Kiriakos Krastillis's Blog

A Hackathon To Remember

On September 2019 a gang of six Blockchain aficionados organized their first Hackathon. I was one of those six and this is the story of the days and events that led up to the welcoming keynote on that September morning.

It all started in a packed, sweaty meeting room...

It was early spring 2019 in a crowded workshop of the Hamburg Betahaus. Omri, me and a good dozen of Hamburg's serious Blockchain players had been invited by representatives of the city's market development agency to discuss about the effects Blockchain will have in the markets and society.

The event was a culmination of a series of workshops in which the city wanted to identify what, if any, actions they should take to foster the development of a Blockchain scene. It was a generally well received exploration of what a technology should mean to a city and we were mentioned in a summary to the Hamburger Senate but we are not talking about paradigm shattering, society defining realizations here.

In the end the city did act favorably towards Blockchain from an entrepreneurial standpoint, briefing the various startup funds and organizing some supporting initiatives. One of those would turn out to be of quite a lot of fun for Omri, me and a couple of Blockchain enthusiasts come Blockchain Mania Co-Hosts. The supporting activity we are talking about was the hamburg "Blockchain Summer 2019".

What we had committed ourselves to was to turn to our 2000-strong community and - with them - organize a 48 hour hackathon. In turn the city would offer us some publicity in form of free physical and digital advertisements through the Blockchain Summer initiative.

Gearing Up

Initially we would just advertise our endeavor at the beginning of our Blockchain Mania events and invite people to stick around after the talks for some ideation and workshopping. As nice as that MO was, we soon discovered that we were progressing to slow this way. Fortunately by that point the Organizing Team had crystallized. Anastasia, Chris, Phil and Dawid would join Omri and me in our quest to organize a three day event (48 consecutive hours of hacking). So we started doing weekend workshops and split work in workstreams to cover ground quickly and in some cases asynchronously.

Making it Work

In order to get an event like a hackathon going you do need a couple of basic things.

  1. Scope
  2. Technology
  3. Location
  4. Funding
  5. Organizer Team

One could argue that a participant target group should be in there but we found out that Scope and Technology actually are the key variables to defining one in this case so we didn't directly manage that, at least for the early exploration phase.

When we started we could only tick that last one box. We at least were enough to actually manage such an event, if only barely. So we needed to find a way to answer the other four questions in a way that would not collide with our own expectations and the expectations our marketing sponsor had (no direct corporate benefit through the hackathon's scope).

Looking at the things we needed to sort out we quickly found out the following constraints.

  1. Funding was a make or break situation, we were not going to ask the Blockchain Mania community or the participants for money and nobody in the organizing team should have to back the costs privately. So we decided to run this in a "nothing at stake" mode where we first collected commitment for sponsorships and committed to expenses in an equivalent manner.
  2. 3 Month registration period. We wanted to have enough time between announcing the hackathon and the actual event. We were very conscious that an event with such limited backing and so slim communication channels would need time to get heard. Additionally it just isn't a good model to try and get last minute participation. Also, getting a feel about sign ups would also allow us to judge venue and catering options better. Announcing with no confirmed venue is surely a risk but we decided to own this one as we always expected to be able to find a suitable location with our connections as long as we had funding and participation secured.

For the hackathon itself we had some more constraints

  1. We really wanted to have a non-negligible cash prize at least for the first team.
  2. The technologies to hack on had to provide on-prem support in terms of Technology Ambassadors for the full duration of the hackathon. This was especially important to the ones of the organizing team that already had participated in hackathons and had seen what a showstopper it can be to not have senior experts of the tech stack available for those heisenbugs you just cannot wrap your head around. This also meant that we needed to reach out to the creators of our technology shortlist and talk with them if they would support such a thing.

Having secured those constraints we decided to first try and identify Blockchain technology groups that would be open to providing Technology Ambassadors and - since we were already setting up requirements - would be interested in being a technology sponsor in the monetary sense. The decision to have the technology providers pay to be one of the tech stacks (and have all pay the same amount) was a difficult one. In the end we decided in favor of it because it was straight forward and also because it gave no technology a free ride.

It's All About The Tech

Of our shortlist of Ethereum, Tezos, Evan.network, Beam and Lisk we ended up with two tech providers Beam and Evan.network. While initially some of us were skeptical regarding the selection (including Yours Truly) it turned out to be a good one. Sure, some options where taken for us. Lisk became unresponsive pretty early on and the discussions with Tezos also ended abruptly once the financial requirements came up. Ethereum we stopped ourselves. Even though we had a good pipe to the Ethereum Foundation, we decided that it would be an unbalanced situation if we go with two smaller tech stacks and Ethereum as the third. So two it was, even if that meant we would need to find an answer to the 4000 Euro sized hole in our budget.

Announce!

Time seemed to be flowing by us. We had initially planed to get Proof of Moin (yes, we had a name by then) announced by the beginning of June and now it was July and we still hadn't announced the registrations. Afraid we might miss our ideal window of communication I convinced everybody that we needed to go public NOW, even if that meant going live with partial info. At that point we had Tech and Challenges in the sack. We went out on a limb by also announcing prizes at that point but in retrospect it was worth it, the financial risk was relatively small at that point and it really did pull the team together having committed to doing that. Sure the venue could still break our neck but optimism prevailed.

The Human Factor

Having made good progress with the hackathon rules and challenges we were pretty much set to go in terms of tech, rewards and operational framework. We only needed to find out how to house the 200 or so expected humans in a single place. Ideally one that would allow us to ~party~ work from Friday morning to Monday morning. Oh and finding out how to keep our participants nourished was also something we needed to solve.

The location topic, after utilizing all our connections, boiled down to the following:

  1. Multiple Tech startup offered to provide their offices. Some of them even where big enough. Still the Risks involved in doing a hackathon inside a live, small office were too big to ignore. After talking with insurance we came to the conclusion that it would be much more cost intensive than actually renting a real event venue. Unfortunately...
  2. We could not cover the costs of a real event venue with our slashed budget. Even after getting friends and family offers we still would be 3-4 grand out of pocket after having rented all the equipment needed (wifi access points and networking).
  3. Other locations where scarce.

After much search and deliberation (and thankfully lots of flexibility on their side) we decided to go with TuTech as a location. The one sub-ideal thing about the TuTech campus was that it wasn't in the city center. TuTech is located in Harburg, not Hamburg. this would mean that participants would have to make a much more deliberate decision to join the hackathon. Locals would have to travel more and Teams coming to Hamburg just for Proof of Moin might have to change hotel arrangements. But we took it since it was a location big enough to cater our estimated participation quantities, could host us from Friday morning to early Monday consecutively and was already set up with high end guest networking in cable and wireless form. Oh and we could get the venue for almost free. Obviously in Germany somebody needs to pay various insurances for such events but TuTech themselves were happy to sponsor the location itself. This closed our funding issues and even allowed us to push up the prizes as well.

In the meanwhile Omri had done some magic and organized most of the catering. He even got the cool Swiss Mate startup Rivet Mate to send us a bunch of Mate for free! I organized Pizza deliveries for the meals Omri hadn't found a caterer for. Other than Rivet mate we hadn't managed to strike a deal regarding refreshments so on the Thursday before the event some of us went to a big drinks place to order water, sodas and beer for the 80 or so participants we were realistically expecting. With that and with only hours to spend we finally were set to go for the first ever Proof of Moin. And the rest, as they say, is history :-)

There is a photo gallery with some images on the POM Hack Galery Page and there also is a YouTube Playlist which hosts some recordings of the main sessions for Proof of Moin as well as some Interviews I did.

There Always is a Next One

It was a great experience, one I would definitely repeat at a future time. This year the Covid pandemic unfortunately put an early stop to the discussions but we will weather these circumstances and be back for more in due time!

Until then Omri, Anastasia, Chris, Dawid, Phil and I will keep thinking about technology and society and what we should do to answer important questions (or to just have some fun)!

Cheers, K