Hackathons are amazing. I've always been in awe at how they manage to spur creativity, passion, and determination all in one among participants. I've only been in a handful of hackathons thus far, but every single one of them has left a considerable impact on me. They're what brings the community behind code together, and I'd always get excited to get to know the people behind some of the craziest and wackiest projects I've seen.
What if the tables have turned instead, and you now play the role of an organiser rather than an attendee? I got the chance to during Epoch, Hack Club's 42-hour hackathon in New Delhi. While I didn't get to play such a critical role as orchestrating an entire hackathon, it's still wild to me to think that I've played a part in something. Hack Club's Epoch was a hackathon like no other, and I'm not even really exaggerating. With a midnight activity spanning across the globe and a New Year's DJ countdown, Epoch was a wild ride for both the organisers and participants. You're gonna need to pinch me on this one because it felt a little unreal.
Epoch was a few months in the making. The gears started shifting in July when the lead organisers began their ideation on the event and slowly roped more people into the organising team. I got to know of Epoch (the concept) when I was approached by (none other than) Sam, who pitched the idea to me. I was in from the start, but a lot of barricades snapped in place when I realised that I have no experience at all.
Things really started in October when channels for the event and behind-the-scenes work launched. As the weeks progressed, it was fascinating to see the work put in in such little time (spoiler: the work only piled on from here). One person would be outsourcing venues, while another was talking about outreach and communications. I tried to pitch in where I could, contributing a little to the event website and branding.
Around late October, once the rest of the team has nailed the important stuff (communication plans, the initial website draft, COVID policies, parent guides, and more; so much in so little time!), we began splitting up into different groups to handle different aspects of the event.
When participants registered for the event, they're allowed to express interest in being a workshop host and if so asked to provide an idea for a workshop they'd like to provide. The responses to registration were stored in Airtable, where we manually sifted through the many interesting suggestions that people have had. Ranging from beginner starter projects with React to making a game with Sprig, there were so many choices but so few slots.
I was picked to curate the workshops the event will have along with Aarya, who is an awesome partner. We both sifted through the table almost daily (with new registrations piling in hot!) and really took the time to debate and discuss each one. We all had our own biases coming in, and to some extent that is inevitable, but we tried our best to consider what others would've wanted to see, especially as Epoch is a beginner-friendly event. We also asked questions from time to time about what people thought of a certain topic, but many of the times it was too late and we had to make a call.
Asking for clarification
We'd inevitably get some responses that are a little vague, and for those, we'll need to write a response back to them to clarify a little bit about what they meant. Being social isn't my strongest suit, and even clicking a virtual blue button to send an email is daunting enough to have me reconsider or recheck for errors (even though I've checked n number of times).
This was where I felt really challenged and the 'screw it' mentality really kicked in when I ended up scheduling emails to be sent out at a certain time. I'd ignore my inbox (as bad as that was) for an hour or two then check for a response afterwards. I eventually got the hang of it, even scheduling a video call with someone to hear their idea more (that was wild looking back!).
Finalising workshops is a whole different topic that deserves a whole section of its own. To set the context: it is now the second week of December. The event was due in two weeks, and we planned to finalise a set of workshops by the end of the week so that we can give some time (though not a lot, unfortunately) to the shortlisted leaders to prep for their workshops. We had expected to complete the shortlist by midweek if possible, but it was delayed (and even overflowed) to the next week.
The email notifying the leaders of their acceptance went out nearly only a week before the event. The cherry on top was that Aarya and I were both occupied during that time, so we desperately needed to take each other's places when we could. I'm really glad that the leaders were mostly cooperative and helpful, and they were really professional in how they carried themselves throughout the experience. I had the impression that I was 🤡ing in front of them the entire time.
The biggest issue for me when it came to finalising workshops was the additional recommendations and restrictions that came in really late. They are really valid recommendations that we failed to look at, and we tried our best to cater to them whenever they were given. That led to an endless cycle of curating a shortlist, then getting a new recommendation, and then fumbling to cater to the said recommendation. We eventually had to cut our losses when we realised that it was too late to be able to make changes.
At one point I had to start booking my flight tickets, and this was a monumental moment for me. It represented concrete proof that this experience was going to be real, and I felt overwhelmed booking the ticket; it was not just a small thing, but rather a wake-up call. I'm not really as lucky in the department of getting to go overseas, but I had boarded a plane twice for one school-sponsored trip (for which I'm still so grateful) to Brunei. A part of me inside was livid that I was going to be in a metal bird in the sky for the greater part of five hours. Alone, no less.
I booked tickets after checking the airline website more than 10 times on the day I planned to purchase them and settled insurance (phew, the legalese) with the tickets. Transport was arranged by the event leads to ensure my safe travel from the airport once I landed. Everything was good to go the week or two before the event, and I kept working on the workshops. I still have an eight-minute screen recording of me checking in the day prior and squealing in excitement at my booking ticket, mere pixels of a QR code on the screen.
Time has an impeccable habit of zipping past things. Even now, when it's February[^1] and a month after the event, I feel like time's going faster than it should. The day came for me to depart for my trip, and all emotions were on high. There's something sentimental about airports—particularly their departure halls and the invisible barrier that stood between a departee and their family—that always became a tear-jerker for many.
My family was no exception. It's a little mix of every emotion under the sun: it was anxiety and worry about how the flight will go and about how safe I'll be, but also excitement and pride that I'm getting such a rare and exciting opportunity. To be flying alone is such a dangerous yet exciting thing, and I'm glad to say that it hasn't been as much dangerous as exciting.
The moment I departed from my family was also the moment my inner tourist, somehow unbothered by being untouched for so long, began going wild. I'd take pictures of everything. I feel like it's worth documenting a moment and your emotions with that moment. It's a capsule that captures a little essence of everything you felt. You might just look at me and call me kiasu, and in some way I was; I didn't want to lose what I felt to the wind. I might as well try to freeze the moment in time—along with the exhilarated sighs, trembling hands, and ear-to-ear grins—with a metal brick of a phone.
My worriedness was also at an all-time high, and I'd panick at the slightest sign of something that isn't 'right'. I had to check with a flight attendant about what happens if my name doesn't fit in the boxes on the arrival card I asked for a bunch more of the arrival cards juuuuust in case.
I landed pretty late in New Delhi, welcomed by a thick fog. The temperature change wasn't as evident; it was only once I'd stepped out of the airport's arrival hall did I realise that the inside was warmer than the outside. As a tropics native, this was the first of many surprises I've faced during this trip!
I was already slightly disoriented as I was waking up after dozing off for a bit, and it was a little scary avoiding the crowds of people offering their services. I took my time getting to my pick-up point, had some embarrassingly difficult conversation with the man at the booth because of the language barrier, and then hopped on the cab when it arrived. I got dropped off at the wrong hotel, but I'm really grateful that the chauffeurs have extended their help in bringing me to the right one just down the road.
Combined with the wildly different weather and the fact that my phone is now set to two and a half hours earlier, seeing the other members of the organising team plus the staff from HQ and having breakfast together made it all seem even more like a dream. We finished breakfast and headed off to the venue, which was conveniently located right opposite the hotel. We had quite the experience trying to cross the road!
It was only then, once I stepped foot in the venue the day before the event, that I realised that not every room had a projector. Aarya and I were leading with the assumption that each room would be equipped to have something to project things on, but it turns out that only two of the many (cool-looking) rooms actually do. Alarms began ringing: we had to make do with what we had, and we scrambled to sort things out. The rest of the day was also spent on setting up. Even though I mainly spent the day sorting out where workshops should be, I helped out with putting up some decor once in a while. How's "Hacky new year" for a phrase?
On a personal note, considering my dietary restrictions, I mainly had to stick to vegetarian options which are pretty abundant in India. It was my first time ever trying a tofu burger, and I have to admit, it's pretty good! Not to mention it's really filling as well.
The day flew by quickly, and before I knew it we were all packing up and leaving the venue for the day. I have a video recording of us trying to cross the road together, and it's so wild looking back: the amount of adrenaline and dread (I think) we all shared is pretty humorous.
The day finally came when it was time for the event to start. Things happened in a flurry and I can't really piece together what's happened. I got to meet Aarya for the first time in person. People started to wait in the cafeteria while we set up. Everything's happened all at once, and before y'know it, the gates are open at 6 p.m. for entry. After helping to man the gates and guide participants up the lift lobby, the event opener began with Sam and Dev, the two event leads, and Zach, the founder of Hack Club.
The theme for the event was "stupid s— everybody needs", and the best part was that it was voted for by everyone by assembling the theme word by word. Once the theme was set, the event opened with this fun bonding activity where people are given random cards of Orpheus, Hack Club's mascot, and people with the same drawings of Orpheus get to group with each other.
The workshops were due to start soon after the opening ceremony, and while we had come up with a reshuffled schedule, it was still messy. We had to make lots of changes—particularly timing changes and relocations—all over the place. Our 'final' list of timings kept changing as we kept trying to settle on a compromise. The same pattern of notification-recommendation-alteration began once again. The first workshop slot went well, but for the next few ones (even leading to the next day), things remained hectic with workshops.
Day 1 started with a nice Zumba session. It's pretty wild!
We immediately faced another issue with the workshops soon after, though: rooms were oversubscribed. We had underestimated their capacity for the number of people the rooms can fit as well as the number of people we anticipated for some workshops. We heavily considered our guess at the capacity for the next few workshops when relocating them. We had to vacate one large room and use the stage for workshops, two things we didn't have in mind at all pre-event.
I feel really bad for Aarya up till today, as I still have a bad habit of slowly shutting down when being cooked under pressure. Aarya was more spontaneous and made many calls which ended up working out.
By the later half of day 1, though, we've slowly started getting in the groove. Though we've changed a lot of things, the stress was slowly getting lifted off our backs as slots came and went. We've replaced the signages so many times we eventually decided to have a QR code pointing to a digital version we can update anytime. We're really glad and appreciative of all the workshop leaders we've engaged with. They all were adaptive in their own ways and managed to make their workshops work despite errors on our end which greatly restricted or complicated matters for them.
Day 1 ended on a slightly nice note. Day 1 was New Year's Day, and we (okay, maybe particularly and especially Sam) began inviting everyone to take a break from their work and celebrate the new year together. Things started out slow, but with glow sticks and the clock inching ever closer towards midnight, there's no doubt that hype began building. There's an awesome moment where we all counted down and celebrated the new year together. Truly unreal.
After the amazing rave and a midnight ice cream break, a few of us from the team decided to head down to the resting area to relax after a long and strenuous day. We spent the time (trying our best to stay awake to) watch The Murder on the Orient Express, and it's fair enough to say that that movie will have a unique moment hooked to it now. A group of six to seven people lying on the floor below a fixed meeting room table watching a movie on a TV screen. I never would've seen this coming on my bucket list, but now I've done that!
Day 2 was the last of Epoch, and it was the last stretch before the event concluded. I'd argue that the ending is just as important as any other part of an event, and this really meant it. We spent quite a lot of time talking to different teams to get to know more about their ideas. My mind still can't comprehend how bright everyone in the venue was: Flappy Bird, but the pipes move instead; a song mash-up service; a pick-up line generator; an elbow typing game. Every single team truly did live up to the theme, and I couldn't be any more proud of everyone.
When the event ended, it felt like a huge relief (in a good way). We've put our hearts and souls into making the event work, and it has concluded! Many participants were satisfied with their time at Epoch, and as organisers, we couldn't ask for any more. The team together took pictures together and sat for a nice reflective dinner to talk about the things that have happened.
Day 3 was my last day in New Delhi. My flight was to take off at night, so I had the entire day to spare. I didn't really know that it was now a free-and-easy thing for everybody, and only realised that it around midday. I tagged along with Gaurav and Aryan and stopped by the nearby mall, but decided there was nothing much. We did stop by a Timezone though, and there were a few cool-looking VR games that we don't have in Timezones here! I went back to the venue with Aryan soon after and helped him pack up stuff up till night when it was time for me to go. Fun fact: I stood out near the street for around 15 to 20 minutes without my jacket(s), and I couldn't feel my fingers after that. :)
As much as I try to appreciate moments as they come and go, I always feel like I take them for granted. That day marked the day when many farewell messages were sent to our group chats and despite the monotonous tone given by text messages in general, I felt the gratitude everyone was showing. Not to mention the overwhelming roller coaster we've faced of the things we've gone through together. The event, running here and there, having dinner together; it all culminated in Epoch and it felt like it went as quickly as it was made.
My flight back was really peaceful, and there was one moment in the flight where I got really overwhelmed looking at the night sky. It brought so much calmness I just had to take some time to stare in awe (fr, teared up at how weirdly serene the moment was). As cheesy as it sounded, it's almost as if the sky's saying, "hey, look at your first trip going well!".
Epoch was an entire ride from start to finish. It did make me want to cry, in both happiness and stress. The best part of all, now that you've read the entire post: Epoch is completely open-sourced! Almost, if not entirely, everything is made available for anyone to see; be it the funding that we used or photos we've taken, you can access all of dat good stuff on GitHub.
To summarise, here's what I've learnt as an organiser from this experience:
- Clarify and never assume.
- We assumed that the venue would have projectors or screens in every room, but we turned out to be wrong and had to scramble for a compromise.
- We assumed that every leader would (a) know what their idea was when they submitted the form, and (b) would stick by it. We didn't realise (it's silly, really) that people can change their minds about their workshop ideas after they submitted the registration form.
- Background check the people you pick extensively. Another silly thing that we didn't do with workshops was to make sure the people really can make it to the event. A few of our shortlists turned out to be people who couldn't make it to the event after all because they didn't meet the entry requirements in the first place.
- Reach out early and don't be afraid to when you need to. We started clarifying with prospective leaders late and only managed to ask a few people about their ideas. This was much too little than I would've liked, and I think it was because of the little time we had.
- Be proactive in your work. I think the experience of planning could've gone so much better if we started work earlier. I've learnt now that starting earlier rather than later and, more importantly, taking action early to get the ball rolling is important.
- Set hard limits and enforce them. We were caught in the notification-recommendation-alteration hell multiple times throughout that eventually jeopardised workshops. I think that we could've done better by setting limits where we won't accept changes and keep going with what we have.
- Understand how you and your team work when under pressure. I still need to learn so much more about event-running, and me in particular shutting down at peak pressure isn't a good thing at all. I'm now aware that this is something I need to work on, so improve I shall!
As an individual exploring a new part of the world for the first time, here's what I learnt:
- Throw away all your assumptions. You're now in a different place where the way of life may not be one you're familiar with.
- Go with an open mind. Don't come in with stigmas (big no no) a fixed mindset; you're more likely to enjoy your time learning more about or even trying new things (gulab jamun!) and maybe even relearn things you kinda know (how biryani is eaten).
- Don't be afraid to talk. I've always been afraid to speak up and sometimes can't really speak up when I need to. This is one of the biggest regrets I've had with Epoch: not being a little more outspoken. I felt a little restricted (by myself, mind you) and closed a lot of doors just by not saying my thoughts out loud. This is definitely a work in progress, and I hope I'll continue to work on it. :)
- Trust yourself. This trip marked my first truly out-of-region and solo trip to another place, and therefore I didn't have anyone right out the gate. While I did have my family immediately on my phone, in the moment, it's just me physically there. I learnt to trust myself in the things I did: exploring places, interacting with people, and more.
I've learnt so much, much more than I can write, and I hope to carry it forward and do things here in Singapore too. Singapore and New Delhi are pretty different, and that just makes things much more fascinating: how people in different parts of the world in general are really different from each other. If you're reading this far, I appreciate you taking the time; this is two months in the making of writing, and I'm dumping whatever I have learnt for you and me to refer to.
Thank you for reading!