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Hackathons were first introduced in 1999 by OpenBSD. A few months later, Sun microsystems conducted another hackathon and took the concept forward. 16 years and several thousands of hackathons later, the history of hackathons takes pride in giving some great products to the world.
GroupMe, Docracy, Zaarly are some of the great products built at hackathons. GroupMe was built under 24 hours and sold to Skype. Zaarly another product built at a hackathon, that provides discovery of products and services from local people, is now funded with over $15 million. Docracy is a repository of legal documents.
Hackathons surely have given way to innovation and facilitated creation of some interesting concepts. However, if we consider the ratio of the number of succes stories to the number of hackathons since 1999, we do not get a very sumptuous figure.
Despite of several success stories, there are some highly talented hackers who refrain from attending hackathons. While some may be too occupied or uninterested, there are many who have not been satisfied with their experience with previous hackathons.
Where do these hackathons fail? What makes a great hackathon?
Hackathons are super successful and productive if done in the right way and can be complete failure or a wastage of time and resources, if not conducted correctly. Some things that you should keep in mind to conduct a great hackathon:
- Clear and concise objective, communicated in advance: The hackathon description must clearly define the objective. All expectations from the solution, as in what it is expected to do, if there are any conditions etc. must be established clearly in the beginning. A problem statement, objective, cause or the requisite technology communicated well in advance, gives sufficient time for planning and as soon as the hackathon begins, developers can jump straight to coding and not keep thinking.
- Theme: A hackathon must have an underlying theme, and the theme must be attractive or interesting. Hackers are more likely to be attracted to and zealous about hackathons with a social cause. Gaming hackathons are also successful in attracting a lot of creative minds.
- A good break in between: Offline hackathons are sure to attract a lot of talent. But a good break in terms of some engaging games or good food keeps up the motivation levels and makes sure that a good result is achieved. Robert J. Moore from RJmetrics says that if the times of these breaks be defined, hackers take them as milestones and are inspired to hack through each of them.
- A Deployment Process: An important metric to measure the success of a hackathon is that it gets deployed in working projects. It is a motivation factor for teams that their projects will be deployed and will be accessible for people. If infrastructure be easy, it is easier for hackers to focus on innovation. For instance, arranging server space in advance or free accounts sponsored by payment processor, will be a boost in infrastructure.
- Limit the limits: The purpose of a hackathon is defeated if participants are limited to build a product using a sponsored tool or just based on company's existing applications. A hackathon aims creative innovation and that is encumbered by these limits. Enough creative space in terms of concept and choice of tool must be provided.
- Feasibility: Hackathons are time bound competitions. According to studies, most hackers accomplish about 25% of their target in the limited time available. The goals of the hackathon must hence be defined in a manner that participants feel accomplished and not demotivated or interrupted by the time barrier. Also, expecting a version for the resultant app is too much to expect, it is good to expect a working product capable of a demo.
- Smooth user interface: Always 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. The smoother is it for participants to participate, more likely it is to get good submissions.
- Prizes and swags: Prizes play an important role in attracting participants especially newcomers; however, according to Mike Swift, the founder of HackerLeague, very huge cash prizes do not generate the desired outcome as he says they become a mere pay cheque. Attractive prizes definitely ensure more attendance and act as morale builders but novelty prizes must replace huge cash prizes to keep the spirit of innovation alive.Distribution of company swags is successful in instilling a positive spirit of participation.
- After hackathon communication: If the participants get to know what happened to their product post hackathon they will be more interested in joining the forthcoming ones; taking forward the projects started in the hackathon,contrary to the usual forgetting about the product after the hackathon is a great idea to encourage participants. A great hackathon should also offer great opportunity for learning too. Once the hackathon results are announced, it would be great to have the winners share their experience and some tricks that they used.
Some well conducted hackathons have given way to great products like twitter, Banjo etc. Many more products like these are expected to take the world by a storm if the hackathons are conducted, keeping the above points in mind. A well planned and conducted hackathon shall work both as a motivator and as a starting point of a brilliant innovation.
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