Businesses are often looking for innovative ways to engage their customers, solve business challenges or improve upon existing systems. A popular method of fostering creative thinking is to hold a hackathon, where mixed teams including software engineers, designers, UX experts and business analysts will compete to create a working proof of concept based on the specs set out by the organisers. Hackathons encourage blue-sky thinking and give your technical and creative staff the opportunity to really show what they can do without the constraints of processes and the day-to-day tasks they are responsible for. While It does take a lot of planning and work to put on a hackathon, the benefits far outweigh the costs.
If you are considering running your own hackathon, there’s plenty to consider, including details leading up to the event, aspects of the hackathon itself, and what should occur afterwards.
Recently, we ran our first virtual hackathon for a client, and at the same time we had one of our teams participating in a public virtual hackathon, EUvsVirus.
This inspired us to share some key learnings to make hackathons successful. To start, there are two types of hackathons: in-person hackathons, or virtual events.
What’s the objective?
This is the most significant element to consider. Why are you running the hackathon? What are you expecting from it? What does success look like at the end of the event?
Even more importantly: what will happen after the hackathon? Occasionally, well-run hackathons with large cash prizes for the winners draw excellent attendance, but once the event finishes, so does the communication with all the participants. This is disheartening for all the participants, who put extra time, effort and emotional investment into the event.
Consider, and communicate to the teams, what happens to the winning ideas after the hackathon. Do you plan to spend some more time to develop them into prototypes? Do you plan to test the projects with real users? Or will you create some marketing collateral from them?
When we organise hackathons with our clients, we collaborate beforehand and define what the key challenges or problem statements will be for the participants. When we organise internal hackathons, we are clear about the overall objectives so that all the participants produce relevant entries.
Incorporate hackathons into your strategy
After seeing a well-run hackathon event, you’ll realise how effective they are at yielding innovative, efficient results and improving morale. Therefore, it makes sense to make hackathons business-as-usual. Make the event an annual occurrence.
We have some clients whose strategy is to start with APIs for their new systems. For one specific insurance client, we organise a hackathon event once their new APIs are ready. We then use the hackathon to showcase the benefits of the new APIs straight away. Their hackathons are part of the development process.
Invite third parties
We’ve invited new and existing third parties to hackathons with some good results.
Depending on their business, third parties can act as mentors or technical architects to the participants. For instance, software vendors can be available to help speed up integration, or a specialist agency can help each of the teams.
Sort out the logistics beforehand
Having all the logistics working is mandatory for a successful event. We have a template for all the tasks, details and budget items to ensure a smooth event.
Have a clear agenda and stick to it. Remember that all presentations about the event are to inspire the participants, so keep them short.
Have good judges and mentors
To show appreciation of participants giving up their time, we always ask our clients that they invite a senior person from their own organisation as a hackathon judge. One of my favourite quotes from a CEO that was invited to one of our client events was, “I loved this process. Why don’t we do hackathons across the rest of our business?”
Judges should keep walking around the event inspiring the participants and helping mentor them.
Depending on the scale of events, we also ask judges to provide feedback to participant teams.
For virtual events, the in-person hackathon tips above apply, plus the following.
Help the participants to collaborate
Without physical presence, collaborating between participants under intense time constraints is more difficult in the virtual world. Organisers should provide collaboration tools to all participants, including group and private messaging, co-design and prototyping tools, video conferencing and technical tools (source control, etc.).
Organisers should make it as simple and straightforward as they can for participants to become productive as quickly as possible.
Help teams focus on the goal
Have regular updates with the teams to help them focus on the objective and the problem statement. In the virtual world, it’s much easier for participants who are working as fast as possible to go off on tangents by focusing on work that is not so relevant for the event.
A word of caution: we find that at virtual events, interruptions distract participants for longer than in-person events.
Help the teams to present the solution
Make it clear how participants will present their output to the judges. Clarify the requirements and scoring criteria for participants.
Try to avoid having teams submit their project if they’ve missed an answer or requirement. Imagine the disappointment from a team that has worked hard for several days yet missed one question on their submission form.
Virtual events are tiring, so make it easy for participants to wrap up the event.
Effective mentor matching
Good mentors are even more important at virtual events than in-person hackathons. Help mentors inspire participants by keeping them focused and their projects simple.
There’s a fine line between mentors checking in to inspire teams and interrupting them. Therefore, ensuring that each participant is paired with the best mentor possible will promote better results in general.
I hope this was useful. You can find several examples of different hackathons and feedback from the participants here.