How to Hold a Killer First Developer Conference or HackathonPart of what makes modern API development so much more powerful than ever before is the fact that, at the tip of one’s fingers, an entire world of lessons, examples, and fellow developers are within reach. Community and the resultant feedback has made API development and the APIs that are created from this process more extensive, more powerful, and more effective.

Fostering this community is of prime importance. As an API provider, hosting a hackathon or developer conference can not only help increase the visibility of your API, your techniques, and your company, but can also create connections between developers and a sense of fellowship around your service.

Today, we’re going to discuss exactly what hackathons and developer conferences entail and how to host them, including what works, what doesn’t, and what pitfalls may arise. We’ll consider how to market these events, and how to make them a truly powerful tool for advocating or evangelizing your third party developer program.

Types of Get-Togethers

For people new to the concepts of hackathons, meetups, workshops, and developer conferences, let’s quickly define what these events are and how they improve overall developer relations.

What is a Hackathon?

Hackathons are events in which programmers, providers, and team members related to development collaborate in the usage, creation, or manipulation of software or hardware projects. Hackathons might be free form, where developers are given code or API access and are allowed to do what they wish, or might be guided, wherein a cause or goal is given and used to guide programmer efforts.

In the API space, what this functionally means is that a hackathon is a “get together” focused on skill implementation. Providers and developers unify their efforts to create something unique that consumes the provider’s API in some way. This collaboration and implementation of divergent ideas and processes can reveal new development methods, highlight core strengths, and can even help highlight deficiencies in the current API space or system being demoed.

What is a Developer Conference?

A developer conference, on the other hand, is typically a “show and tell” style conference in which developers, programmers, users, and sometimes even other API providers are brought together to see what an API provider has to offer. This might take the form of live demonstrations, code workshops, or private API servers for testing.

Conferences often have a roster of speakers, keynote speeches, and parallel tracks, adding huge value to the attendees. Essentially, a conference is a direct pipeline to the minds of the best and brightest in the given topic, which is incredibly powerful and a great sell to most users in the API space.

More often than not, developer conferences are sponsored directly by API providers or API management providers for the purpose of increasing the visibility of the service in addition to establishing a knowledge-base of the API services and functionalities within the developer community.

There are exceptions, however, such as conferences where API documentation companies or groups representing developer consortiums gather to instruct one another on the functionality of various APIs and on business practices in general related to the API space.

What’s the Difference?

What’s the difference between the two? Hackathons specifically focus on the interactive nature of collaboration to spread knowledge and marketing about an API by allowing users to extensively use the source system. In essence, this is a form of viral marketing. When hackathons are supported by a provider, the word of mouth conversation about the hackathon will naturally disseminate information about their API.

For example, if AlchemyAPI sponsored an API hackathon to develop experimental and extensible applications and systems utilizing the API, the word of mouth conversation would necessarily tie the successes of the API hacks into the AlchemyAPI itself. Likewise, developers who utilize the AlchemyAPI would be more aware of its power and functionality, and would be more likely to use and recommend it to fellow developers who are developing applications that might make use of the API.

Developer conferences and meetups, on the other hand, are much more instructive, and rely on direct dissemination. Whereas a hackathon might impart knowledge based on the interaction with a system in a loose and free nature, the developer conference specifically sets out to answer specific questions, and provide specific solutions. A simple analogy would be that a hackathon is an internship, while a developer conference is a classroom.

How to Host an Event

That being said, how does one actually host such an event? Many factors must be considered before inviting your guests — follow these steps and your first hackathon will be a killer powerhouse, and your developer conference a smashing success.

1: Identify Your Goal, Theme, and Audience

Key to the success of these meetups is understanding exactly why the API provider is holding one. Is this for marketing? Is it for building knowledge? Is it for getting users excited about new systems? Identifying a mission statement early on is absolutely necessary, as it will guide your event theme, speakers, sponsors, marketing, presentation materials, and audience.

Knowing who your attendees will be is critical. Are you trying to imbue knowledge to students and foster the next wave of API programmers? Hosting your event at a school will attract this raw talent and establish yourself in the minds of young programmers. Are you rather focusing on business? Utilizing a hall or conference center would be a great choice, as it instills a sense of professionalism, and often provides a greater range of business services to clients and attendees.

Themes that focus on a certain technology or sector can go a long way towards making a meetup unique, and will also inform answers to the following questions throughout this article.

2: Secure the Financing and Venue

In terms of business interests, securing a venue and the financing for the event is of prime importance.

Consider what sort of venue is appropriate given your circumstances. While an international API provider handling millions of contacts a day might opt for a convention center, this is far beyond the means and needs of other startups or SMB providers.

For smaller providers, a simple clean space will do just fine. Ensure that you have a venue that has decent connectivity for distributing API packages if you are connecting to an external server. Otherwise, ensure that you have production-ready local servers that can be used to handle the amount of people you are considering inviting to the meetup.

Once this is done, consider the system requirements of your conference. Is this a “bring your own device” conference, wherein users must bring their own laptops and systems? If so, consider storage spaces for equipment containers and extraneous system paraphernalia.

Expanding upon this, ensure that your conference system requirements match your expectations. Ensure you have the following:

  • Server hardware capable of handling your predicted attendance pool plus 25% to ensure load balancing is not an issue;
  • Projectors, screens, HDMI cables, adapters, and presentation platforms capable of displaying high resolution to the furthest attendees given the size of your attendance group;
  • Wireless access points and repeaters near “traps”, such as corners, thick doors, etc., that might kill wireless coverage;
  • Load balancing devices and security systems – dedicating a security appliance to a subnetwork can go a long way to securing your network.

If you intend on giving users host machines of their own, consider whether this is in the budget or feasible given your goal. For developer conferences, it might be simpler to rent out a co-working space usually reserved for freelance programmers. For both hackathons and conferences, it might even be feasible to find a University or College which will allow you to use conference rooms or computing spaces.

In terms of financing, your main concern should be whether or not the meetup is free. Free conferences and hackathons are necessarily more expensive than paid, “entry fee” ones, but might result in greater attendance.

On the other hand, paid conferences can afford to provide more services and better equipment, but might attract fewer people based on cost. Much of the expense of paid conferences can be negated with sponsors, however, and this is becoming more and more the case in recent years.

3: Get People Excited

Next comes marketing your event. It’s a good idea to write a press release to send to local tech news hubs. If running a hackathon, you can increase exposure by posting it to the following online hackathon databases:

In terms of getting people excited, let’s face it — API development can, at times, be a dry affair for even the most passionate developers. Assuaging that feeling and making people excited for these meetups is no small task, but with a little planning, you can turn “that sounds boring” quickly into “wow, that sounds amazing!”

Consider adding a challenge to the conference, one that has an amazing award. Hosting a hackathon? Consider having first, second, and third place prizes for the result, each with a monetary or high-value prize. Developers might be more willing to attend a conference for the promise of three months of free server rental or a cash prize. Not only does this investment get people motivated, it also shows that the provider is interested in giving back to the community.

Prizes add subconscious value to an event by matching the effort required with a possible reward. If someone asked you to help them move, what would your first response be? Now imagine they ask you to help them move — and told you there was a coin flip at the end of the day, and the winner would take home $1,000 USD. Now what is your response?

Additionally, consider location and travel expenses. A team might be wary of visiting a hackathon in a small town far away from major tech centers. If possible, hosting an event in a major city or tech hub could do wonders for attendance, and can dramatically increase the success of your meetup.

Finally, consider this age old truth — people love to eat. Providing snacks or even catering meals during the event would dramatically boost morale and interest in the occasion. Strapped for cash? Consider inviting food trucks or stands to your event parking lot. While you might incur additional cost for the parking area, giving your patrons options for healthy onsite food does a lot to get people excited.

4: Prepare for Pitfalls

No event is perfect, and no matter how much you plan, something will inevitably go wrong. Understanding potential pitfalls to your first hackathon or developer conference is paramount to your success.

First, understand that networks are unpredictable. Many a conference has gone awry when providers simply can’t get the WiFi to work, or have limited network access. To prevent this, try not to use built-in networks whenever possible.

Running Cat 5e cables and covering them with floor strips might be aesthetically displeasing compared to using the almighty wireless access point, but attendees won’t remember wall warts and cable runs if you do everything right — they will, however, remember being unable to use your system at all, and this experience will directly reflect in what they have to say about the conference after the fact.

Use production ready servers with the understanding that nine times out of ten, nothing goes wrong — but that one time, everything goes wrong. Allowing servers to update could fundamentally break huge sections of your system, server failures or RAID cluster failovers can break database demonstrations, and even a misconfigured network card attached to the main network can break functionality depending on the network design.

Consider this when building your network, and install redundancy at every step — the only person who knows something went wrong should be the event host. The audience should not even notice a failure if you’re doing it right.

Food poisoning is something nobody ever forgets — and it will always be tied to you and your conference if you’re not careful. Catering is typically safe, depending on reviews, but hiring food trucks or operating in a venue that provides a food court can negate this threat and shift responsibility somewhat.

Environmental issues are also extremely important to consider, both in terms of impact and surroundings. In terms of environment, providing proper methodologies and locations for disposing of technological waste and general waste is incredibly important, and can certainly influence the perception of any given conference.

Make sure your venue is clean, that it has air conditioning, and that the design of the presentation booths provide for optimal presentation spaces, safety, and flow of the crowd. A great example of failure in this realm is the 2016 Google I/O conference, which is infamous for its long lines, sweltering heat, and generally poorly managed facilities and surroundings.

Also consider event security. Malicious attacks are not beyond the range of possibilities, and you need to plan accordingly. Implement cyber security systems, secure local routers and hubs, consider using baseline security filters, and consider providing custom systems with security implementations that won’t harm the network. Secure the production servers from other servers containing personal information or company documentation, and create a virtual private network for any essential equipment that must share this information at the conference.

Finally, a huge element of a great conference is having capable presenters. Having an “MC” who can direct the flow of the conference, announce events, and coordinate all of the solutions presented above can go a long way to not only preventing these issues from cropping up, but negating the issues that arise when you fail to do so.

5: Don’t Sweat It

Hosting these meetups improves the community and integrates the API provider as a source of knowledge. Bringing people together to learn about or use your system builds community knowledge of your product, develops skills that can then be brought into the fold either through volunteer efforts or direct hiring, and brings the community closer together.

In conclusion, the best piece of advice that can be given to an API provider is simply this — don’t sweat it. The API space moves so fast and is filled with so many entrepreneurs that you can always call upon others for a little bit of help.

Has your system failed? If you’re in the right location, networking supplies and servers should only be a phone call away. Ran out of food? If you’ve planned ahead, ordering in a few more trays of food should be simple. Network facing internal attacks? Cut off the virtual private network behind a DMZ and find the source of the problem.

Once you’ve planned it out, let the conference or hackathon be what it’s going to be — forcing things will only cause issues, and if you’ve taken this advice to heart, by now your event should run itself.

About Kristopher Sandoval

Kristopher Sandoval is a web developer, author, and artist based out of Northern California with over six years of experience in Information Technology and Network Administration. He writes for Nordic APIs and blogs on his site, A New Sincerity.