The 3 kinds of Mentors Virtual Hackathons need

A brief guide for training mentors for time-constrained creative events.

Hackathon mentors are experienced individuals invited to volunteer a few hours of time to help hackathon teams (hackers) have meaningful hackathon experiences. At in-person hackathons, they may be hovering around team tables, rotating on a schedule, or placed as a hotdesk where hackers are encouraged to approach with questions. At virtual hackathons, the obscured visibility of help and support may leave the mentors’ role undefined.

Through my 3 years of experience as a participant, mentor, and judge at 17 hackathons and game jams across Southern Ontario, I have noticed that the role of the mentor is often the most convoluted and self-defined. Sometimes, this flexibility benefits rockstar personalities, but it can also disorient some mentor and the hackers, especially in online formats.

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An in-person University of Waterloo Game Jam. A game jam is where a team of individuals gather to create a playable game within a short period of time. Jams share common traits with hackathons or ideathons like working within a defined theme and rapid prototyping in a short amount of time with expert mentor support from the community.

Mentor Roles

  1. Cheerleader. In events where ideas are coming from scratch, the technical/specific help does not come up until maybe the last hours of the event. Your main role is to encourage and support the participants in coming up with ideas and trying new things. Participants who are beginners already made the first step in doing something new -coming to the event- and it is important for you to keep that drive going.
  2. Connector. If there is a specific problem or interest area, connect the participant to resources (tutorials, blogs, documentation) which they can look up in their own time. Time is a commodity at a game jam, they may not be in the right headspace to fix problems during a conversation. They may end up prioritizing other things as the project moves along too.
  3. Contributor. Sometimes there is a specific problem that needs human support and you have the ability to help. Always ask how much time you have to help and how much time they have to work on this issue together. Resist the urge to become a part of their team, and prioritize their learning over the project’s perfection. When you leave them, make sure you agree on the next steps.

These listed roles are great as guiding principles to keep mentors engaged and also to dilute some egos. Unfortunately, when you invite a group of experts to give advice, and they end up being ignored by students, the mentor’s motivations to help can be drained. Online events warrant a different type of social interaction. (Have you noticed how emojis on Slack have add so much flavour?)

The first hackathon event I attended during the pandemic was the University of Waterloo’s June 2020 Game Jam, hosted on Discord with every team having their own channel for discussion. For those unfamiliar with Discord, a channel is like a group chat with hashtags where files and thoughts can be organized. Like all chats, they take off some of the pressure of timeliness compared to a real time conversation.

Best Practices

  • Proactively check on teams; twice a day (I.e. 10am, 4pm). Leave a nice message (“Hilarious team name!”) or emoji-react to one of their posts, doesn’t have to add direct value. Social messages make participants feel connected and seen. It is unusual for players to check in with questions in the beginning, especially for the introverted and inexperienced, but it helps if they feel comfortable asking when they need to.
  • Do not impose feedback on a team, ask them if they want and have time with you at a specific time. You could say:

“I just wanted to check-in if there is anything I can help you with. Does someone from your team want to talk over ideas or roadblocks for ten minutes at 3:00pm-3:10pm? I can connect over voicechat on the <channel> or just chat in text here.”

Proposed times should be an adequate time (i.e. 30 mins) away so hackers could wrap up a task and prepare to talk with you. Also, if you have a sense a team isn’t open to discussion, just let them work their own magic -not everyone’s hackathon experience needs mentorship and that is ok.

  • Never say something is a bad idea. If they have 1 bad idea and you imply it is bad, then they will then have 0 ideas. First ask how they came up with the idea and also praise the parts you like. For example, if someone is just doing a ___ clone, ask “What are you doing differently from ___?” Then foster it. “I really like that part, can you do anything more with that?” This type of questioning, called Socratic Questioning, takes skill, but is important for mentors and teachers to pick up to prompt mentees to uncover their own ideas.
  • Offer to test their prototype. Do this a lot.

I hope this short guide can help you and your team put on a successful online hackathon experience. This guide can be especially helpful for engaging first time participants. 🎮🎲

If you want to read more about the importance of mentors at hackathons, you may be interested in a case study I authored in CHI 2020 entitled: Post-Hackathon Learning Circles: Supporting Lean Startup Development.

*This medium article is adopted from a mentorship guide I wrote for The University of Waterloo’s first remote online game jam in June 2020. This article was also written with public, student-focused hackathons in mind, but closed, workplace innovation hackathons remain an underexplored area of interest.

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Writing about Experience Research in Games & Social Issues.

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