Every year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hosts an annual hackathon, HackMIT, for students around the world. Students gathered again for HackMIT 2017 on the weekend of September 16-17, 2017. During the weekend, students form teams with other students and work on projects to compete in various categories. Participants often release their projects under open source licenses at the end of the hackathon.

The Fedora Project participated as a sponsor for the second year in a row. Justin W. Flory and Mike DePaulo attended as Fedora Ambassadors to represent the project and the community.

HackMIT and Fedora

HackMIT is for students, so Fedora mostly interacted with students. Unlike Linux conferences and expositions, many students don’t know about Fedora for the first time or have minimal experience with Linux. While there are always exceptions, many students in hackathons take part to learn something new.

Welcome to HackMIT with Fedora Project

Welcome to HackMIT!

This places Fedora in a unique position to not only introduce Fedora, but tie our project and mission into a bigger picture of open source and Linux. Our discussions and focus points are different from traditional events run around the country.

Justin and Mike tied personal experiences into conversations about Fedora, Linux, and open source with students to introduce them to our project and community.

Fedora Workstation is a hit

Fedora Workstation was the most relevant part of our exhibition table. At the beginning of the hackathon, we engaged with more students since they had not started project work yet. The simplicity of setting up a development environment often fascinated students. Python, Java, and JavaScript were popular languages among students.

For many students, the appeal of Fedora Workstation focused on…

  • Ease of development environment setup
  • Documented developer portal for working with different languages / tools
  • Becoming comfortable with a Linux distribution (generally)

We featured the Fedorator at our table. The Fedorators are new tools built at Flock 2017 that create USB installation media for anyone that visits the table. Someone inserts a USB drive into the front, and in five minutes, they have a bootable image of Fedora. However, the Fedorator didn’t get much action. It was used three or four times during the entire weekend (but it did start many great conversations – “what is this?”). However, its minimal use could be attributed to the nature of a hackathon.

Advanced use cases of Fedora

Two students approached the Fedora table with positive feedback about two unique use cases.

HackMIT "hacker arena" on the start of Saturday morning with the Fedora Project

HackMIT “hacker arena” on the start of Saturday morning

The first student used Fedora Server as a production server when he interned at a bio-technology company. There, he developed an ERP application with his team to deploy to Fedora Server. They found Fedora Server an effective compromise of working with new software and balancing it with a stable environment.

A second student approached us to explain his use of Fedora in computational biology. For a project, he utilized NVIDIA graphics cards to accelerate research and simulations. He used the CUDA platform to do this and found Fedora handled this type of work best.

Judging hackathon submissions

HackMIT invited all sponsors to take part as event judges. Justin represented Fedora as a judge and visited fourteen teams during the judging window. For all projects, participants explained the goals of their project, what their plans were after the weekend, and whether an open source license was used for their project.

Interestingly, nearly all projects already on GitHub, but few included any license at all. Justin encouraged all projects to release their code on GitHub with an open source license. He gave a quick introduction to some of the most common licenses and shared resources to help students pick one for their project. Most students were surprised to know about default copyright laws on their content, and were interested in choosing a license after they understood why it was important.

All hackathon participants we judged appeared on the Fedora Twitter and Instagram.

Takeaway from HackMIT: Again?

Ultimately, HackMIT was engaging and exciting for Fedora, but in analysis, its impact is unclear.

The audience was receptive and open-minded to discovering the project. We were the only “non-profit” or non-corporate entity at the event. This generated a lot of interest in Fedora and encouraged unique conversations because it felt students were more relaxed in talking with us (as compared to most corporate sponsors, as they were recruiting during the event). Fedora is a unique sponsor in this crowd and participants caught on to that too. In this way, it’s plausible that many students will use Fedora to experiment with Linux for the first time because of our presence.

The weak point is asking if we used the opportunity effectively.

  1. Did we effectively engage with the audience?
  2. Will participants leave the event and remember Fedora?
  3. Did any of them go on to contribute to the community after the event?

These questions are missing clear answers. Strategic pre-planning needs more effort for HackMIT.

Focusing on a post-event engagement strategy is a must for next time. Some people wanted to contribute to the project and we shared contact information, but we never heard back from them. Should we collect email addresses and have Ambassadors follow-up directly after the event? This could be a new idea to try for another event.

Whether Fedora returns to HackMIT depends on these factors. The question is whether we want to focus on a single event and try to master a process, or if we want to change to a different hackathon or event next year. If we focus on HackMIT again, we should plan for better engagement strategies next time to measure our success.

You can find another report about HackMIT 2017 from Mike DePaulo on his blog.