How to be a good mentor at an XR hackathon

In the last month, I’ve been a mentor/judge at two XR hackathons: the XR Game Jam in Helsinki and the XRCC in Berlin. It’s been a very pleasant experience and I’ve learned a thing or two about how it is being a mentor during this kind of event, so as usual, I want to share my learnings with you. I will focus in particular on my experience at XRCC, so in the end, I will also tell you how this event has been since many people asked me about it.

Help as many people as you can

xrcc mentoring development
Helping one of the teams of the hackathon (Image by XRCC)

Your job as a mentor of a hackathon is about helping people. That should be your mission for the duration of the event. You must have the mindset of being there to be supportive of people and to try to help as many people as you can. At XRCC, I was the mentor in the Apparel track sponsored by Puma: theoretically, I should have just supported the teams that were doing projects in that track… but as an Italian, I’m not very into respecting the rules, so I just went around the venue asking a lot of the other teams if they wanted help or support.

It was great to see that at XRCC many of the mentors had this helping attitude: Daniel Sproll, Christian Steiner, Roberto Coviello, Gabriele Romagnoli, and many others were always going around and helping the teams. They have shared a lot of knowledge with everyone that needed that.

Expect technical questions, but also logistic ones

xrcc developers at work
Some people at work creating VR applications (Image by XRCC)

As a mentor, it is not requested that you know everything on the technical side: for instance, I’m an XR Unity developer, and some teams were using Unreal, and one of my teams was even using native Apple tools to develop for the Vision Pro. You shouldn’t be anxious about it: no one knows about everything. Still, if you have been chosen as a mentor, most probably you have some hard skills, and you should try to help developers when they are stuck on a technical problem. But you are not requested to have an answer for every question. And if you don’t know the answer yourself, you can help by looking on Google, or asking another mentor to support you. It was great when Valem VR arrived (yes, the guy making those amazing VR tutorials) and he started speaking with the various teams about the deep technical problems they were having and pointing them to some videos he made on those topics. I myself didn’t know about some things, and he was great at helping in my place. As mentors, you are a team, so supporting each other is important.

Remember anyway that you don’t get only technical questions: many people will start asking you logistical questions about the deadlines, the submission portal, the evaluation process, etc… So if you can, read as much material as you can about the organization of the event so you can help the teams also on this side. I admit I haven’t been very good in the beginning with that, because coming from AWE, I didn’t have much time to read all the materials I’ve been given, but as soon as I understood it was important, I tried to inform myself about everything. And if I didn’t know an answer, I again asked the other mentors or the organizers.

Give project management advice

underpromise underdeliver
This should be the motto of every hackathon

Yesterday I published a cool post with the management lessons that’s Daniel Sproll taught us during the XRCC event. The lesson about defining your scope of work is the most precious one you can give during a hackathon. I’ve discovered that the job as a mentor is not only about giving technical advice but is even more about giving management advice.

This is because during a hackathon everyone wants to do something super cool and superambitious and they often do not realize how 2 days pass very fast. You have to be there and remind them that the time is very limited, so they should focus only on a few important features. A piece of advice I gave to almost every team was to work at first on a shippable version with very limited features (just the fundamental ones) and then, if there was time, proceed to add additional features in versions 2, 3, or 4. This way, even if the time ran out, they still had something to deliver.

xrcc developers at work
Everyone was crazy busy trying to deliver the best application possible (Image by XRCC)

You must make people be realistic about the time they have and as Daniel says, make them define very well the scope of work for the 2-3 days they have and do not try to overdeliver.

Trust me, this will be one of the most important parts of your job: just to give you a little insight, no one thanked me after the event for having solved some of their technical issues, but a few teams thanked me for having helped in staying on track time-wise.

Be the cheerleader

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Me celebrating on stage with the winners of the Puma track (Image by XRCC)

A hackathon is always very stressful: it’s a 2-3-day crunch, where everyone sleeps very little (if he sleeps at all) and works like hell to deliver the application. It’s not unusual for teams to get stressed, lose hope, or have moments of discomfort. So you must bring some good mood to them: try to smile, make some jokes, bring some enthusiasm. If needed, tell them about some moments of your life when you had a bad crunch and you succeeded in delivering. If you truly like what they are doing, tell them they are amazing.

We are all humans and being in a good mood is important, so try to bring some happiness to all the teams you speak with. I did this because it’s in my natural attitude to do so, and in the beginning, I had the impression that people looked at me like a weird guy that came smiling and making jokes for no reason. But actually, after the event, a few teams thanked me for what I did, because they told me I was able to bring some good vibes when they were all getting too stressed.

Show yourself every few hours

christian steiner
Christian Steiner was another one of the mentors (Image by XRCC)

The teams that are working of course want to have their own freedom and wouldn’t appreciate you being constantly behind their shoulders. At the same time, you must be there, and you can not disappear forever. So, in my opinion, the best compromise is to show up there every few hours (e.g. 4 hours). I was used to starting in the morning and leaving the venue late in the evening. Every few hours, I did a tour of the various teams, asking them if they needed help. Of course, in case someone needed my help between the various tours, they knew where to find me and could ask me to come and support them. But I’ve seen that many teams didn’t directly ask for help, so it was important to be proactive and go there and ask myself if they needed support.

In the time between your various tours, you can do whatever you want. I suggest to do the following things:

  • Working, if you have some tasks to do for your daily job
  • Networking: connect with the other mentors, with the sponsors, etc…
  • Chilling: have fun, eat something, etc… Remember that you should not work 24 hours a day, so it’s good to relax sometimes

The last moments are the most useless ones

xrcc developers at work
Everyone rushed, and in the end, almost all teams delivered something (Image by XRCC)

The last day at XRCC the delivery was at 11 am. I arrived at the venue before 9.30 am, with the desire to give people help during the last sprint. Actually, I felt myself to be totally useless at that time. The thing is: at the last minute people have either already finished their application or already given up. The only support you can give is to tell them where to upload the build package or to give them information about the judging process. This means that if you want to help people during the final rush, you have to do it 4-6 hours before the delivery at last.

Have your own style

julian trailer park boys
Julian from the series Trailer Park Boys. He holds a drink in his hand the whole time (Image by Everett Collection)

Every mentor has its own style, do not try to emulate the others. I remember Valem being super professional and helpful at the deep tech level, while I was a mix between a cheerleader, a developer, and a project manager. I also always went around with a drink in my hand, as if I was just coming from a party… I felt a lot like Julian from Trailer Park Boys. Find your style and just go with it.

Judge the teams according to the defined criteria

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The great time at Jonases, which arrived 2nd in the Puma track (Image by XRCC)

I was not only a mentor, but also a judge of the applications in the Puma track. Being a judge is very difficult because you have followed all the teams, you know the effort everyone put into the delivery, but you have to choose who wins and who loses.

My advice is just to detach yourself a few minutes from all your sympathies and to try to evaluate the products according to the judgment guidelines. The guidelines are very important to determine who wins: different guidelines may determine different winners. For instance, in XRCC we had four criteria to evaluate the applications, and the technical innovation was just one of the four, with another one being the packaging of the whole delivery. This meant that a super innovative application delivered as a buggy demo with a crappy trailer would have had the same final score as a boring plain application delivered in a polished way and with a fantastic trailer. It does not matter if you think this is fair or not, this is how judgment happens in all the competitions: just stick to the criteria and be objective in your evaluation. Sometimes the team you prefer in your heart will lose, but that’s part of the game.

Not everyone will agree with the judgment

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The Stitch team which won in its category. Everyone agreed it was a great application (Image by XRCC)

After the ceremony, I saw many teams being happy about having won, but also some teams being frustrated for having lost. I have myself being asked for explanations about why some teams had lost even if they had a great application or a great idea. That’s part of the game, too: when there is a personal judgment, someone will disagree with it.

The only thing you can do is to be very honest with people: stay calm, and explain to them that their project was great, but that following the evaluation criteria, other teams had a higher score than them. Explain also to them that evaluation is a personal matter and some judges are more fond of technical innovation, while others are more into commercial viability, and this influences their decision.

Network as much as you can

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There were a lot of amazing people to meet at the event (Image by XRCC)

Hackathons are a fantastic moment to meet new people. So try to connect with as many people as you can, and use Linkedin as if there was no tomorrow. Start by connecting with the other mentors (maybe in the future you will do some projects together), then with the sponsors (maybe in the future they may be your customers), and also with the participants. I was pretty surprised to see that participants in hackathons may be very high-level individuals: at XRCC I met people from Netflix, HTC, and PlayStation. I was even afraid of being the “mentor” of people from such important companies. As I always say “The network of people you know it’s one of the greatest assets you have”, so network as much as you can.

Remember that connections at events are not only about talking business and shaking hands. That’s a good start, but then you truly become friends with people during the parties. This leads us to the next point…

Work hard play hard

xrcc afterparty
Two boiz having fun during the event’s afterparty

There are moments to be serious and moments to have fun. When you have to mentor your teams, you have to give them the best advice you can and be professional. But when it’s time to relax and party, well, just have fun. Eat, dance, play. At XRCC there was table tennis and table soccer and I spent a lot of time there playing both with the mentors, the organizers, and the participants. I’ve become friends with many people by playing (quite bad) ping pong.

Waiting my turn to play ping pong… (Image by XRCC)

We are humans, we like to connect as people, not just as professionals, so use some moments to just have genuine fun with other people. It’s important for networking and it’s important also to have great memories of the event you have just been part of.

And if you are a bit crazy like me… don’t be afraid to show it!

Bonus question: How is the XRCC hackathon?

The XRCC venue (Image by XRCC)

This was the first edition of the XRCC and many people asked me how was it. Well, I say this very honestly: I think it set a high bar for future XR hackathons to compare with.

Dinesh and Anna Punni did an amazing job in organizing everything in the minimum details. In some other hackathons I’ve been part of, the rooms were overcrowded, there was not enough food, there was not enough to drink and people had to survive like Bear Grylls in the forest by killing insects and drinking their own urines. At XRCC we had every day for lunch and dinner an ethnic buffet that seemed coming from the Hilton Hotel. We had free soft drinks all the time. We had the table soccer and the table tennis. We could watch the Euro 2024 football matches. We mentors had car shuttles to bring us whenever we needed to go. And the whole location was amazing. I felt spoiled. That’s why Christian Steiner and I started calling it a “glamhaton”, it was a glamour hackathon. It’s another category of hackathon with regards to the usual ones.

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The second day there was a pizza food truck baking the pizza in front of us… (Image by XRCC)

And it was not only about the glam. The mentors were great and came from interesting companies like Meta, Shapes XR, Zalando, Puma, etc… The participants in the competition were a nice mix of students and seasoned professionals. The projects that came out from the event were nice and some of the trailers were incredibly well made and funny.

The moment we all watched the trailers of the projects. There was even one about massage in mixed reality! (Image by XRCC)

I really had a great time there, both personally and professionally. If I don’t have other priorities on my agenda, I will for sure participate again next year in case the Punni gang invites me.

xrcc team
The fantastic people of the XRCC team that made this incredible event possible (Image by XRCC)

Since it was a great experience, I also would love to thank everyone that made it so cool for me. There are too many names to mention, so I’d just pick a few: Christian for being my buddy in making crazy funny things; Dinesh and Anna for being such great organizers; Jad because he helped a lot in facilitating the whole event; Abdo and Ilse for being dedicated volunteers and also for having given me such great time; Roberto for being a very nice guy I’ve been very happy to meet in real life; Jennie for being my adopted participant; Nicolas for being so supportive with the Puma teams; Gabriele for suffering with me watching the Italian football match; and then of course Daniel, Winston, Minh, all the XRCC team, all the participants, and all the others with which I spent a great time and from which I’ve learned a lot. Thank you everyone!

(Header image by XRCC)

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