivized. We certainly don't pay people to build software for us. A big incentive for contributing to HackMIT's open-source hackathon software is that your software will affect the experience of a thousand hackers at MIT, and it'll affect the experience of tens of thousands more at other events.


spromb1 karma

Could this event anyhow increase chances to get into MIT graduate studies? ๐Ÿ˜€

HackMIT2 karma

Good question!

Just attending the event is not going to affect graduate admissions. However, if you build a really awesome project at HackMIT, it could make a difference: grad schools do look at your personal projects, especially for EECS.

In general, what matters most for grad school admissions is (1) recommendations, (2) undergraduate research experience and publications, (3) personal statement.

If you're thinking of applying to grad school in EECS, this is pretty good advice.

(source: starting grad school in the fall)


phd_dude1 karma

Thanks for doing this, my question: "What skills do students learn from "hacking" that they wouldn't learn from university computer science courses? Also, what, in your opinion, is the greatest historical example of "white-hat hacking"?

HackMIT3 karma

Hi, thanks for your question! Hackathons are great for giving students a chance to apply what they learn in their CS courses. In general, a lot of CS programs focus on learning theory but not so much on how to actually build applications. At a hackathon, students have a great opportunity to actually build something cool using what they've learned :)

Personally, I'm a fan of Steve Wozniak and the stuff he did with phone phreaking. That's not really white-hat though, considering he used his blue box to make plenty of illegal phone calls!

Also, it's worth noting that hackathons are not about "hacking" in the security-breaking sort of sense, we use the word "hacking" to describe tinkering and building things. "Cracking" is the word the community has begun to use to describe security breaking - look up "hacking vs cracking" for more info on this!

bowedcontainer21 karma

What is the most important thing that you look for in determining acceptance to the event? Previous projects, personal statement, etc.?

HackMIT3 karma

We primarily focus on the personal statement - we want people of a variety of experience levels and background, so we're not concerned with how many or what sorts of projects they've done in the past. However, we do want people who seem excited about HackMIT and who will get a lot out of it! We're focusing on the theme of "community" this year, so we're hoping this year's question will help us find people who will appreciate and get a lot out of this.

Dying_whale221 karma

Ello, I don't know if this has been asked yet, but what is your best advices for doing good at and getting the most out of hackathons?

HackMIT1 karma

Good question! I'd say a few things:

  • IMO a good project idea is something you think will be reasonable to complete in the required time, but also has some component (maybe a particular technology or something) that you haven't used much before so you can learn something from working on it! Of course, it's super hard to figure out what a good sized project might be, but if you really want to finish it's a good idea to come up with something you don't think will take the full time (as a buffer in case something goes wrong). In my experience, it seems like no matter what you do you're almost always working up till the end, squashing bugs, adding features, getting ready to demo, and so on.

  • Make sure to take breaks! Talk to other hackers, catch some Z's, etc.

  • At least for me, I try not to eat too much junk food. This is a fun part of any hackathon experience, but I feel like death if I'm not careful :P HackMIT is trying to make sure we have healthier options so you can have some choice in what you snack on.

-- Noah

HackMIT1 karma

Knowing what you want to do ahead of time makes a big difference. Shannon and I were at a hackathon a few weekends ago and spent 4 hours actively brainstorming! If you do this before the hackathon and settle on around 3 concrete ideas your team is excited about, you can decide between them and get started much sooner, with less stress ๐Ÿ™‚


DjungariHaggeri1 karma

Hi appreciate what you're doing! As a European I'm very interested in HackMIT, here are some things on my mind:

  1. How many of the 1000 students are from outside North America? How many students do you have from European Universities?

  2. I noticed your registration system is quite a well thought out tool How many registrations are you getting per year?

  3. Doing projects in an intensive format during a hackathon is super fun. Are ways you also encourage participants to pursue their projects after the hackathon?

  4. What makes you guys want to organize hackathons? I can imagine it being a quite stressful thing.

  5. How did you guys end up with the Back/Hack to the future theme this year?

  6. And, that puzzle is dope. How long did it take to make?

Super awesome to see you guys doing this! Looking forward to hearing from you :)

HackMIT3 karma

5: Our marketing team first decided on futuristic, sci-fi-esque branding, and in some of our early designs, we put the phrase "hacks of the future." When we posted the designs on Slack, Noah said he read it as "hack to the future", and we thought, "whoa, can we actually do this?!" and so the back/hack to the future theme came about :D --Shannon

HackMIT3 karma

We're splitting up your question part-by-part, so bear with us:

1) I just ran the numbers and it looks like we had around 47 international students last year, 23 of which are from European universities. These figures might be a little low, since this is based on travel reimbursement data. However, it is likely most our international hackers requested travel reimbursements!

International hackers are definitely a minority, but we offer a $500 travel reimbursement to help you get over here! If you're interested, you should absolutely apply and we hope to see you in the fall :)

-- Noah

HackMIT3 karma

Hi there! We'll reply to these one-by-one.

.2. So glad you like the registration system! It's open-sourced at https://github.com/techx/quill. Right now we have 1104 submitted applications, but we expect 3,000 or more based on past years. --Claire

EDIT: spacing, numbering, added name

HackMIT3 karma

.3. Yeah, hacking is fun over the weekend, but once it ends, life happens and it's often hard to find time or motivation to continue your project. We haven't done this yet for HackMIT, but for our high school hackathon, Blueprint, we give a prize about a month after the event to a team who shows us how they've continued to develop their project after the event. --Claire

EDIT: fix numbering

DjungariHaggeri1 karma

Wow, didn't know you guys organize a hackathon for high school students. Damn, Blueprint page is gorgeous!

HackMIT1 karma

Haha thanks <3 --Shannon

HackMIT2 karma

4: Organizing a big event is a really rewarding experience; you develop an appreciation for big events after having been on the organizing side of things and seeing how much planning goes into even the smallest details. Plus, the people make it really fun! Some of my best memories are from the downtime right after our Google Hangout summer meetings when we joke around and talk about what we're all up to across the world. It's stressful, especially during the last couple of nights before and during the event, but the sense of accomplishment and the feedback we get from hackers make it all worth it.


EDIT: numbering

HackMIT2 karma


We're glad you liked the puzzle!

The first HackMIT puzzle, FancyCat Club, launched in 2014, was built singlehandedly by one person in about 40 hours of work.

Since then, we've continued the tradition, releasing dogemit.party in 2015, haxkcd in 2016, and delorean.codes this year. Each year, we've had about 5-10 team members work on the puzzle, spending about 100-200 hours doing design, writing software, managing deployment, doing publicity, and interacting with puzzlers on our puzzle Slack.


1millionbucks1 karma

Of all the hacks you've seen, which has been your favorite?

HackMIT3 karma

One of my favorite hacks is Project Naptha, a project from HackMIT 2013 that automatically applies computer vision algorithms on every image you see while browsing the web to make it so you can do things like select textual content in images, copy & paste text from images, and even edit and translate the text in an image.

Also, another one of my favorites is a judging system that two team members built during the event at HackMIT 2013 ๐Ÿ˜›


xorflame1 karma

What is the maximum travel reimbursements that you're willing to provide with? I'm asking this since I'm an international hacker and my participation would highly depend on the reimbursement amount, cuz I'm kinda broke now, haha, but I always wanted to attend HackMIT and have never got an opportunity in the last 2 years.

HackMIT4 karma

Hi xorflame, as it says in our FAQ, we reimburse up to $500 for travel from outside North America! --Claire

moinnadeem1 karma

Favorite director -- Michael or Claire? ;)

Stinky_11 karma

Do you have monthly programs or other events for high school students, in addition to Blueprint?

HackMIT1 karma

We do! HackMIT is part of TechX, which also organizes Think, a high school research competition. We encourage you to apply to the program, which provides regular mentorship while you work on a project! -- Michael

DuckHuntbluetwo0 karma

Hey HackMit! I'm a proficient full-stack webdev but also an incoming sophomore in high school. I was wondering if there were any way I could apply online/contact someone about applying?

HackMIT2 karma

Hey! It's awesome that you've gotten into software development as a high schooler and that you're interested in HackMIT! Unfortunately, due to school policy we can't have high schoolers attending HackMIT. However, we encourage you to check out our high school hackathon, Blueprint! -- Noah

That_Wheelchair_Guy0 karma

As an outsider it seems like "hackathons" are primarily centered around hardware and software development. Is there any actual hacking that goes on?

HackMIT2 karma

Hi That_Wheelchair_Guy, we define hacking by this definition. You might be thinking of what is now known sometimes as cracking. Our event is focused around the former, but both are cool! --Claire