There was a time when the idea of a hackathon brought up images of hoodie-adorned computer programmers, slouched over laptops working in a frenzy trying to solve some indecipherable-looking problem. Those days are long over.
Today, hackathons are being held in every imaginable industry. Even PCMA held a hackathon during its 2019 Convening Leaders annual meeting in Pittsburgh. Seven teams competed with the prompt, “How might PCMA ensure sticky learning at the Education Conference to remain relevant and attract a diverse audience?” motivating them.
Think about it. How powerful is the concept of pitting competing teams against each other with the end goal being to solve a problem? The winning team is rewarded, and your organization has an idea that can be nurtured and possibly implemented. Business leaders have identified hackathons as powerful innovation tools.
According to Hackathon.com, the largest online hackathon community worldwide, there were 5,636 hackathons held last year, and that number is growing. The top industries that host hackathons are manufacturing, technology, transportation, financial services, and retail. Others are health, telecommunications, public services, and e-commerce. Hackathon.com also reports that the main objectives for running hackathons are to recruit top talent, collaborate with startups, and launch new products and services. They also inspire and train internal teams, launch intrapreneurial projects, and boost cross-team collaboration.
Sneha Vaswani, a software engineer at Apple who organized several hackathons while studying at Rochester Institute of Technology, says the first thing to address is the duration of the event and the number of people attending. “There’s a difference between a 24-hour event attended by 300 people and a 36-hour hour event attended by 500 people,” Vaswani says. After attending to the logistics, it is time to curate the challenge you are presenting. It must be well-defined, easy to understand, and clearly articulated. The most important question to address is, “What is the desired outcome?”
Creating and hosting well-attended, successful hackathons, where your company will benefit from the spirit of collaboration can be achieved with proper planning, and here are five things to keep in mind.
Creating a theme for your hackathon is important, and it should be a thread throughout the entire event. Velizar Demirev, a hackathon organizer for Major League Hacking, the official collegiate hackathon league, says the most successful themes stir passion and emotion.
“The themes I believe garner the most innovative projects are anything that has to do with social good, promoting equality, and commercial viability. Combine that with access to powerful APIs (application programming interface), technology like blockchain, great hardware, and you’ll get some truly awesome projects,” says Demirev.
A simple, effective way of choosing your theme is to focus on a particular industry. Hackathons.com has a list of global gatherings organized by industry and theme. Examples include hackathons that focus on eradicating plastic pollution, maximizing transport efficiency, or cybersecurity.
Said to be the world’s largest global hackathon, NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge engages thousands across the globe to build innovative solutions to challenges faced on Earth and in space. Even an event of this caliber is themed each year.
Keep the Hack on Track
Another key aspect of planning a hackathon is to have a clearly outlined plan for how the event should run and what resources are needed. Having a facilitator who knows your industry and understands what you are trying to accomplish is advisable as this person can make sure the hack stays on track. If the hackathon is an actual competition, you will also need judges.
The space you are using for the hackathon should encourage creative thinking. Be sure to take into account both technological and human needs. Internet speeds, data privacy, enough power outlets, and computers with the necessary software to complete the project are integral to success, although what is needed depends entirely on the scale and purpose of the project. A screen, projector, and microphone should also be on hand as at the end of the hackathon teams usually present their creations to be judged. Proper seating is imperative and can include banquet-style setups with large tables that seat about ten each or classroom-style seating that usually encompasses rectangular tables with chairs on one side. Cozy seating areas are also helpful as they will encourage interaction and places to retreat when taking a break.
“You need to make sure the venue’s network can handle anywhere from 250 to 500 users at a time,” says Demirev. “For BrickHack at RIT, we set up access points beforehand to ensure good network speeds. There is a lot of logistical work that needs to be done in advance.”
When booking the event, be sure the facility you are considering understands your bandwidth needs and can accommodate them.
The goal of a hackathon is to do as much in as little time as possible, and people will work the best when they’re in an environment where they can relax and feel taken care of. Many hackathons are round-the-clock, so food and beverage must be available all night long. Be sure there are options for those who are vegetarian and gluten-free or have other dietary requests. An onsite support team will be helpful that is familiar with the platform being used and can answer questions.
Hackathon with Benefits
A hackathon shouldn’t be just a room full of people working. A successful one will offer a variety of benefits besides just the competition. It can include a trade show, highlighting work already done that relates to your theme or lectures and demonstrations from experts in the field. A motivational speaker will work well in the middle of the hackathon when tiredness can take a toll. He or she doesn’t have to speak long; just a few minutes can do the trick. Some quick group exercises in the middle of the session can also revitalize the energy and keep participants healthy, rather than slouched over laptops for extended hours
Those who attend should leave feeling enriched by the experience and should come away with new skills and connections.
Some hackathons supplement conferences. That is the case with Bitcoin Association, a global organization for Bitcoin business, that held its first-ever Bitcoin SV (BSV) Hackathon in May. The first phase of competition was a virtual hackathon that took place globally over the weekend of May 4-5 with 122 individual competitors, plus another 94 joining together to form 42 teams. Their challenge was to develop a solution for BSV on-boarding issues.
A representative of the top three teams was flown to Toronto for the finals, and the winners were awarded 400 BSV coins (currently valued over $55,000) at the CoinGeek conference on May 30. Plus, all finalists are being considered for investment by CoinGeek founder Calvin Ayre, the technology entrepreneur.
Create a Democracy
Set clear goals and expectations for those in attendance, and give them plenty of opportunities to contribute by engaging with them before, during, and after the hackathon.
Many of the hackers who participated in the Bitcoin SV Hackathon still interact in an online chat room. “They created their own community,” explains Jimmy Nguyen, founding president of Bitcoin Association.
Questionnaires before the hackathon can help determine what participants hope to get out of the event. Velizar also strongly recommends a debriefing session after the event to find out what can be improved.
Bitcoin Association’s Nguyen recorded several humorous videos that were sent out before the hackathon to inspire and entertain. He also sent out a countdown clock that helped stir excitement.
Sophia Huynh, a tech industry insider who writes for the blog Uni Hacks, says that she’s seen financial obstacles, the “tight-knit” nature of the tech community, and a perceived bias when the hackathon organizers themselves are a homogenous group contribute to a lack of diversity at a hackathon. To mitigate these issues, Huynh suggests that organizers ensure that their marketing team is reaching out to under-represented groups across a variety of platforms, including print media and in-person recruiting. Make the cost of the hackathon manageable and offer amenities such as housing and transportation to participants with limited financial means. Sponsors are a viable way to cover expenses.
Reach out to beginners, men as well as women, the young as well as the old. There are a variety of organizations that work with under-represented groups in tech, like Girls Who Code, MotherCoders, Vets Who Code, and Black Girls Code, who can help promote diversity at your next hackathon.
In the creative world we live, a hackathon that encourages participants to brainstorm, innovate, and think outside the box are welcome in today’s disruptive marketplace. Hackathons are incubators where all ideas are encouraged and allowed to flourish.