The True Love of My Life: HackBeanpot

In Rachel Green fashion, I think could write a 18 pages about HackBeanpot, and disclaimer: this might end up being an 18 minute read, but that’s only because telling a story of something that has been a big part of your life for the past 3 years requires some attention :)

I first heard of HackBeanpot the spring of my freshman year in logic lab when some of my classmates asked if I was going. I had absolutely no idea what it was and it sounded very intimidating. Who was I, an inexperienced, clueless freshman to go to a hackathon? What even the heck was a hackathon??

A year later, my horizons were broadened. I had Systems with a then-organizer (Nadine) and she had to leave our work sessions every so often to go to her HackBeanpot meetings. I started asking her more and more questions about hackathons, and that led me to apply for and eventually attend HackBeanpot 2017. In the weeks leading up to the event, I remember perusing the website’s FAQs to figure out what to bring, and I remember reading some quirky blog posts posted by their organizers, which got me kind of excited, and kind of nervous. The weekend arrived. I had stayed up all Friday night doing Relay for Life, took a quick nap, and then headed to Genuine’s beautiful office in Boston. Idk what I was thinking. I was very tired, but as soon as I got there, I was excitedly greeted by Bahar, who reassured me that there was no pressure having never been to a hackathon before, and she helped me find a team to join.

I joined Felicia and Catu’s team, and we made a web app that was supposed to take in some text about your day, run Indico’s sentiment analysis api on it, and send that to the spotify api to generate the “soundtrack to your life.” I was in awe that we could do this. I had absolutely no idea how to make a website, let alone do it in 24 hours. I started writing a little bit of Javascript, learned about APIs and how they worked and enjoyed so much free food throughout the weekend — oh and also the iconic ~water olympics.~ We ended up winning a prize from Indico, and I was so happy I took part in the weekend!! I was very interested in learning more about how the organizers even went about putting together an event such as this, and I fell in love with the concept of hackathons in general :) I wanted to find a new community to be a part of and ideally stick to throughout college, and I thought HackBeanpot could be just that. I emailed the alumnati email to join the committee the following year, and that’s when things started taking off.

My first year on Hackbeanpot was pretty different from the past 2, but I will get to that. Our team had an awesome first meeting where I felt extremely welcomed by our excited organizers. We started the planning at the start of summer 1 that year, and I was happy to be in Boston at the time! We had weekly meetings where we talked about a host of items. I never knew how many things went into planning an event for ~200 people. Being a nonprofit has its benefits, such as the freedom to host the event wherever we want, but also drawbacks such as the need to raise money instead of getting it from our school or MLH. We had to figure out so many categories of things, ranging from email responses, the venue, sponsorship packet, sponsorship strategy, social media accounts, to outreach initiatives, the food for the event, handing the speakers, mentors, judges, the list goes on.

Our meetings were generally 2 hours, where we pulled up a google doc where the agenda had a list of topics spanning various “categories” to discuss and we would talk about each one and decide what the appropriate action item was from there, and assign it to someone. Here is an example of what our google doc looked like once we determined the action items:

I’d like to point out a few things. Notice how there were sometimes multiple people assigned to a task. These tasks suffered from the ol’ bystander effect and many times did not necessarily get done on time. Next, there are tasks for the “sponsorship squad” but then also tasks regarding sponsors assigned to just individual people. Were they part of the sponsorship squad? idk. But it seemed a bit tough to follow how the work was divided up. This was a pattern I noticed as time went on and we had more and more aspects of the hackathon to figure out. I started to feel kind of lost in the process as I did not feel like I had a focus on anything; rather if you had asked me what I worked on, I’d probably tell you that it was just an assortment of random tasks, ranging from cold emailing sponsors to setting up doodle polls for our next team hangout. I kind of lost motivation to attend meetings all the time and when I was there, I felt like my attention got diverted easily. We would harp on very minute details that probably should’ve been taken offline with a few people, and many times when we would reach the time allotted, we would vote to keep discussing or stop, and I found it a little pointless to keep discussing more and take away time from other things.

The beauty of the core team was that everyone was in the know on the team’s operations which helped us provide a united front to sponsors and other people part of the event. That beauty came with the price of not being able to develop a vision for the future team as we were always focused on completing this random set of tasks we took on for the week. We also had 3 presidents, which I’m sure they had their reasons for, but their role didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me except that they did the speaking/introductions during the event itself. I continued on with the work, but didn’t feel that spark of excitement I can’t seem to shake now.

Despite the team’s lack of structure, I started loving the new team I had joined. We had fun parties, dinners, and hangouts and I had a fun group of friends in the Northeastern CS community :)

Spring 2018, I studied abroad and that meant I was going to be remote for all the meetings (and call in close to midnight my time lol)!! It kind of sucked not being there with everyone, but leading up to the event there was a lot of work to be done and thus, a lot of hype as well. I was happy to dip out early from hanging out with friends if I needed to call into meetings, as I was getting more ready for the event. It was pretty sad not being able to attend the event, but the day of I got to be present via slack and call in for a part of the event which was awesome! The event was a big success, and I had a lot of hopes for the future. Despite a kind of dull middle of the planning season, I enjoyed the team overall and started developing ideas to organize the team better the next year.

We had a lot of members graduating/no longer continuing, so there were many spots available to take on a leadership role, so based on role descriptions, I decided I wanted to be the Vice President, and enact changes in the organization’s structure. Once I got the position, I did just that.

My top priority for our team was to develop smaller teams that would handle different categories of the work we had to do. I also wanted to follow some version of an “agile” structure as I noticed we had “projects” that we could “deliver” to our team every week for iteration. Some examples of these projects were the sponsorship packet and the website. I also wanted the team leads to meet separately and have them plan the sprints, think more about the vision for their team, and then delegate work to their team members. The transition period between the end of HBP 2018 and the search for members to join for planning HBP 2019 involved many meetings with Bahar and Raquel where we started to hash out this new structure. Bahar was a president stepping down and Raquel was to be the new president and I was the VP.

Some of the most important items we had to figure out were the meeting structure now that we added team leads meetings, the culture of accountability for work, and the tools for task management. This is some of the brainstorming we started with:

“minions” lol. They are really just team members. We wanted to use the TL meetings to also discuss “bigger picture” items; i.e. start developing a vision for the specific team. Having team leads was going to be advantageous as they would be the people who could take a step back from the specific weekly tasks and really think about why the tasks were to be created. We hadn’t explicitly said it, but looking back, we were aiming to create a culture where we did things with more of a purpose.

Another important thing to improve upon from the year before was the accountability of our team members to make sure work was getting done in time. Something we tried the year before was to have a standup once a week where either we would all call in for 10 mins and give an update on what we were working on, or just provide the update in slack if we could not make it.

I would not say this really worked well. People would end up doing tasks quickly on that day so that they could report actually doing something (or would do them right before meetings) and calling in for 10 minutes without being strict about it led to many simple slack updates, half of which probably didn’t really get read.

For the next year, we wanted to toss that out and Bahar came up with the idea of a daily standup. We weren’t so sure how the team would receive it, as that’s kind of a lot to ask from a team that does not meet everyday to just be on slack every day. Bahar’s reasoning was that it will force people to even have HackBeanpot on their minds, but even if they don’t plan to do any HBP work for it that day, that’s what they should report. It would help people get into the framework of planning out their work better and keep HBP on people’s minds. It felt like it would be a little tech company :) We wanted to have the VP act as the “whip” and make sure that teams were accomplishing their tasks in a timely fashion.

^ our early stages of brainstorming the accountability process. I think we kind of did away with the VP sending the weekly update blurb and changed it into teams giving updates at our weekly meetings. Something that I was told when I first joined is that the core HBP team found value in visibility across the team, and that’s why everyone was able to do everything. As I mentioned, this became a bit too disorganized, but we wanted to maintain that value.

We realized that with specific teams we would have far more tasks that could be done, so not everyone needed to know every single thing going on in a team, but we should still share enough that people can get the general ideas and understand how all the teams’ work will eventually come together.

We went through various ideas to maintain this value: have team leads post a mass update each week, have the VP compile this list after they acted as the “whip” and got the updates from each team lead, and eventually we landed on doing team updates during each meeting. We wanted to keep them brief but also give updates on the important items.

To put together our team, we interviewed people and kind of assumed the number of people we would need for the teams. We went off the fact that we would want roughly 12–15 people as we wanted slightly more than the year before, but not too many. Once we had a solid team, we were ready to get started planning HackBeanpot 2019!

We had a lot of onboarding for the new members. It was a bit of a tough process since we as the President/VP and some of the team leads had also just come up with this new process that we were also “testing” out with the new team.

The meeting structure and to be pretty effective. We did want feedback on this since we were in essence, user testing this new “agile” process on this semi-new team. We had tried to come up with a feedback loop, but I don’t think we fully implemented this a ton.

Something we eventually started doing during meetings also was having each team lead give a little “presentation” on something so that the team members could put a picture to what was being talked about. We realized that just sharing updates wasn’t going to help anyone as there is nothing that visual learners can “latch” onto. Using the word “presentation” we learned eventually, became a little too formal sounding as it made people think the presentation was something bigger than it probably had to be.

Overall the new organization of the team worked out pretty well!! We felt like tasks were much smoother, teams had trello boards to organize their work, and when we sensed problems we realized we would have to check in with teams. We kept a close look on timelines to ensure the items we wanted to “release” were on time or not delayed by a significant amount, and we did a pretty good job of that. We had team lead meetings but in hindsight, they didn’t achieve a whole lot. We kept them right before our normal meeting so as people trickled in late, we would get closer to the regular meeting that it didn’t leave us much time to do anything.

Since our roles as President and VP were kind of new, we also did not entirely know what we had to do in terms of developing our long term vision. We leaned on maintaining all the practical stuff for the event itself as well as ~less fun~ logistics such as taxes, completing the forms to stay registered as a nonprofit org, etc.

Leading up to the event planning got more hectic! (as expected..) There are a whole host of logistics to take care of, ranging from coordinating mentors, judges, speakers, to planning food, swag, and event activities that can easily creep up on us! We tried to get them started and create small teams for each logistics team (there are somewhere between 10–15 lol) and get some work done before winter break, and hopefully keep it up during the break, but as expected, that was kind of difficult.

Post winter break, we were swamped with logistics work. We ended up starting to have “working sessions” where we would just use our meetings to work and sync up with each other to resolve cross-team dependencies and those sessions proved to be extremely useful. We hammered out so much work, including Nabeel CALLING the waterbottle company and asking for AND getting us a discount for being a nonprofit!! It was amazing, and led to lots of team bonding :)

As last minute things tend to go, we definitely had lots of hiccups leading right up to the event itself! It helped us realize that many logistics items could be taken care of earlier, and would minimize our stress.

The event itself was what really brought our team together! Staying up for hours on end catering to the needs of event participants as well as hyping everyone up for the culmination of a year’s hard work definitely resulted in stress, but also a bond between our team members. We had a crazy last minute hula hoop limbo dance party, a trash + seagulls fiasco, a road trip to buy prizes, soooooo much food and SO much boba too and some crazy cool projects!! It was a hit, to say the least. We definitely found areas of improvement for the next year, but the vibe was just what we were looking for.

Recruiting for the next year was a bit of a slow process as we were worn out from the event. We partied a bit first to celebrate and then got moving on scouting out new recruits for the next year.

We had some immediate team structure changes we wanted to make as well. We realized the Design team was stretched in too many directions as they created items for all the teams and with 3 people that was not sustainable. We decided that it would be cool to have a design representative for each team and that would help spread out the work better. We also wanted to split the Social/Outreach team to create individual Social and Outreach teams so that Outreach could really focus on hosting events and bonding with the student community while Social focused on our digital presence.

We also wanted to make some changes to the President/VP roles as well. We needed someone to be the point person on all things event logistics so we assigned that to the VP and thought long and hard about how we could expand the role of leadership. We felt like we were sort of shooting around in the dark the year before, and wanted to do something more impactful. Noah and Bahar wanted to stay a part of HBP but as “coaches” for our leadership to help guide us in the right direction, and help with our alumni connections. These changes were super motivating!! We felt like we really had some momentum and started getting geared up for the next year.

Before we officially started with our new team, we also did a retro activity (see below) with the current team to reflect on the year/event so that we could incorporate the feedback into the following year.

A big theme that came out of this was obtaining feedback from our team members as well as better planning/a source of truth for teams to refer to for all their information, and more visibility across the team.

Once we had our new team settled, Rucha and I started figuring out what a viable meeting structure would be as well as working with Noah + Bahar to figure out how to lead this team well. We thought it would be beneficial to cut back our meeting time to 1 hour instead of 2 and keep team leads meetings separate so that we could focus on the work we had to do.

One of the things we did early on was create the new internal mission statement and think about what we wanted HackBeanpot to be. We wanted to have an internal mission statement to give us direction on how we want to operate. “Doing things with a purpose” became important to us as we reflected on time and energy that was wasted in years past. We came up with a set of words and asked our team leads to brainstorm what their team can do interally, externally to the public, and then within HBP to embody these values:

We used the results of this to tease out our internal mission statement for the year:

Cultivating relationships that foster growth.

We saw many applications of this: staying with Catalant as the venue and solidifying a relationship with them, utilizing the outreach team to really connect with other schools, taking a very personal approach to sponsorship. Within the org itself it meant we were going to put a lot of energy into obtaining feedback from our team members and making sure their experiences were allowing them to grow.

Rucha and I definitely talked to Noah and Bahar a lot to tease out our vision for the year and how to run the org in a way that we could bring out skills in others on our team/do things that matter. A big takeaway from the conversations with them was to start doing 1–1s with our team leads. I realized that since we never did that, I had no idea how all the leads last year, who were tasked with just leading a bunch of people, were feeling and how it probably would’ve been beneficial for them to be able to talk to the other leads more about their experiences. It’s interesting since the Pres. and VP have a sort of removed role from all the leads and other members of the core team, so it can sometimes be hard to see how the team leads may be struggling too.

The 1–1s have been super useful in that they allow for much more transparency and accountability that was not present the year before. We could ask very targeted questions and get people’s specific input on how they felt about the team this year.

We also decided to start event logistics earlier. Event logistics range from organizing the food, mentors, judges, speakers, schedule, etc. and many of these tasks tend to get done in the weeks leading right up to the event. This causes a lot stress for us as it is basically crunch time. It does kind of bring the team together (re: the t-shirt fiasco during HBP 2019) but it can be a lot. Thus, we formed smaller teams early and got them started. Everyone that was new to core has the opportunity to be a leader of a small team, which helps us as it allows us to sort of evaluate them as potential future leaders and gives them some ownership over their time on HBP core.

A struggle we faced with this was that now people had tons of meetings!!! People could be on 3 logistics teams, their small team, and have the general meeting as well…… that’s too much to ask from people without some sort of heads up before they join lol. We also found that our general meetings were kind of becoming un-meaningful to people as the fall went on, which prompted us to morph our general meetings into working sessions for event logistics teams. It has allowed for lots of easy cross-team collaboration and also much more productive meetings.

Something that has become very evident to Rucha and I is the importance of accepting and responding to feedback. We plan this event over the course of a year and we go through different phases on the team. There’s no way just one meeting structure or process we implement is going to be perfect for each of the phases, which is why we have made sure to ask for feedback on various items throughout the year. We did a mid-season check in to see how people were feeling about the usefulness of things like brainstorming sessions, team updates, presentations at general meetings, standups, etc. and that really helped us change around some of the processes we had. We also encourage our team leads to provide us feedback. We had one person critique the way we gave them feedback as it was more of a check in on dates rather than feedback on how they are doing as actual leaders.

We took matters into our own hands and created a new process over which we are iterating to have the team leads give feedback to each other. This is what we have started with:

We found it to be a bit flat and less engaging than expected, and are now working on teasing out a better version. Even if we do not find the perfect format this year, it is something great to pass onto the next team and the process of iterating has been a great learning experience!!

Another big focus we have had this year is developing the long term vision of HackBeanpot. Every year the goal of the org is to put on a hackathon…and that seems to be it. We aim to make an impact on the Boston tech community and every year we say this but don’t seem to put a big focus on it.

This year we split what used to be the social/outreach team and now have our own outreach team that focuses on organizing events/workshops with different schools to promote tech and hackbeanpot! They have been great successes and we have many points to grow from here. It would be cool if we could eventually work with companies as well in the future.

Coming up with a long term vision was totally new to us. We did many brain dumps where we just thought about where we could see the org going and then took some time to synthesize the info and bring together various themes that were threaded through our ideas. We realized that while we were excited enough about HBP to come up with this very organically, it was going to be for the future team to actually put to action, and that we should probably have the rest of the team take a look at this and brainstorm as well!! There were many ideas that we want ourselves, but it’s important that the future team has the opportunity to think about what they want to do so that they will be excited about implementing such ideas. I think bringing this project to the full team went really well, and Rucha and I are in charge of figuring out the broader themes/how to present it as an organization. It’s a really great way to see my own excitement/dedication to the org as the ideas came very naturally to me.

As the event is getting closer, we have started to also think about next year’s core team. We realized that if we want to grow, we could be more specific about who we are looking for during our recruitment process. We have found some free time in our team leads’ meetings and figured this would be good working time to get started on that work. I think we have done a good job with organization and taking time to think about how we are using our time to make sure that it is going to be worth our time especially since we are trying to do so many different things.

Sometimes I feel like we are running a company and it can get hard to keep the lighthearted culture when we have implemented so much structure, and maybe that’s due to me being remote for 8 months, but maybe also our processes. On the leadership front, however, I have seen so much growth in our team and in myself. I find myself getting so excited to figure out how we can iterate over something and how we can give our team members a great experience!! Since it is not our full time job, I get worried about things slipping, like culture, or even just work we have to do, but then I remember that we have to find a balance somewhere with the rest of our lives. Finding a balance between things has been a common theme throughout these past few years and each year we have been adding more and more layers to the org which only has enhanced the experience and taught me more!!

With just a few months left officially on the team, I’ve been doing lots of reflecting and hope the new set of leaders can have as great of a learning experience as I have had. I have found a new community and I think we are doing something really great :). I could probably (and probably will) write more on this year specifically but I should end this exposé so that I can move onto some deeper reflecting.

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you shnuze you luze

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