HackCU Over the Years

HackCU is a student organization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. HackCU was started by two students who wanted to give other students the space to work on their side projects and ideas that they would otherwise would not have the opportunity to. This space was a hackathon. A hackathon can best be described as an invention marathon where people work, either alone or in teams, to create something over the course of 24 hours.

I joined HackCU as a freshman in September 2016. It was the third year for HackCU as an organization. And now as I leave HackCU in its sixth year, HackCU has grown to be more than just a group that organizes hackathons. HackCU now organizes more events such as workshops, startup career fairs (although that was still a thing back in 2016), and has overall become more involved in the community. The team now try to experiment with other ideas. For instance, there was a hardware hackathon last year.

There has also been a large shift in the team culture and ethos. When I first joined HackCU, it was a pretty small team that was closely-knit. While there was structure to the team, it was rarely ever explicitly mentioned. It was simply something that everyone understood. But over the last four years, the scale of the events HackCU puts on has become increasingly larger, with the exception being this year. And that meant the team either had to put in more hours of work, or it had to increase in size. As all of us are students, the natural course of action was to increase the size of the team. And with that increased size of the team and scale of the events, also came a necessary shift in team culture and ethos.

The team size increased. And there emerged sub-teams each with their own focus. Now, there is a dedicated finance team that handled the budgets. There is a team that manages the servers and websites. And so on. Of course, these teams existed earlier, but were much less structured. A person on the finance team would also push commits to modify the website. Now, the structures are more rigid that one often gets the feeling of being pigeon-holed.

Such structures also had to be enforced across the teams. With such fragmentation, there needed to be some coordination between teams in order to ensure the overarching goal of organizing hackathons are still met. And these structures were formally established within the team. For the first time, a formal set of bylaws for the organization were written down. This is the biggest change I have seen at HackCU. It made me realize how the team has grown over the years that there necessitated the enforcement of “rules” in order to keep the wheels spinning.

And as the scale of the events became larger, the team and the events organized often came under scrutiny from the participants and the university administration. HackCU has always had a somewhat rocky relationship with the college. I was told stories of how the first ever hackathon was almost shut down by the college. Over the years, the college has come to recognize HackCU as an event that benefits students. Yet, it has always been difficult for us to secure a venue that can comfortably host 600 people. A single mishap last year and we were blacklisted from hosting our events at various buildings! As a result, this year we were forced to scale down to 400 people to the dismay of everyone including the team and the participants. If scaling up is difficult, this year showed me that scaling down comes with its own set of problems. For instance, it was hard to gauge the number of expected participants which unfortunately led us to turn away many people.

Another problem that has plagued HackCU is the sleeping situation. A campus policy states that it is illegal to sleep in campus buildings (unless you are in a dorm, obviously). And HackCU is a 24-hour event with people traveling from out-of-state and many driving from Fort Collins. How do you ask these people to not sleep, or wake them up if they are falling asleep? Last year, we booked a separate venue in Downtown Boulder and bussed people who wanted to take a break for a few hours. It kind of worked, but made the logistics harder to handle. Dealing with this problem is slightly more difficult. With infinite budget, it is possible to book Airbnb’s and hotels to host out-of-state participants. Another idea that has always been floating around, but never actually explored in any capacity, is matching out-of-state participants with students at CU or the HackCU team. Maybe some of these ideas will surface again to fruition in the future.

Despite all of these hurdles, I am surprised how much HackCU has grown in the last four years. One thing that struck me was how smooth the hackathon was from the organizers’ perspective. For the last three years, the night before the hackathon was always very stressful. This year, things seemed much more relaxed than before. That may also be due to the fact that I was slowly limiting my involvement, and I failed to notice the stress. The food this year was also of better quality. Usually we default to YellowBelly for one of the meals. This year the team decided to try something different, and it turned out to be really good. The judging process was far better planned and executed than any of the previous years. The workshops were also varied in content and skill levels to cater most people’s needs. And the overall quality itself has increased.

Reflecting on this reminded me of the Life Cycle of a Student Community talk that Joe Nash gives. The ethos of HackCU has evolved over the last four years. You could think of the “first generation” as anchors trying to make sure the team is strong enough before straying too far from the harbor. Now, the team is under a whole new leadership who have different visions for what HackCU could be. As an example, during one of my last meetings the team was deciding whether to let go of the startup career fairs to focus more on workshops and hackathons. And HackCU still has a lot of changes coming along the way, especially with the pandemic threatening everything to become remote. At times, these changes in thinking pattern irked me. Nevertheless it was necessary in order for HackCU to continue being a successful student organization. It needs to be independent of the team members, in some sense, in order to evolve and adapt to the changing needs. And I am glad I was able to witness this metamorphosis.

This is the renewal part of the cycle. Everyone who were the “first generation” have graduated and the last of us just graduated in May 2020. And I am excited to see where the “next generation” carries the torches.