4 Years of Hack and Tell

I started Hack and Tell, in NYC when I started working at Meetup, back in the Summer of 2010. I wanted to know what it was like to organize a meetup, but at the same time I really wanted to solve a problem that I saw in tech meetups in general–no one was talking about anything but work, i.e., their day jobs.

As it turned out, Hack and Tell was something that others wanted, too. We grew pretty rapidly, and others outside of NYC took notice1. James2 and I didn’t care. We wanted to stay underground, and we wanted to stay true to our roots. We still do.

But after 4 years, we’ve had no choice but to evolve. When we left Meetup as our only host to expand our horizons in 2011, we were hungry. We found sponsors to buy us food, and gave them 2 minutes in return to say a few words, and do their recruiting speech. Most of them didn’t care. They saw true value just in the energy of the room, and the excitement on people’s faces.

No one recruits at Hack and Tell, not because it isn’t a perfect place to do so, or because it’s strictly forbidden, but because they’re having too much fun talking with their peers about how to help someone who gave their first ever presentation to a group of people, or talking about how cool running Lisp on an Arduino is, even if it is severely limited.

Our evolution has lead, also, to many experiments. We’ve had to turn so many people away due to space restrictions3, and we want to solve it. The first attempt was to make RSVP puzzles. They were intended to be one-liners that hackers could solve, and they were. But, non-hackers had trouble with them, and we excluded a great many people as a result.

We tried an optional puzzle, just for the hell of it. I had encrypted part of the GNU Manifesto with some silly cipher. One person cracked it, and then presented how he did it at the next Hack and Tell!

After a bunch of thinking, we still didn’t have a solution to the problem of more people on the waiting list than seats, so I came up with another idea. We’ll offer an RSVP to anyone who submits a hack to present, even if they don’t get selected4. They have to still follow the rules of course. But, despite being, now, incredibly easy (assuming you’re the kind of person who belongs at Hack and Tell, e.g., you work on stuff in your spare time, for fun) to get an RSVP no one has taken advantage of it.

This led us to another conclusion, and after watching a little bit more closely, we realized that it was indeed exactly what was happening.

RSVPs for Hack and Tell were so hard to get, that people would take one and sit on it, until they figured out if they could go or not. This is pretty unhealthy, and pretty rampant in the Meetup ecosystem, but didn’t bite us until way later than it should have. In the early days, we’d see last minute cancellations, but if you got an RSVP, you came. Now, there’s a show feel. Hack and Tell has been going on for so long that people have come to expect it. They don’t want to be active participants anymore, they want to be passive watchers, but only when it’s convenient for them.

As a result, for Round 32, we tried another experiment. We charged5 $5 to RSVP6. Something like 86 people slowly RSVPed, and we raised $362.04, which we gave in full to PyLadies. We received feedback, both positive and negative, about the experiment. Some people were concerned about sacrificing the openness that Hack and Tell has. Others, in a more positive light saw the value in ensuring people had more “skin in the game” and actually showed up. Personally, I too was worried, but from the feedback I’ve gotten after the fact, our experiment worked, and we’ve helped support an organization who does great work.

I look forward to the future of Hack and Tell. We’re still evolving, sure, but you can be sure that we’ll continue to do what we’ve always done–provide a safe haven for hackers to talk about their side projects.


  1. Berlin will surpass us in number of meetups held this year in only 3 years.

  2. James started helping out after Round 1, but I pitched him the idea before I started it. Justin Abrahms was also quite valuable in the beginning.

  3. Space is a premium in NYC, and the spaces which companies usually offer us can hold a max 100 people or so. This turns out to be a pretty good number, and maybe a magic number for a tech meetup (not sure), so it works out pretty well despite feeling small.

  4. Our criteria for selecting presenters comes down to some combination of signup time, wow factor (and selfishly, do I want to see it) and help factor (i.e. someone is either looking for help, or it’s a first project and constructive criticism might be useful)

  5. On certain occasions, we’ve asked for a donation during the RSVP process to benefit the greater good–EFF, OpenBSD, but only when we felt that organizations could use some extra good will due to important work they’re doing.

  6. But told everyone they shouldn’t feel obligated to pay unless they could. They just had to contact us for a waiver. No one did.

— 2014-08-29