New-and-improved, “What to expect when expecting to be at The Nerdery Overnight Website Challenge.” Over the years we’ve culled quite a bit of advice from web pros, nonprofits, and our own nerds alike. Every year, in an effort to help you be as prepared as possible for the 24-hour nerd-a-thon, we update this post and share it with you.
Are you a webchallenge vet? Leave your helpful hints in the comments and we’ll add them to this list for next time!
Advice for web pros
- Get your critical thinking tasks done as early in the game as possible.
- Assess risks as early as possible, too. You don’t want to be solving challenging problems at 4 AM.
- Work in small bursts. Attack something concrete for 30-60 minutes. Accomplish it. Take a 10-minute break.
Designate roles now
Designate a person who can respect everyone’s opinions and can diplomatically make tough choices when there are differences of opinion. Democracy and waiting for consensus don’t work well on short timelines. Choose the one person who you can all be angry at. Ideally, this would be your producer or your team lead. Other roles to designate:
- Server / connectivity / tech support
- Database guru
- Source control and backup master
- Back-end CMS team
- Front-end html/css integration team
- Flash / jquery / front end dev
- Design team
- Writing / content plan
- ia / wire-frames
- Special ops
Get your tools in order
- Choose your tools – server environment, dev language, frameworks, CMS, plugins, etc.
- Staying in sync with your team is critical. Consider what IM everyone will use, and email addresses. Share a list with everyone or create a mailing list. Come prepared with a platform to work on, be it a CMS or framework, and work out dev server logistics, passwords, svn/git users for all your team members.
- Go with what you know. Also, from one of our nerds: Our team made use of Nerdery’s Google Docs for info/collaboration last year, same with svn. Point is, you do this stuff every day, rely on your proven workflow and tools.
- Research what you don’t know. You don’t want to be figuring too much out the night of the challenge.
- Have an expert on your team for anything you’re choosing to use.
Have a backup plan. If that new CMS you wanted to use doesn’t work out the way you were planning, be prepared to fall back on that clumsy solution you know like the back of your hand. Be prepared to make this hard decision within a few hours of starting.
- Determine if everyone is using their own sandbox on their computer or a central server. If using a server, set it up before you get to the webchallenge.
- Get everything you plan to use running.
- Make sure everyone will be able to connect to it.
- Test / simulate if possible.
You DO NOT want to spend the first three hours of the challenge sorting through connectivity issues, getting passwords, and figuring out how to turn off php magic-quotes and get mod-rewrite working correctly in order to get your CMS running.
Back it up
- Use source control. Or, have a really good plan for making snapshot backups.
- Have one or two people on the team make local backups at key checkpoints.
- Count on someone trashing the wrong folder and deleting four hours of work at 6AM – that someone will probably be you.
Plan your attack
- Get the whole team together for the first hour to discuss your plan with the client.
- Make sure you understand their audience(s) before you begin anything else.
- Make a site map. The client will hopefully bring their ideas to get the discussion started.
- Content audit – understand what needs to be written, what images need to be obtained, where to source content for each section of the site map.
- Spend time wireframing.
- Get hosting figured out right away, get all their credentials in one place: social media logins, domain registrar info, etc. Assign someone to own this information with the non-profit.
Listen to your client. Stand with what you believe is the right solution, but if you disagree on something in these early stages, don’t be afraid to listen some more. It’s worth the time. Remember that you both want to make the best site possible. Also, LIMIT THE SCOPE! You won’t get as much done as you want. Most non-profits will shoot for the moon and be scattered on their priorities. Help them get there but also help them remain realistic on expectations for what can be accomplished.
Outside of the standard CMS and site dev, plan on tackling only 1 or 2 custom features that address a core business objective.
- Have one owner per custom feature. This is your special ops people (person).
- Failure or difficulty here should not jeopardize the rest of the project.
- Start work on your presentation right away.
- Assign a presenter.
- This is a joint effort between the team presenter and the client.
- Your presentation starts when you begin planning. The output of your planning session should be an outline for what you want to accomplish. You want to present that the next day as an outline of what you did accomplish.
- Do not start preparing this at six in the morning. You will have the effective IQ of a can of V8. Nobody cares about what tomato and celery have to say.
Advice for nonprofits
- You know your business better than anyone else, the better you can communicate this to your team the more effective your site will be.
- The faster you can transfer this knowledge, the more time your team gets to work on making things to solve your problem.
- Your team knows design, understands user experience, and has experience making successful sites.
- Send an expert that can represent and communicate your organization’s’s mission, brand, and message.
- Allow your team to choose the tools they believe will best enable them to solve your organization’s problem.
Understand your objectives
- What does your website need to accomplish? What’s your goal? What would a successful site look like / what role would it perform? Who does your site need to talk to? Clients? Donors? Volunteers? The Public? Staff?
- Rank those audiences in order of their importance with respect to the site. Who does the site need to serve: Volunteers, Clients, and then Donors or Clients, Donors, and then Volunteers. This is hard, but you need to make a decision here.
- For each audience, what does the site need to do for them? Why do they come to your site? What do they want to accomplish when they get there? What do you want to entice them to do?
Make a sitemap
- You can do this on a whiteboard or with post-its.
- Make a page for each piece of content that you can think of: home page, how to volunteer, about us, staff, location map, what we do, etc.
- Make sure you have accommodated the content that is essential to your primary audiences.
- Organize these pages into groups, sometimes it helps to start first by grouping by audience. Also try grouping it by subject matter.
Try to keep the site from being more than three levels deep. Then aim to organize things at a max of two levels deep. Can you take it to one level? Find the balance between organization and the ease with which users can find your content.
Plan your content
- Does a page include photos?
- Other than just a few paragraphs of text, are there other relevant data types to think about? Dates, youtube videos, inventory, links to other pages.
- Special pages to consider with specific logic and data: job postings, events, press releases, blogs, etc.
Find your content
- Plan on bringing everything to the event that might be edited and incorporated into the final site.
- Any content, images, or copy that isn’t brought to the event ready-to-go and awesome will need to be produced and written before it can be edited and incorporated into the site. Is this where you want your team to be spending their time?
- You might be lucky and have a word-smith on your team. It’s also possible that you’ll end up with programmers writing your homepage copy. Think about that.
- Images. Photography. Big. Beautiful. Personal. Bring them.
- Logos, and brand assets. Vector format, if possible.
Plan on participating
- You should expect to be a major contributor to your team.
- Your contribution will make the work better.
- A joint effort will be a huge motivator for all team members. At 5 AM you don’t want any team members feeling like slave labor. Your skin in the game will prevent that from happening.
- Again, you have unique and special knowledge about your organization that can only make the work more relevant.
Advice from the Judging Corner
- Listen, listen, listen to your nonprofit’s needs and objectives. The more your site’s features can reflect what your nonprofit is asking for, the better.
- The judging begins during the last hours of the 24-hour window. No, your site doesn’t have to be 100% done for the presentation, but it should be at a place where you can demo something.
- Focus on your site, not your presentation. The judges love seeing your site. Not your Powerpoint. Demo > Powerpoint. Seriously.
- Be sure to demo both the user experience and admin functions. If you’ve added custom admin features to your CMS, be sure to demo them. The judges want to know that the nonprofit can manage this site on their own.
- +1 to the Limit Your Scope advice. Judges are impressed with scope that can realistically be accomplished in 24 hours.
- Did I mention demo? Yeah, be ready to demo. Make sure you’ve got some functional site features. Enter content on key landing pages. QA your key functions. Solid demo = judge love.
Winning: Four awards result from from the judges’ scoring: Design and User Experience; Functionality; Impact; Best in Show. Scores on Design/UX , Functionality and Impact make up three-fourths of the Best in Show Award, which also includes one final important element: Launch. Teams who’ve launched* by Web Challenge Awards day will receive full marks in that category. Please be done; you’ll be rewarded. Separately, a People Choice Award will be publicly-tallied on Facebook. At Awards Night, we could have five different winners, or it could be a clean sweep.
*Your site will be considered launched even if full deployment is delayed by things outside your control (e.g., delayed content entry by the nonprofit or delayed sign off from the nonprofit’s stakeholders or leadership). If a site has not been deployed for reasons beyond the development teams’ control, a URL to a staging site can earn launch points.
Judges will base their scores on four things: An in-person conversation with each group at the event; a written statement about the site from the team; a written statement about the site from the nonprofit; review of either a working URL or page mockups provided by the team.
Advice for All Attendees
- Bring slippers and sweatpants! Who wants to be wearing jeans at 3am?
- Load up on Free Buzz Aeropress, regular or iced.
- Drink lots of water and remember that at 3AM you might not be as productive as you wish you were, and that’s okay. Patience is key. Try to relax, enjoy it, and be satisfied with whatever you’re able to accomplish.
- Bananas help keep you awake and focused. True story.
- Plan a ride home afterward. You don’t want to drive after being up that long.
- Bring a toothbrush and deodorant, so you can get all prim and proper prior to our presentation.
- Bring Chapstick, Burt’s Bees, or whatever your lip balm of choice is. Trust us, you’ll be happy you did.
- There will be a “crash room,” lights out and quiet. It will have two twin-sized air mattresses up for grabs, or you can curl up on the floor. Some nerds are bringing sleeping bags (others choose to curl up in the entrails of a ton-ton).
Nine out of ten nonprofits who’ve experienced this annual 24-hour event will tell you they won the lottery – and that their team of volunteers was the best of the bunch. And we’re doing everything we can to raise this success rate. With input from past participants combined with our own experience as event organizers, we endeavor to set teams and their nonprofits up for a successful slumber-less party.
Nonprofits selected are not guaranteed a new website – one that launches without a hitch, 24 hours after meeting their team. This rare opportunity is just that: an opportunity for nonprofits to have 8-10 interactive professionals at their disposal for 24 hours. Were the meter running for a typical team, their fee would range in neighborhoods near $20,000-$30,000. Instead, volunteers are motivated by friendly competition and geeky goodness.
In an effort to form more perfect unions, we ask applicants – nerds and nonprofits – to agree to a social contract, and to each their own pledge:
Nerds: If my team is selected, I’ll do my best to deliver a good outcome for whatever nonprofit we are assigned to serve. If my team feels our designated nonprofit is asking for more than we can reasonably accomplish in 24 hours, we’ll adjust their expectations – and our scope of work – accordingly. My team will involve our nonprofit in key development and design decisions en route to delivering an interactive product that will further their mission and online presence. I will honor my team’s stated and agreed-upon commitment of ongoing support for our nonprofit.
Nonprofits: If my nonprofit is selected, I’ll treat my volunteer team with due respect during and after the Challenge, knowing that they’ve similarly pledged to do their best to deliver a good outcome for us. If my team of volunteers feels that we, as their designated nonprofit, are asking for more than they can reasonably accomplish in 24 hours, we’ll limit our expectations – and their scope of work – accordingly. I will provide collaborative input into key development and design decisions en route to creating an interactive product that will further our mission and online presence. I will honor my team’s stated and agreed-upon commitment of ongoing support for our nonprofit.
All together now, Kumbaya – in the key of Hard Day’s Night. All who enter into this do so with the very best of intentions. When people invest their time and talent toward a common cause, it’s incredibly gratifying to see it all come together, and ultimately, make a difference in the community. But you can’t just fill a blender with nerds and nonprofits, hit puree and expect a delicious smoothie, every time. In the end, the surprise isn’t that sometimes participants don’t spark a needy-nerdy love connection, but how overwhelmingly often they do.
We do not require that teams make a commitment statement of post-event support. We provide a framework for service, if teams want to take that and adopt a nonprofit as a long-term service project, that door is open. We’re not trying to shape a team’s service – we provide the opportunity for teams to do that for themselves. Having a team draw up a scope-of-work as part of their initial discovery hours is a great idea. We’d much rather that every team have a small scope-of-work that they can reasonably complete in 24 hours. We actually tell that to teams. A lot.
Since The Nerdery Overnight Website Challenge began in 2008, volunteers from throughout the interactive community have freely given millions of dollars worth of professional services to nonprofits. The late great Luke Bucklin would probably still call this just a good start. Right again. This science experiment of mixing needy with nerdy is working, but it’s forever a work in progress.
Advice from The Hooded Do-Gooders.