10 easy steps for running a successful hackathon

A hackathon is a timed event in which teams made up of both technical and business experts get together to collaborate intensively on creative projects.

technical team planning projects


The aim is to design, build and present the most innovative solution to a problem, and then pitch a final concept, prototype or presentation to the stakeholders.

Ever ‘tagged’ a friend on Facebook or used Instagram’s Hyperlapse app to create a time-lapse video on your phone?

Both started out as hackathon concepts. In this step-by-step guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know to run a successful internal hackathon.


Why hold a hackathon?


You might hold a hackathon to give your team a chance to experiment with new technologies, solve an existing problem or to improve processes within your organisation.

Hackathons aren’t just reserved for the major players. Organisations of all sizes can benefit from bringing employees with different expertise together, to foster innovation and create stronger bonds within the company.


Step 1: Define your objectives


Before you start, think carefully about what you want your hackathon to achieve.

Is there a known challenge that you want to tackle, or do you want to experiment with a new technology? Your goal could be to make an existing product better. Decide on an end goal and use a clear set of rules to keep your event focused. You must be careful not to narrow the focus too much as this reduces the opportunities to innovate, but you must constrain it enough so that any prototypes or concepts produced are relevant to your company.


team planning hackathon


Here are a few points to consider:


  • Who will be eligible to participate?

Adding an element of diversity is likely to increase the levels of innovation, but the teams will still need to have the right mix of skills to produce a working prototype at the end.  You might want to restrict entries to certain departments, specific roles or include different levels of seniority (for example, to encourage skill sharing between senior and entry-level employees).


  • What kind of projects will be allowed?

The most common internal hackathon rule is: ‘No working on existing projects.’ This is because hackathons are designed to fuel innovation, not as a time to catch up on regular work.


  • Will you have set working time?

Traditionally, hackathons have been associated with coding teams working through the night and would typically go on for 24-48 hours. But this isn’t always practical for team members with other commitments such as young families. Decide on start and finish times for your hackathon and enforce them to make the experience a positive one for the whole team.


  • What will be your scope for ideas? (see Step 7)

Give your team a focused brief at least a few weeks in advance. This will allow your team time to think about what they want to work on, share ideas for possible projects and keep them in line with your goal for the event.


Decide on your deliverables

What must each team produce by the end of the hackathon, to qualify for completion? It could be a working prototype, a piece of code or a video proposal.


agile team working together


Step 2: Sell your idea


Getting everyone together in one place, setting them up with the tech they need, supplying food and drink and possibly even paying travel expenses – all while taking your team away from their regular projects – can be an expensive business. So, if this is your first hackathon, you’re going to have to do your homework if you want to sell the idea both to your stakeholders and potential participants.

Prepare for these common objections:

  • Hackathons take away from existing prioritised work
  • The company will be without essential infrastructure during the hackathon
  • Hackathons are expensive

Highlight the potential benefits:

  • Improve collaborative working
  • Potential to improve a product or process in a very short space of time
  • Give teams a new perspective on current projects
  • Develop transferable skills
  • Give other departments a glimpse of what software development entails

Namedrop the success stories: companies who are renowned for innovation, like Google, Amazon, Netflix and Twitter, have all made hackathons a part of their corporate culture.


Step 3: Set the date (but not during crunch time)


Planning a hackathon during crunch time, or when you know your team is going to be under other pressure, is going to receive a lot of pushback.

Look at project schedules as far in advance as you can and once you set the date, keep that time sacred. If you can, leave a bit of wiggle room around the week leading up to the event in case projects run over time.


developers collaborating


Step 4: Choose your venue and setting


You can definitely hold your hackathon on-site. If this is your plan, make your ‘regular’ space as alien as you can by:

  • Rearranging the office
  • Bringing in special equipment
  • Supplying a good spread of food and drink – this will go a long way to boosting morale on the day and won’t blow the budget

Alternatively, hiring an external venue can be an easy way to create a buzz around your event and contribute to a novel atmosphere on the day. Booking out a local café or hiring a function room can be enough to help get your team’s heads out of the office and into the spirit of the hackathon.

Make sure there is enough physical space for everyone along with the equipment needed. Depending on your office culture, you might want to have a music system hooked up for the hackathon or quiet spaces for teams to retreat to when they want to focus in silence.

Regular appearances from the main stakeholders throughout the day also help the morale of the teams (especially if they come bearing coffees or pizzas).

Get creative – after all, your aim is to inspire creative work!


Step 5: Judging and Prizes


Do you want to offer a cash prize, a piece of tech or the support to move a project forward?

Cash prizes are a good draw but can cause overly competitive behaviour and sour the atmosphere at your event very quickly. Offering the resources a developer needs to further their project is a positive but effective motivator.

Think about giving away technical support, access to equipment or the chance to present the idea to senior stakeholders, as the winning prize.


development and coding hackathon


Who will be the judge?

If you work in a large organisation, you can probably make up a judging panel of senior stakeholders. But, providing that confidentiality will allow for it, inviting a panel of industry experts can be a great way to drum up interest for your event.

Next, you will need to set your criteria. It’s important that all projects are judged fairly, and against the same set of values. Otherwise, you run the risk of turning your hackathon into an internal popularity contest which is a sure-fire way to sap motivation from the room.


Step 6: Create a buzz around your hackathon


Now, it’s time to get people excited about your event. There are plenty of ways to create hackathon buzz:

  • Announce your event on your company intranet
  • Send out an email blast
  • Create a collaborative document or channel where participants can start sharing ideas
  • Create an online event page participants can join

Start early but be careful not to bore people with the idea. The last thing you want to do is sap that creative energy and make your hackathon feel tedious!


Step 7: Start sharing ideas


Allow enough lead time before your event to generate those all-important ideas. At least two weeks is ideal.

  • Use your objectives from Step 1, to put together a shared document (this could be a wiki page, a Slack channel, or a basic Excel spreadsheet) dedicated to Hackathon ideas.
  • Encourage everyone to share their ideas for suitable hackathon projects. Making this document accessible to everyone will help participants to start thinking creatively, bounce ideas off the rest of the group and get a feel for what they’d all like to work on.

By day one of your Hackathon, your participants should be ready to pitch their potential projects.


development team in office


Step 8: Mix up your teams


Traditionally, hackathons have had a technical focus because the objective is usually to solve a user problem, to develop a new application or to experiment with new tech.

But hackathons present a rare opportunity for inter-departmental collaboration and other disciplines including marketing and graphic design can be equally useful in project development, so think carefully about getting the balance right in each team.

Mixing different levels of experience works well, too. Encourage skill-sharing by teaming up less-experienced employees with senior developers. You could even invite applications from your local college or university and use your hackathon to recruit some of your industry’s up and coming talent.


Step 9: Keep it going


The worst thing you can do after a hackathon is… nothing.

Don’t lose momentum on the projects that could have a positive impact on the organisation.

  • Which ideas are ready for the development team?
  • Can you take any to market?
  • Which insights could be implemented elsewhere?

Watching their ideas go into production will be hugely rewarding for your team and will keep that positive vibe going after the event.


team discussing hackathon outcomes


Step 10: The after-hack


Congratulations, you’ve successfully hosted your first hackathon! Now it’s time to review your event. Your team have probably learned a lot during the hackathon, about their colleagues, their skills and also about themselves.

  • Survey your team, find out what they liked and what they didn’t
  • Carry out a retrospective cost-benefit analysis
  • Publish your photos, videos and project success stories across your social channels
  • Congratulate your participants and thank everyone involved

Of course, you can use these insights to host an even better hackathon next time around. But you might also find that you’ve discovered new ways to work, to increase productivity or to harness your team’s hidden talents.

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