Juri -running a hackerspace
republished with permission from juri_ from http://faikvm.com/running_a_hackerspace.txt, 2021-08-09
Running a Hackerspace
Orchestrating in a hackerspace has four goals:
- Improving the technical skills of the members and guests. (we need more hackers!)
- Improving member and guest interaction (building a community).
- Improving the infrastructure of the hackerspace (fix all of the things).
- Showing the members and guests that through application of their skills, they can help themselves, AND improve the world.
As an instructor, you have to balance all four of these goals. Too much of any one of them, and people will be disempowered, not learning enough for their tastes, etc. Additionally, you have to be cheerful enough and helpful enough to keep people coming back for more.
Common Human Interactions
People who show up to your class will divide into a few rough classes:
- I have a broken thing, help.
- I want to learn <subject>.
- I want to help others learn <subject> / I like hanging out with people.
- I am here for this machine (why doesn't it work like i want)?
I have a broken thing, help
It is likely that people will show up with some sort of technical problem. This is fine, and to be expected. Scope the problem, and determine whether you can reasonably help the person figgure it out in a session or two, while still attending to others. Encourage volunteers to help solve the pnoblem so that you don't end up tied down. Try to make the person with the problem help themselves. You are not responsible for fixing their thing, but for helping them fix their thing. Feel free to remind them of that frequently. If there are steps you know are too complicated for the person who has the problem to follow, and they have too high of a chance of failure, do that part for them, but have them do a similar step to a thing in the space. For instance, if someone comes in with a laptop with a broken screen, and either has a screen to replace it, or you have one on a 'junk' laptop, feel free to have them tear down a junk laptop (not the one with a donor screen), while you replace the screen in theirs. keep the same pace as they do by attending to the other people who showed up. The idea is for the guest that needs something to develop the skills so the next time they have a problem, they can do it themselves.
I want to learn <subject>
People who show up to learn might be expecting a more 'multicast' class, with an instructor, lesson plans, reading material, etc. Make it clear that this is not that, but you're glad to explore whatever subject they want to learn with a group of a few others, toward some goal inside of the space, or outside of the space. For instance, if someone wants to learn microcontroller programming in general, show them around how microcontrollers are used in the space. see if you can entice them into working on either reproducing (and hense, documenting) something that has been done in the space, or improving what is there. If they're not interested in how their subject and the infrastructure interact, that's fine. ensure they have all of the tools for self-study (a laptop, a programmer, a selection of microcontrollers in this example), and that at no point are they blocked to the point of frustration. Check in regularly, and try to steer groups of people interested in near-by subjects to one another.
I want to help others learn <subject> / I like hanging out with people
Some people are just there for the atmosphere, and to talk about technology with others. When these people are engaged, helping others, or even just engaged in random chitchat, they add to the atmosphere that brings them, and others. People who show up and just help others all night are a real blessing, and will lower your burden immensely. cherish them. Be wary of individuals that just talk all night, and serve as nothing but a distraction to others. If someone seems to wander that way, take extra effort to engage them in helping others, or solving some 'simple' problem in the space. Feel free to politely remind them that this is not just a social club, and that you do need help in maintaining the machinery, and in teaching others. Asking someone to explain a difficult concept to someone else may work well, because they get to speak to what they know, and others get to learn, instead of just being distracted.
I am here for this machine
A hackerspace is a place filled with all sorts of machines, and people like to show up and just use those machines. Unfortunately, they commonly have unrealistic expectations of these machines, or worse, perfectly realistic expectations, and machines that have been unloved by a series of people just interested in their thing, never interested in maintaining the machine. This results in people dialing up laser power instead of cleaning mirrors, leaving messes on the CNC machine, and other such asocial activities. When an infrequent guest shows up to use a machine, try to get one of the others who are present to help them. this helps more regular guests build up their skills with the machines, and lowers your burden. Try to develop documentation for each machine, and store it both on the wiki and in paper form, next to the machine. This will have a hard time staying up to date, but bringing it up to date, and making machines work can result in people taking a sense of ownership of machines.
Ideal Circumstances / Random ranting
Running a room in this fashion requires a lot of time on your feet. expect not to have time to sit down. Checking with people constantly, and going to them when they have trouble is a lot of moving. Make sure there's food and drinks, because people will be hungry.. and you don't want people snappy because they haven't eaten. Music is helpful. apply lots of light.
Keeping people from being blocked, and moving toward a technologically progressive goal is your highest priority. Frustration spreads like a gas, and wears on the nerves of everyone.
The overall goal is to keep everyone working happily on something that's difficult enough to be interesting, but not too difficult. Idealy, people form small groups, and can work within those groups. solving problems as a group is more important than getting a thing done for the space, as the group will build commutiny, while a space is just a building filled with things. The people are the valuable part of a hackerspace. Getting them to work well together gives a space much more life than a new lasercutter.
There will be plenty of nights where you get to get nothing you want done. This is normal, but frustrating. Comfort yourself in the knowledge that you're learning as fast or faster than the people in the room. People expose you to new ideas, and show you what works and what doesn't, without you having to put in the hours.. or at least, with you putting in your hours in the form of orchestrating the space.
You will run into all kinds of people, ranging from difficult, to in serious need of mental health services. Your space is not a mental health provider, and if someone is being too difficult, asking them to leave is appropriate, for the sake of the people in the space. Don't be afraid to call law enforcement, if things look like they may get violent.
Some minorly crazy people are great assets, but still take a lot of work. again, expect to get nothing done if the 'wrong' person walks into the door. try to weave people into the tappestry of the space and keep the peace. some of them stick, and are truely appreciative of the effort. they'll show it through doing great things, maybe even long after you're gone.