Improving Long Tech Events: #4 Priority

#4 Priority: Healthier At End Of Event Than At Start

healthy livingThe #4 priority from my list of the top 13 ways in which long tech events should be improved addresses health issues. A stretch goal for long tech events should be to have everyone involved with the event feel healthier at the end of the event than at the start.

Pretty much everyone would agree that’s a worthwhile goal, but there are reasons it’s not a common goal and factors that make it difficult to achieve if you do make it a goal. A few of the challenges involved with HealthOut > HealthIn are:

  1. Long tech events have inherent non-healthy aspects
  2. For coding work, flow and productivity sometime result in long work sessions
  3. More expensive to incorporate healthy factors / aspects / components into an event

Inherent Non-Healthy Aspects

pizza red bullThere are a variety of non-healthy aspects inherent in long tech events. Some relate to tradition, such as pizza and snack food being typical fuel for coders. Some are part tradition and part practical application, such as using stimulant beverages such as Mountain Dew or energy drinks like Red Bull, or eating pizza and a variety of non-nutritious snack food. The practical application of stimulants is that they are felt to help the coder stay awake longer so they can work as long as possible on their programs. Pizza and junk food snacks are handy for eating while you’re at your computer, continuing to try and figure out why it doesn’t work correctly.

Other unhealthy aspects simply come with the territory. Because tech people are knowledge workers, much of their work is done while sitting at a desk (or standing at a desk, these days), spending almost all their work hours indoors, and often working for tech work desksseveral hours at a time on one focused task. A tech worker rarely gets much physical exercise doing their job. Many tech workers are salaried, so their managers often expect them to work longer hours — more work time for no increased cost.

Many coder or other tech jobs involve solving new problems, rather than learning how to do one task, then repeating it over and over. And over. So at a hackathon and some other tech events, the participants are often trying to figure out how to solve a new problem, and they are sometimes trying to figure out at the same time how to use new tech tools, like a new API (application programming interface) or a new language, library or function. Innovation in software, computing and technology has been practically nonstop for the past thirty to fifty years. And that innovation means new hardware, software, firmware and services that tech people have to figure out how to use.

Being knowledge workers and using tools that are continually changing means that creating worthwhile tech products and solutions will be difficult work that takes long hours. That’s just something that’s in the DNA of a hackathon or an interesting participant-driven tech event.

Flow And Productivity = Long Work Sessions

An issue somewhat specific to long tech events which involve coding sessions, such as hackathons, is the concept of flow and productivity. Joel Spolsky describes it this way:

“…knowledge workers work best by getting into “flow”, also known as being “in the zone”, where they are fully concentrated on their work and fully tuned out of their environment. They lose track of time and produce great stuff through absolute concentration. This is when they get all of their productive work done…With programmers, it’s especially hard. Productivity depends on being able to juggle a lot of little details in short term memory all at once. Any kind of interruption can cause these details to come crashing down. When you resume work, you can’t remember any of the details (like local variable names you were using, or where you were up to in implementing that search algorithm) and you have to keep looking these things up, which slows you down a lot until you get back up to speed…”

What this means is that many programmers are the most productive when they can work uninterrupted for hours at a time. When they are trying to design an app or a large chunk of code, and they finally develop a clear picture in their mind of how it will work and what all the parts are, the last thing they want to do is stop because it’s time for supper, or because the non-programmers want to go to their home or motel to go to sleep.

Expensive To Help Tech Workers Be More Healthy

dollar sign greenMost employers are not going to pay their tech employees to exercise during work hours, and most employers won’t provide their sedentary workers alternative services, such as massage, yoga, or t’ai chi, to compensate for the lack of physical exercise in their normal job duties. Because providing these services was neither necessary nor traditional in the pre-computer world of business, most companies are reluctant to spend money now to keep their tech workers healthier unless someone can demonstrate that it will definitely save the company money to do so.

Traditional conferences have likewise not seen the need to spend money on health-related services for conference attendees, other than providing meals. And the meals have generally been the type of food that was easily provided by conference facilities, was acceptable to most attendees, and didn’t cost too much. Twenty or more years ago, conferences didn’t offer much in the way of alternative meals, and the nutritional value of the meal was not it’s most important attribute. Snacks were usually some type of cookie or dessert and soda or coffee.

Providing fresh, healthy good-tasting food choices for a wide variety of dietary needs for a medium to large group is challenging in terms of planning, logistics and costs. Even if cost is not an object, there are still the issues of (1) obtaining and coordinating the meal, beverage and snack choices of each person involved in an event, and (2) finding a vendor who can provide that wide variety of nutritious and good-tasting food when and where it’s needed.

Blog posts I’ve read about hackathons were part of the inspiration (in addition to my own experiences) for putting healthier events as an item on the “improvements needed” list. Two posts which were particularly explicit about health were from Brian Chang and Alex Bayley.

Brian said hackathons are physically unhealthy.

“…Hackathons span anywhere from a day to a week in duration…junk food is provided for sustenance. Coffee, pizza, and chips are the staple at hackathons. Occasionally, the organizers do a great job and offer healthier alternatives. But, these merely supplement instead of supplant the stereotypical programmer’s diet catered at these events…encourages sleep deprivation. In addition to all the provided stimulants, hackers are encouraged to work through the night. Sure there may be reminders that you should sleep when tired, but why a 24-hour event instead of a 12-hour one then…”

Alex likewise said typical hackathons have major shortcomings in health and nutrition.

“…I’ve been to a few of these events, and I’ve never yet felt like I didn’t come out of it less healthy than I went in. Speaking for myself, I like daylight, moving around, eating lots of veggies, and drinking lots of water. I work at a standing desk part of the day (looking out the window at trees and birds), take lots of breaks to clear my mind and move my body, and usually make lunch with homebaked bread and something from my garden. I also like getting a good night’s sleep…”

Another reason for focusing on health is I’ve been working with some people to develop a healthcare innovation unconference. And it seems to me that the last thing I’d want to do as an events wrangler would be to help put on a healthcare unconference that was unhealthy for the participants…

Options For Healthier Long Tech Events

Before I list some ideas for having a healthier long tech event, I’ll restate the overall goal for the #4 priority in improving long tech events:

healthier at end than start

Even if this isn’t exactly how you look, it’s how we want you to feel!

We want everyone involved in the event to feel healthier when they leave the event and head home than they did when they walked in the door at the start of the event.

I am in no way an expert, or even moderately knowledgeable, about nutrition and health, so the options listed below are just a few starting points. For the next long tech event I get involved with organizing, I plan to get people much more knowledgeable about relevant topics to help me find the most cost-effective way to provide a positively healthy event. Also, most of the items below focus on physical health rather than mental and emotional, although I realize good physical health contributes to mental and emotional health. More ideas for mental and emotional health are needed for this list.

[the list below will be updated as I get feedback and come up with additional items]

Focus on Physical Health

  1. t'ai chiMassage, shiatsu, yoga, t’ai chi, breathing workshop, scheduled group or individual walk times, other physical or physical-mental sessions or opportunities
  2. Nutrition and health improvement focus
    1. Information about food at event
    2. Nutritious sponsor meals, beverages, and snacks, including demos for healthier food and beverages, e.g. juicer, cast iron cookery
    3. Involve local organic food stores, CSAs, organic farmers
    4. Swag includes toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, healthy breath fresheners, organic lip gloss, antibacterial gel, organic hand cream, healthy soap
    5. Namaste greeting or fist bumps
    6. Air purifiers
    7. Face masks and healthy cough drops and whiskey-honey cough remedies
  3. Meals
    1. healthy foodVegan
    2. Vegetarian
    3. Gluten-free
    4. Highly nutritious regular meals, non-red meat, heavy on fresh fruits and veggies
    5. Nutritious salads, e.g. chef
  4. Snacks
    1. Nuts — cashews, almonds,
    2. Fruit — fresh and dried
    3. Cheese with Triscuits and other nutritious crackers and breads
    4. Popcorn
    5. Yogurt
    6. Date Bran muffins
  5. Beverages
    1. Water w/ lemon wedges and ice available
    2. Stainless water bottle swag item for everyone, with provisions for initial washing / cleaning
    3. Variety of high quality coffee and tea; suggest participants bring own caffeinated beverage if they want something other than tea or coffee
    4. Other non-stimulant “energy” or “refreshing” beverages (research the topic)
    5. Lemonade
    6. Coconut water, or similar water-alternatives
    7. 100% juices, incl V8, organic, POM, Orangina, etc
    8. Freshly-juiced juice
    9. Healthy non-US beverages
    10. Organic milk, soy milk, almond milk
    11. Fairlife (, created by a farmer who used a filtration technology to increase protein content, decrease sugar content and remove lactose from milk. It ultimately became a co-venture with Coca-Cola, who launched Fairline milk and milk products. They developed a drink that boosts the benefits of the milk (protein and vitamins), while removing the extra sugar and maintaining a great taste. (
  6. Sleep
    1. Provide dark quiet areas for napping and sleeping
    2. Provide non-harmful sleep enhancers, e.g. white noise
    3. Help facilitate low-cost off-site sleeping options for those who want that
    4. Schedule evening small group activities off-site at a location where people can go to sleep when small group activity ends
    5. Allow marathon coding or working sessions, but minimize the “penalty” or negative impact on people who chose to get their normal amount of sleep

Focus on Mental and Emotional Health

  1. Guided group meditation sessions
  2. Provide simple to-do checklist for event
    1. Satisfaction of checking off a significant number of standard items so you see accomplishment and progress
  3. Pictures with new friends
  4. pine forestParts of event enhanced by music, sound, aromas (see “Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning“)

I hope this incomplete list of health ideas will spark other ideas for your next long event. The three challenges to incorporating these into events will be (1) identifying the appropriate combination health contributors to use, (2) getting sponsors to cover the health contributor costs (in-kind or monetary donations), and (3) fitting into the schedule health contributors which will take time away from activities which would otherwise be squeezed into the schedule.

To your health — Live long and prosper!


Posts in this “Improving Long Tech Events” series:

Making Long Tech Events Better
Improving Long Tech Events: Priorities
Improving Long Tech Events: #1 Priority
Improving Long Tech Events: #2 Priority
Improving Long Tech Events: #3 Priority
Improving Long Tech Events: #4 Priority
Improving Long Tech Events: #5 Priority
#6 Priority: Follow-Up For Greater Impact
Priority #7: Storytelling & Documentation
Improving Long Tech Events: Priorities #8 – #13


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