Hackathon at Convening Leaders ‘A Beautiful Chaos’ 


Seven teams pitched their solutions to a business industry challenge during a hackathon at Convening Leaders 2019 in Pittsburgh. (Jacob Slaton)

By Ascend Integrated Media and Betsy Bair

Seven teams went head to head in Sunday’s hackathon at PCMA Convening Leaders 2019, where they worked to solve a business events industry challenge and then pitch their solution to a panel of judges. Team #knowthyself made up of Jennifer Braun, National Association of Realtors; Shira Brandt, Corinthian Events; Nabeel Hasany, Rotary International; Jessica Pearce, National Investment Center; and Indre Rutkauskaite, CIMGlobal, received the highest score. Each member of the team walked away with bragging rights, as well as seven new solutions for learning experience design, four to five friends for life, and an extra $200 in their pockets.

The challenge? “How might PCMA ensure sticky learning at the Education Conference in June 2019 to remain relevant and attract a diverse audience?”

This year’s winning idea from #knowthyself was the recommendation to introduce a quiz at registration time that determines attendees’ learning style preferences and helps organizers create and target more appropriate content.

PCMA’s popular pre-conference event is a one-of-a-kind experience in which attendees experience firsthand hackathon design strategies that they can implement at their own events as they actually participate in one. Forty business event strategists and professionals gathered at the kick-off party Saturday to meet their team members and learn the ins and outs of hacking a problem.

This event was so popular that it sold out when Convening Leaders registration opened in August, said Donna Kastner, founder of Retirepreneur, who co-facilitated with Jamie Murdock, vice president of sales for Experient. On Sunday, the teams worked intently in a five-hour workshop to develop their solutions. While teams refined their pitches, Kastner and Murdock held an open house for other Convening Leaders 2019 attendees to learn tips for hosting a successful hackathon and watch the teams pitch their solutions.

“What makes this event so popular is the engaging learning experience,” Kara Brockman, PCMA education manager, said. “Attendees are curious about being a part of something new or different, and PCMA is always striving to deliver on that.”

Brockman emphasized the dual nature of the hackathon: Not only are the teams learning how a hackathon works so they can design one for their own organizations, but they’re solving a real issue in the business events industry — one that PCMA might use in the future.

Brockman served on the panel of judges, which also included hackathon veterans, Kelli Donahoe, director of sales and marketing, David L. Lawrence Convention Center, and Kirsten Olean, director of meetings, American Society for Microbiology. In fact, PCMA has implemented two ideas from last year’s Convening Leaders hackathon — one at last year’s Education Conference in Cleveland and one at this year’s Convening Leaders. The first — an “After-Chat” — provided the opportunity to speak more intimately and engage in a Q&A with education session presenters after their presentation. The second facilitated a new way of using attendee data.

Nuts and Bolts of a Hackathon

The secret to a successful hackathon is building diverse teams, and Kastner and Murdock assign teams ahead of time. From medical and conference planners to suppliers, experienced professionals, and those just starting their careers, every team member brings a unique perspective to the challenge at hand.

Teams hack away at the problem and offer a solution in just a few hours.

“Hackathons are a kind of beautiful chaos,” Murdock said. “It’s not so buttoned-up. That limited amount of time really gets your creative juices flowing. It’s a time for you to dream, think big, be innovative.”


Team #knowthyself — Indre Rutkauskaite (from left), Nabeel Hasany, Jennifer Braun, Jessica Pearce, and Shira Brandt — won the Jan. 6 hackathon at Convening Leaders 2019. (Jacob Slaton)

Up next?

Kastner is moderating a session called “Finding Solutions to Social Justice Issues from Homelessness to Human Trafficking” at 10:45 a.m. Jan. 8 in Rooms 408-410. In addition, Murdock and Kastner have authored a Hackathon Design Playbook, giving step-by-step guidelines to setting up your own. It is available free-of-charge at Experient’s blog. Find the Convening Leaders schedule.

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