The Secret Sauce in Workshop Placements 2019

NATC veterans may recall the debut of the Workshop Algorithm in 2017, designed, developed, and implemented by Josh Yoon (Stanford Taiko, 2013-17). The clever computer program allowed Conference Coordinator Terry Nguyen and her team to sleep at night. It's back! And poised to place a sell-out crowd into 57 Workshops over 5 Sessions. To help you understand the wonder of Workshop Placement 2019, here is a guide to this year's Secret Sauce.

The Goal

Place people in workshops they want to be in. Optimize happiness for each individual while maximizing happiness for everyone.


Happiness is a number calculated based on two pieces of information you supply. You will be asked to Rank and Rate your top 5 workshops for each session

  1. Choose 5 workshops from each Session that you like. Rank them: #1 is your top choice, #5 is your fifth choice.
  2. Rate each of your top 5 choices. Tell us how passionate you are about each one: Tell us if you are highly interested, moderately interested, or only somewhat interested in a workshop.

The Workshop Algorithm will place you in a workshop that, according to your ratings and rankings, will increase your Happiness.


Participants are randomized within a placement tier. Tier 1 = Participants who registered during March 1 - March 7 (Members-Only Registration). Tier 2 = Participants who registered on or after March 8 (Early-Bird Registration).

Within each tier, the order of participants is randomized as they are placed in workshops according to the preferences expressed in the registration form. When the algorithm proceeds to the next time slot, the order of participants is randomized again, providing the fairest access to available spaces in the workshops.

Machines are the Muscle

After all workshop placements are made, the median Happiness and standard deviation from median Happiness are calculated. The workshop algorithm, built with Python, is run repeatedly to produce one million assignment sets. Then, based on the highest median Happiness and lowest standard deviation, one ideal placement set is chosen.

Humans are the Heart

After the algorithm negotiates the numbers, it’s people who ultimately negotiate their own happiness. At NATC every participant will receive a registration packet with a ticket for four workshops. If a participant is unhappy with a workshop placement, they can go to the Workshop Swap desk at registration and trade it for one they would be happier with.