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Li Chen

Operations at Major League Hacking

Li Chen runs operations at Major League Hacking or 'MLH' for short, which is the official student hackathon league powering over 150 hackathons each year in North America and Europe. Li has been an avid reader of Ways We Work for some time now and reached out wanting to see more people in 'behind-the-scenes' roles, so I was curious what was involved in operations management for a team that organizes events on an international scale. Li shares some of the challenges, how she's navigated her career so far and some of her process in her daily work.

Tell me about what you do?

I run operations at Major League Hacking (MLH), the official student hackathon league that powers over 150 hackathons each year in North America and Europe. We work closely with student hackathon organizers from day zero to help them put on the best possible hackathons. My role is mainly making sure the trains run on time. If I had to describe what I do day-to-day in one sentence I'd say my role is basically filling in the holes before anybody sees them [laughs].

What does your role look like with Major League Hacking?

A huge part of the job is event production. We provide a pallet worth of hardware to our sanctioned events, such as Dell and Alienware laptops, Oculus Rifts, Myos, Pebbles...etc. My team and I are also onsite to help organizers, hackers, and sponsors. I make sure flights are booked, event photographers are hired, prizes are ordered, and pallets are scheduled to arrive at each event. On a busy weekend, we can have up 7 events in the US alone. That's the event production side.

Then there's the day-to-day operations that can range from reviewing a high school hackathon’s event budget sheet, to sending MLH t-shirts and stickers to a hackathon in the Philippines. No two days are the same.

“To me, self-doubt is this little monster that lives in your head, and you can't kill it, so you need to learn how to put it on a leash and take it for a walk.”

What are some of the current challenges you face in your work?

One of them is definitely scaling - which is a good problem to have for a startup - but as we scale we're trying to determine how we maintain the quality. We doubled the number of sanctioned events last year. We’d have maybe two events every weekend and now five is the average. As we double, the challenge is making sure we maintain the 'level of excellence' as the team calls it.

Communication with the rest of the team is a big part of achieving that. I'm never afraid that we won't get everything done for an event, I know that we will, but my fear is if it will get done to the level that we set for ourselves.

What are some of the tools that you use regularly in your work?

Workflowy - To-do list with bullet points and you can click deeper and deeper into different levels of the list.

Gmail - We have a business account set up with the Google Apps ecosystem so I use that a lot.

Slack - Our main form of communication with the team. We have a team in Europe and Mexico so that's really helpful.

Google Calendar - I can't live without this!

Evernote - I use this for things that don't have a strict deadline necessarily but that I need to reference later.

Worklife - It syncs with your calendar and sends you little reminders of upcoming meetings.

“I got too comfortable at my previous job. It was a hard decision but I put in my notice without a backup plan. I wasn't learning anything new so I pulled the trigger without another gig lined up.”

Do you find it important to stay on top of trends? How do you go about doing that?

For me hardware is of course a big area of interest, we definitely want to stay up to date with hardware and make sure we're providing access to the latest hardware at our events.

On a more personal level, I've been focusing more on areas I want to improve on, writing being one them and ignoring the rest. When you go to events you meet a lot of smart people and there are times where you feel a lot of self-doubt. To me, (quoting The Oatmeal’s Matthew Inman) self-doubt is this little monster that lives in your head, and you can't kill it, so you need to learn how to put it on a leash and take it for a walk.

I try to really focus on what I want to achieve, even if coding is the coolest thing to be doing if that's not what I'm interested in, I don't worry about it. It's easy to get caught up in seeing all of the cool things that everyone else is doing and feel like you need to be doing those too, but it's important to focus on what you're truly excited about.

How do you manage email and all the other forms of communication?

We receive emails with all different sorts of questions and requests, if I don't know the answer to their question but I know who on my team would be the right fit to answer it, I'll make sure to cc that person and delegate it to them. Whichever ones I can handle, I handle.

I've gotten pretty good at knowing what emails are the top priority so with that it's just prioritizing. I don't really use any tools for that, I just go through and respond to each email one by one.

Our CEO made this great rule, question = Slack, to do item = email.

What does a typical day look like for you?

When I first come into the office I usually start with emails because it's a good way to capture all of the things I need to do. Then I keep track of the things I need to do on Workflowy. We ship all our items to hackathons on pallets and I coordinate drop offs and pick ups with our freight forwarding company.

There are prizes, medals, stickers, t-shirts and other event related production items. I keep track of when we need to re-order. I work closely with vendors and suppliers on that end.

We just kicked off a new season, which means syncing up with marketing and sales team on new sponsorship obligations and help communicate that with the rest of the team.

A lot of my day is being pulled in many directions - which I enjoy. It’s communicating with hackers, vendors, sponsors and then even just connecting with our community who often reaches out with questions.

Best career advice you’ve received or would give?

I'm not sure if it's career advice necessarily but one of my favourite writers Ryan Holiday said: "The future belongs to those who have the guts to pull the trigger" and I 100% agree.

I got too comfortable at my previous job. It was a hard decision but I put in my notice without a backup plan. I wasn't learning anything new so I pulled the trigger without another gig lined up.

During the time that I was unemployed, I focused on personal branding and started re-evaluating what I really wanted and that's how I ended up at Major League Hacking. So my favourite advice would be to just know when you need to pull the trigger and don’t be afraid to do so.

On your site you wrote a post about using the Five Whys to make decisions, can you talk about that?

Yes, I use that technique every single day. When it comes to decision making it's really useful. I might not always get to five whys and sometimes I might get to more than five but it's a great habit to have. A lot of times my team will say "Oh, I have this great idea! We should do this!" and I'll always start digging into the whys. It's a good reality check, even if we're doing something crazy, if it makes sense and it brings value to our community then yes, let's do it but if it doesn't then it's not worth doing. Read Li's post on using Eric Ries 'The Five Whys'

Why do you do what you do? What makes it all worth it?

Parts of the day-to-day can become very tedious and repetitive, but whenever I go to an event and the hackers or the hackathon organizers really appreciate what we do - that's a really good pat on the back and a realization that it's worth all the work we do. When hackers come up and thank you for bringing all this awesome hardware, those moments are when you realize you love what you do. The love and support from the community makes it so rewarding. Knowing that my team and I can serve more than 22,000 hackers each season and make an impact is what fuels me every day.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

I'd love to see more people that you might not otherwise hear from. People who aren't necessarily in the spotlight all the time. It's awesome to hear from founders, but maybe more people doing the "backstage" work.

I'd love to hear from someone on the team at Hello Flow! I reached out to them about providing female hygiene products at the hackathons and the founder emailed me within 3 hours and they've been really supportive. I think what they're doing is really cool and I'd love to learn what their day-to-day looks like.