Holding A Hackathon Doesn’t Have To Be Hard, Part II

In the last article, we discussed how to stage a basic hackathon. In this article, we’ll share some ideas to make your hackathon a bit more extravagant. Think of this as a hackathon 2.0 to embark upon once you’ve mastered (or at least attempted) the basics.

Kick things off with a Pitchfest

What is a ‘Pitchfest’? A Pitchfest is a forum for people to pitch ideas to the rest of the hackathon participants to build a team behind an idea, combine teams with common ideas, or even kill an idea. Already formed teams can present their ideas, both for input and to recruit more members. Individuals can pitch their ideas hoping to create a team or as projects for other teams to pick up.

A Pitchfest really helps to drive an innovative hackathon by enabling the community to refine and develop ideas into workable projects. It also helps individuals and teams who may be suffering from idea-block, and it certainly helps build momentum and excitement around your hackathon.

Tip: Publish the order of the pitches ahead of time and give everyone a max of only 3(ish) minutes to present. Keep it simple: No one should be presenting their own slides at the Pitchfest. Instead, create a master deck with one slide per idea, containing a title, brief description, and name of the sponsor.

Get T-Shirts!

Who doesn’t love a new t-shirt? Yea, silly question. So, consider getting some shirts for the event. Talk to your UX & UI teams about creating a design (see how we just worked UX & UI into the Hackathon?), find a printer, and you’re good to go. Shirts involve a little up-front work, several weeks of lead time, and cost about $11 per shirt. Shirts boost morale and increase exposure for just a little bit of extra effort.

Tip: If shirt costs are prohibitive, consider printing stickers using a logo created by your UX/UI teams instead.

Hold a Presentation Party

A presentation party is an opportunity for every team to present their project to the rest of the company, be that working code or something else. This is easily the most time-consuming part of a Hackathon.

  • Reserve a room big enough for all of the teams and plenty of non-participant spectators. Make sure to have a presentation system, dongles to hook up various computers, an online meeting. Have a “stage” up front for teams to present from.
  • Have a presentation order: Publish the presentation order the day before so that teams know when they will be on the stage. This helps to keep things on schedule.
  • Length: Plan on about 10 minutes per presentation. You may need to adjust this down depending on the number of teams involved. Be prepared for a 3-xhour event!
  • Provide Food! Nothing attracts a crowd like food and crowds are great to increase the energy of the event. Kick off your party around 11:30 and have food (pizza is always a great choice) delivered mid-way through the event. Allow for a break for 30 minute break for folks to grab food and then continue presentations while they eat lunch.
  • Keep it fun! have an MC who can engage and excite the crowd.

Tip: do not try and merge slides from each team into a single deck. Let each team manage their presentation in their own way.

Give out awards

Just like t-shirts, everyone likes a prize. Here’s what you’ll need to think through to make awards happen:

First, you’ll need some award categories. We used the following:

  1. Internal Impact
  2. Judges Favorite
  3. Operational Efficiency
  4. Sales Impact
  5. Coolest Idea
  6. Fan Favorite – everyone assembled voted at the end for their favorite project.

Or not… Maybe it’s best for your Hackathon to simply pick the “best” 3 projects and provide some guidance on what “best” means for your Hackathon.

You’ll need judges, 3 to 5 of them. At least one will have a conflict on the day of and will not be able to participate. Try to get representation from across the company: marketing, design, product, ops, and so forth. Also try to get judges from the executive ranks of the company, and even from other divisions. You’ll need print outs of projects, for the judges to take notes on; the criteria to judge on; and the award categories.

 Selecting the winners: The judges will need somewhere to deliberate; any vacant office is fine. Time box this to 30 minutes and do it immediately after the presentations finish.

Tip: While the judges are deliberating, allow time for a break and then hold a vote for fan favorite! Serve fun snacks and fancy sodas to keep everyone refreshed and energized while they vote and wait for the final results.

You’ll need awards. We have a tradition here wherein the executives donate awards, everything from wine tastings to Timbers tickets, from vacation rentals to date nights to a team dinner with the CEO, and even a Lego Voltron set! The company also purchased 19 amazon gift cards worth $1,000, for people who may not have had interest in any of the donated awards.

You’ll need an award selection process. For our Hackathon, the team that won the Fan Favorite won a team dinner with the CEO. The other winning teams all selected individual awards, which started with the judges ranking the winning projects, in this case from 1 to 5. Using this ordering, individuals on each team selected from the available awards in a round robin fashion. To keep a single large team from taking all of the choice awards, we limited each team to three for the first round, and then proceeded 1 at a time through each of the 5 teams until the awards were all claimed. No one could select more than one award. It was up to each team to determine the order their individuals selected. Selecting awards was done in the week following the event, via email and the Hackathon digital page.

Some final thoughts

  • Set limits on team size. Teams of 3 to 6 are completely reasonable.
    One of the goals of a Hackathon is that people work together, ideally across teams and departments, so teams of 1 and 2 don’t make a lot of sense in this light. On the other end, teams of 17 result when people want to ‘participate’ without really participating.
  • Make sure to get food and drinks that appeal to everyone, vegetarians and carnivores alike.
  • Publish the award categories before holding Pitchfest, so that teams are not surprised if their idea doesn’t fit in with the judging categories.
  • Provide the judges with guidance on how to select winners: are you after the 5 best projects, or are you after the best project in each category? If the former, then potentially do away with categories and just have the judges select the 5 best projects.