HackMakers hosts Asia-Pacific’s largest cybersecurity hackathon in Slack

Leveraging Slack channels, integrations and bots, over 2,000 hackers innovate on the future of digital security

Author: Jessica Dawson 5th January 2021Illustration by Sabrena Khadija

Every 14 seconds, a business falls victim to a ransomware attack. Globally, the cost of cyber crime is expected to reach $6 trillion by 2021. 

Enter HackMakers’ Digital Defence Hackathon 2020, the largest cybersecurity hackathon in the Asia Pacific Region (APAC). Hosted in Slack, the secure channel-based messaging platform, the event was held over 48 hours in November and supported by Victor Dominello, MP, the Minister for Customer Service in the New South Wales government. 

“We need creative geniuses like you to solve the big problems around cyber,” Dominello said to 2,297 participants in his opening speech. “If we do this right, we bake in and guarantee our future prosperity.”

Normally, hackathon attendees meet in person on a Friday for pizza and beer before digging into the challenges. “When things went online due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Slack was the only option,” says Steve Nouri, the event’s lead organiser and head of data science and AI for the Australian Computer Society

Through a mix of pre-event organisation, Slack channels, integrations and custom bots, Nouri facilitated trust, built connections and organized diverse teams to deliver strong hackathon entries and set the stage for APAC cybersecurity innovation. “We’re always looking for something outside the box, and we’re very happy with this year’s results,” Nouri says.

Building diverse teams and encouraging camaraderie in Slack

A little over a week before the event began, attendees joined a Slack workspace to start brainstorming and get acquainted. Participants were also invited to attend pre-hackathon workshops, which were posted in the #announcements Slack channel and held on the Zoom integration in Slack. 

With the workshops easy to announce, access and discuss in Slack, the event started on a collaborative note. “We had more than a couple of hundred participants for most workshops, and everyone loved it,” Nouri says.

Slack was integral to building teams, often a challenging process that requires hand-holding, even in person. “Over online platforms, it’s difficult to randomly put people together without guidance and help, so we invited everyone to join Slack channels 10 days before,” Nouri says. 

Attendees gravitated toward each other in Slack channels, some of which were as simple as #have-a-team-but-looking-for-a-member, #individual-looking-for-a-team and #hustler. “Whether you’re a designer, coder or non-technical participant, you identify yourself in Slack so everyone understands exactly where to find each skill,” Nouri says. 

They also leveraged the Donut app for Slack to introduce possible teammates and schedule virtual coffees. 

This Slack-driven strategy led to diverse groups, giving the hackathon a competitive advantage that brought higher quality outcomes for each challenge. “It’s very important in hackathons to have team diversity,” Nouri says. “It’s not uncommon to have a team of business analysts and designers who come up with an amazing idea.”

Saving time and encouraging creativity with Slack 

In addition to setting a foundation for success prior to the event, Slack channels kept things organised and running smoothly during the hackathon, including:

  • #ask-a-mentor, open for anyone to ask questions
  • #resources, where participants shared relevant news and information
  • #watercooler to share funny stories and connect on a lighter note
  • #anomaly-detection, #deepfake, #cyber-security-exploits, challenge-specific channels for each of the three categories

“The #watercooler Slack channel was a very exciting part of this hackathon: People were throwing memes and fun anecdotes in there,” Nouri says. “Everybody loved it.” 

To add a layer of creativity, attendees were asked to design custom Slack emojis, with a $250 prize for the best one. “People started to get really creative, using them as their own personal emoji in Slack,” Nouri says. 

Nouri has years of experience with hackathons, and, along with the event’s mentors, often fields repeat questions. So he used a custom Slack bot integration to streamline the process. “It wastes time when mentors have to answer the same question 200 times, so we added common questions to the Slack bot,” he says. “It’s super easy to use, so everybody wins.”

They also leveraged the Google Docs app for Slack to give participants seamless access to the hackathon guidelines and other challenge-related documents. For announcements and actions, a different Slack bot automatically piped relevant information to each attendee via direct message

Everybody was happy about the remote hackathon setup, particularly the challenge-specific Slack channels and how we leveraged Slack bots and automations to help the customer experience.

Steve NouriLead Organiser, Digital Defence Hackathon

Empowering the community to build a safer future, together

The hackathon’s mission was to find innovative solutions to bolster APAC’s digital security practices and capabilities. But it was also about bringing the community together and building cybersecurity awareness.

“Engagement is crucial,” Nouri explains, and email is too silo-ed to make the cut. “During a hackathon, you want the relationships and communication to be seamless and smooth. I cannot imagine email would get us far—because even if you have over 100 mentors available, people inevitably get left out.” 

This was especially true for younger and less-experienced attendees, who quickly get overwhelmed. “If they have ideas they can’t communicate or get reasonable clearance on quickly, we’ll lose them. To mitigate this, one of them said, ‘When I join the hackathon, I’d like to join Slack at the same time.’”

With Slack, Nouri was able to provide an intuitive platform that facilitated participation and encouraged the kind of camaraderie you’d expect during an in-person event. “We’re still digging into the retrospective,” Nouri says. “But if anything, next time we will look to introduce Slack even sooner.”

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