Lessons learned from the first online hackathon with the San Diego Supercomputer Center

SDSC Hackathon online participants
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The first completely digital GPU Hackathon with the San Diego Supercomputer Center successfully concluded on May 13th, marking a new chapter in the evolution of the hackathon program. 

2020 has seen many events going virtual due to the current circumstances, including NVIDIA’s flagship GPU Technology Conference (GTC) where the keynote was delivered from CEO Jensen Huang’s kitchen; but, there was widespread concern over how to ensure the GPU Hackathon ethos and productivity was preserved in a remote digital environment. 

Working tirelessly in the weeks leading up to the event, the extended team of co-organizers brainstormed, planned, tested, and tested again to roll out the new virtual hackathon format. 

The Good: Productivity, Accessibility and Preparation

Overall, the SDSC GPU Hackathon was very well received with the majority of participants expressing their satisfaction with the amount of progress they accomplished by the end of the event. 

Skeptical at first, the teams quickly acclimated to the digital meeting space and tools to cooperatively tackle their projects with better than expected results. The Zoom meeting space not only employed audio, screen sharing and whiteboard functionality so teams could exchange information in real-time, but additional “breakout rooms” were provided to facilitate intensive collaboration sessions. Slack, a central communication hub with various channels tailored to both teams and topics, was used to manage communication from general help questions to bug reporting to project-specific coaching.

Travel time and budget constraints always play a big part in the availability of mentors and can be a limiting factor. By taking the event digital, those constraints were removed which enabled more mentors to participate. Some distributed team members were able to work with their teams across the miles--as far away as Israel and Australia. Additionally, shared and recorded presentations allowed the teams to share progress and learnings with others that were not part of the event itself, extending the learning experience.

Preparation is key to the success of any endeavor. To help explain the new format and to familiarize the participants with the entire suite of tools and resources, the GPU Hackathon team introduced a pre-event training session a week before the hackathon.  

“The training event was fabulous and made a huge difference in terms of getting people up to speed,” said Mary Thomas, computational data scientist and HPC training lead at SDSC who participated as a co-organizer and mentor. “The overview tutorials on some of the tools such as NVIDIA Nsight Systems and NSIGHT Compute, as well as bringing people together to be more comfortable with the digital environment, mentors, and flow ahead of the event really helped to overcome what would be natural activation barriers.”

The Bad: Meeting Fatigue, Time Zones and Social Networking

One of the biggest challenges to the digital event was combating meeting fatigue, commonly referred to as “Zoom Fatigue.” While this can also be an issue for in-person events, it can be felt more acutely during an all-day virtual event where participants are “tethered” to an online connection and device for multiple hours. Add to this varying time zones of some of the participants and you have a recipe for disengagement. To help keep people engaged, some teams agreed to work collaboratively and then independently at specific times. This allowed people to take needed breaks without the fear of missing out and to limit distractions and interruptions.

Social networking and cross fertilization are among the biggest benefits of the face-to-face hackathon events. By comparison, virtual events struggle more with the social interactions since participants have less opportunities to interact with teams other than their own. While the Slack channels help to raise visibility and support with challenges, issues and bugs, it doesn’t replace the synergy of being in the same location with other teams and mentors.  Additionally, the usual social event that is scheduled at physical events to help promote networking didn’t translate as well in a digital environment.

Some Helpful Hints Going Forward

Planning and executing an online event requires as much planning as a physical event, in some ways even more. One of the important roles in the scenario is that of the moderator. With this type of an online event, the moderator not only acts as a “Master of Ceremonies” but also as a motivator, advisor and support and help desk point of contact. It’s recommended to have two or three people that can act as moderators over the course of the event so that there is enough coverage, relief and accessibility.

Technical glitches are inevitable, but being forewarned is being forearmed. Understand that there will be a certain amount of “help desk” issues--from stalled access to compute clusters to not being able to enter a breakout room to trouble with audio or internet connections. While it isn’t possible to prepare for every scenario, having a plan to address some of the most common challenges that will happen from a logistics and technical support perspective will help to navigate these challenges more smoothly in real-time.

Lastly, there are a variety of options to help increase networking opportunities and ameliorate the limited social interactions during the digital event. Some suggestions for bolstering online team interaction and connectivity are: using an online gaming experience such as Cyber Sleuths or JackBox to provide some stress relief and cross-team interaction. 

For many, there may be a fair amount of skepticism about the benefits of a virtual event as compared to a physical event. While there are definite trade-offs, the most important thing to keep in mind is to have an open mind. Many key objectives, including code performance improvements, can be reached and result in a rewarding, successful event. Plan, test, try and adjust—you just may be surprised at the value you will find. 

For a complete list of upcoming GPU Hackathon events, visit https://gpuhackathons.org/events.

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