Tips for a Great Hackathon

A bit of history

Rewind a few years, 1975 to be exact. That’s when the Homebrew Computer Club, “a grassroots group of hardware hackers in the Silicon Valley who kickstarted the personal computer revolution,” met in a Menlo Park garage. Perhaps, this gathering of brilliant minds is the first building block of an “event” that over the years metamorphosed into the present-day hackathon. In 1999, the word “hackathon” was used at the OpenBSD event in Calgary and then a little later at the Sun Microsystems JavaOne conference.

A hackathon is typically defined as an event lasting up to several days in which many people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming. However, this definition has expanded to include so many more objectives outside the realm of programming. Hackathons are now focused not only on emerging technologies but also on themes such as social causes, healthcare, history, music, sports, and art.

The history of hackathons is filled with amazing stories of breakthrough concepts and products. Hackathons democratize innovation. Apart from obvious benefits such as stoking creativity, accelerating focused problem solving, learning, sharing skills, branding, employee retention, and future-proofing a business, internal (and external) hackathons bring together people and ideas to initiate change.

The increasing popularity of hackathons over the last few years has led to something of a homogenous format.

Get hackathon ready

Organizing a hackathon can be undoubtedly frenzied. Although people find the idea of a hack fest immensely exciting, putting together a winning one requires scrupulous planning and resourcefulness. Often there are so many last-minute creases to be ironed out that the event could end up becoming a dismal, confusing mess.

Hackathons are super successful and productive if done the right way and can be a complete failure or an unforgivable waste of resources, if not conducted correctly.

For a physical hackathon (offline format)

  • 6 months before the event

The first step is to identify the theme and target audience. A well-defined problem statement will define your hackathon strategy. Themes can be anything from boosting the visibility of a brand to creating a new startup to developing a new app for disaster management to designing a launch campaign. Open-ended hackathons have no specific theme and could be a good idea for high schoolers to encourage their creativity and give them an experience of the hackathon culture. Align your goal or objective and the target audience. Promote the event to the people accordingly, for example, if you are looking to hire a web designer, give the participants a problem statement that will help highlight the skills you require.

  • 4 months before the event

This is where you decide whether it is an online, a physical, or a hybrid event or whether it is public or private event, the duration, design the website, lockdown a venue, identify possible stakeholders/ sponsors/partners/suppliers once you’ve decided your budget, set the rules (e.g.judging criteria, deliverables format, IP) for the event, and decide what swag your participants will take home.

  • 2–3 months before the event

Once you finalize the initial details, it is time to formulate and communicate a well-thought out code of conduct to all attendees via the website, posters, social channels, etc. You have to find ways to recruit the best people to form the jury, coaches, speakers, and experts. You will also prepare the working environment (e.g. datasets, tools, authorizations) and the participants (e.g. workshops). Get valuable prizes ready. Promote the event (depending on the objective and target group) through targeted press releases, social media, developer evangelists, communication with startups, universities, email campaigns, etc.

  • 1 month to 1 week before the event

With just a few days or weeks left, the pace quickens and the excitement is palpable. If the event has had an idea submission phase, then finalize the entries. Finalize the speakers, mentors, judges, and caterers. Get the final headcount and arrange for transportation/stay for participants. Send reminders to attendees and ensure your social media channels and website are up to date with all details/changes.

  • Day Zero

It is time to put it all together on D-Day. Months of planning and you are finally there. Ensure you get the venue ready and check for any hardware, software issues. Launch the hackathon, attend to registration and team formation. Keep participants engaged with fun breaks and good food in between energizing and informative coaching sessions or talks. Offer customized support to participants getting ready for the demo. Once the jury assesses the shortlisted projects on predetermined criteria (e.g. originality, relevance, feasibility, sustainability), get things together for the most awaited bit of the hackathon, announcing the winners!

  • Post D-Day

It is time to keep promises and follow up after the event. After a review of the hackathon and measuring the ROI, make sure to keep the interest going with a fantastic communication campaign through blogs, videos, etc. For internal or niche hackathons, taking forward the winning solutions, instead of the usual forgetting about the product after the hackathon, is a great idea to encourage participants and enhance your credibility.

 

 FactorsDoDon’t
ThemeExplore existing verticals

Choose a broad theme as it’s likely to be less restrictive

Glorify your own product for a social/community theme

Choose a theme that’s too abstract or specific if possible

Target audienceDecide how creative and technically competent you want them to be

Communicate any specific language or skill sets required

Forget that different levels of completion also decide your participant group

Ignore the advantages of a diverse participant group

FormatSelect in-person events for developer engagement, recruiting, beta testing, solving specific business problemsSelect an offline format in case of geographical or logistical constraints
VenueFind your location based on budget, number of participants expected, requisite space, easy access, software and hardwareForget to book early and check for all kinds of fees and regulations
SponsorsUse tiered sponsorship and relevant pricing

Create value for everyone involved

Discount networking well ahead of the event to get funds from key players in the field
Code of ConductCreate a pleasant, safe, and non-discriminatory event for a diverse set of participantsBe judgmental in case of harassment complaints or reports of unfair play
Speakers, Mentors, JudgesInvite developer evangelists, university deans, celebrated subject matter experts, and local bigwigs of top organizationsExpect to have hackers be know-it-alls

Sidestep the task of conducting workshops or getting mentors /speakers

PromotionUse low-cost social media channels, outreach campaigns, PR measures, community managers, external agenciesAssume that half measures will bring in a deluge of participants because of the brand/prize/opportunity
D-DayCheck everything and do a rehearsal: logistics, venue and tech readiness, food, swag, whiteboards, etc.

Communicate rules and IP information to attendees

Expect that everything will go smooth

Leave anything—food, people turning up, power, Wi-Fi—to chance

Prizes and Follow-upEncourage short demos/pitches

Give away something to every participant

Follow up after the event

Stress too much on winning

Undervalue post-event interviews, blogs, videos

For a virtual hackathon (the online format)

If less overhead costs, a diverse set of participants, better quality deliverables, better reach and sharing, and creating a community are important to you, an online hackathon is the best format for you. Like an offline event, most steps are pretty much the same. Major tasks involved in organizing an online hackathon include:

  • Decide your theme, target audience, timing, stages (e.g. single or two (multi) phase)
  • Decide your rules (e.g. submissions), judges, sponsors, prizes, swag packs, website
  • Choose your platform
  • Engage participants (e.g. discussion walls, support desk, tools such as SDKs/APIs)and promote your event
  • Keep promises and follow up after the event

Use a hackathon management tool to effectively manage the whole process of conducting a hackathon. It should be easy for participants to create teams, access information about the hackathon, upload their submissions and collaborate with each other. The smoother is it for participants to participate, more likely it is that you get good submissions.

To avoid becoming yet another victim of Murphy’s Law, here is a quick look at the dos and don’ts of organizing a hackathon.

For internal hackathons, the nitty-gritties may vary somewhat.

  • Still, in a time-boxed scenario, employees are expected to work collaboratively to come up with novel solutions: they must brainstorm, prioritize, and make feasible prototypes and pitch their solution.
  • Management needs to ensure that the problem statement, scope, and outcomes are clearly defined. Participants should be encouraged to confidently work toward a solution without fear of failure.
  • The hackathon’s success can be determined based on the participation rate, number of ideas submitted, proportion of actionable ideas, percentage of business opportunities and/or IP-generating schemes, excellent media attention, and quantitative and qualitative insights from all stakeholders.

Conclusion

Hackathons have given way to innovation and facilitated creation of some interesting concepts (think Google and Facebook). However, if you look at the ratio of the number of success stories to the number of hackathons since 1999, it isn’t very encouraging. Despite of several happy stories, there are some highly talented hackers who refrain from attending hackathons. While some may be busy or uninterested, there are many who have not been satisfied with their experience with previous hackathons. This is something that can be remedied. It doesn’t make sense to not try everything we can to tap that genius, does it?

Whatever your objectives, participant-focused or objective-focused, hackathons are fertile events to socialize, learn, and channelize creativity to solve real-world problems. For detailed information about every stage of a hackathon, whether it’s in an office using customizable innovation management platforms or in a garage full of high-schoolers using MacBooks, download this e-book, “The complete guide to organizing a successful hackathon.”

Interested in conducting a hackathon, click here

About the Author

Vivek Siva
Learned what not to do as an entrepreneur. An optimist with a love for business, the outdoors, and movies. Superpower: Ability to smile even when all hell breaks loose. Affiliation: World of witchcraft & wizardry
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