Holding A Hackathon Doesn’t Have To Be Hard

Hackathons are undeniably valuable. They drive innovation, increase morale, build personal relationships, contribute to the organizational culture, and promote cross-team collaboration. And, let’s admit it, they’re fun. Nothing brings back memories of coding all night on your CS 479 final project like working on a project that you are passionate about.

And, if all that isn’t enough, they are fairly easy to plan. Sure, making them into a grand event (like the one I recently planned) is nice, but there’s no reason you can’t go simple, or at least start simple, which is what this article is about.

A simple hackathon does not have judging, prizes or a presentation party. It likely won’t have a preceding pitch fest either. Below I’ve outlined seven simple steps to getting your first hackathon off the ground – and some tips for getting the buy-in you’ll need for success.

Ready? Let’s get started! 

Get executive support
Without the support of your local VPs, your hackathon won’t go anywhere fast. You’ll need to get as many executives as possible (ideally all of them) to buy into it. Keep in mind that some executives may be skeptical, so it’s important to come with the outline of a plan and a list of benefits the event will bring.

Settle on some basic details

  • Duration. For a simple hackathon, this is really just the number of days you want it to last. Two or three days is a great length for a hackathon. If you’re having trouble getting executive support for two or three days of perceived productivity loss, however, consider a one-day hackathon.
  • Theme. You might consider establishing a theme. A theme can help people focus when dreaming up and deciding which projects to pursue.
  • Location. You might also consider setting up and reserving a common space, or a collection of conference rooms, so that teams can get away from their desks and work together as a group.
  • Preparation. Pick a date at least 3 months out. It will roll around a lot sooner than you think! Plan around known events, product launches and holidays. The event needs to be accounted for in roadmaps, if you use those sort of things…

Communicate like there are zombies in the lobby
Communication will serve two purposes: increase attendance (which is really important to a successful hackathon) and to build excitement. Send emails, talk about it in meetings, get the executives to talk about it, and put flyers up all over the office. As the date gets closer, send increasing numbers of emails to keep the excitement going. If you have a communications and/or marketing team, involve them!

Make sure it is inclusive, open to all parts of the company
A hackathon should be open to all, not just developers. This may require some work on your side, especially with relation to the theme, but it is really important that everyone feel welcome to participate. It also helps to build executive support. Plus, the cross-team collaboration can have a really positive impact on the projects created and create longer-term relationships that benefit the business.

Create an online collaboration space
You’ll want to provide a digital place for people to sign-up for the event, for teams to form and people to find teams to join, and, of course, for sharing project ideas. People can also use this space to announce what they are working on as the hackathon kicks off and to share their progress during the hackathon itself. This space will also serve as a great place for people to post their completed work, photos of the event, and the like. In doing so, you’ll be building a history, and helping to promote the next hackathon!

Another quick note on getting people to sign-up in advance. You may want people to sign up, as your company may need to classify time differently for accounting purposes.

Hold the hackathon!
When the day arrives, send a final email announcing the commencement of your hackathon – company-wide. Even those not participating in the event should be kept up to date about what’s going on – especially if they can join in the final presentations or if they’ll have coworkers who will be MIA for a couple days. After the event is over, make sure to post a wrap up to your online hackathon space, comment on the projects, maybe get some quotes from people as to how much fun it was and how they look forward to the next one – and share that company-wide as well. Be sure to thank everyone, especially the executives.

Tips for getting executive support

Focus on theme

  • Select a theme that contributes to improving the product or infrastructure (creating automation, fixing operational issues, making the UI look better, and so on).
  • Select a theme where all the work is contributed back to an open source project.  This way, your company may be able count as volunteer work, and your company may be able to write off the hours as volunteer work.

Make the most of relationships. Have supportive executives lobby the hesitant ones.

  • Be willing to adjust timing. Go with a shorter hackathon, even if it is a single day. Establishing a culture of successful hackathons is important. You can enhance them later. For the first few, make concessions to get it off the ground.
  • Keep it inclusive. Make sure it is inclusive of the entire company, and there isn’t any explicit or implicit bias towards developers.

One final word here, and this is really important:

Never, ever, in a million years, cancel your hackathon. The hit to morale for doing so will be greater than if you had never brought it up at all. With great power comes great responsibility…

Now it’s time for you to kick back and relax. You’ve pulled off your first hackathon!

Congratulations! Now get to work planning the next one 🙂