How to organise a hackathon

Innovation seems to be a very slow process in your organisation; teams work on a problem for months without getting any tangible results. Maybe you should try a hackathon and see what that yields?

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 31 Jul 2015

A hack-a-what? A hackathon is a portmanteau word - combining hacking and marathon - meaning a prolonged bout of (usually) technological innovation designed to fulfil a brief. 'Hackathons throw teams together with a hard-set deadline of producing a prototype - something rough that actually works,' says JJ Beh of Toronto-based, non-profit hosting entity Hackernest. It usually takes place over 24 to 48 hours.

What it's not. It should not be a cheap way to get outside talent to create a new app or product, says Joe Scarboro, a co-founder of London content, promotion and events company 3beards. 'It's fine to do it as an internal event or to engage the teams afterwards to develop their ideas commercially,' says Scarboro. 'But be transparent.'

Have a focus. Your event may target a very specific issue or a broader area; either way, your focus is one of the key elements in encouraging people to take part. 'The range and variety of people you attract will also be dictated by the brief,' says Scarboro. If your main objective is to learn from the process, you could adopt a brief for a socially useful purpose, such as HackerNest's self-explanatory DementiaHack.

Sell your hack. If you want good people to come you'll need to create a buzz, so publicise it. Bring in sponsors who can offer attractive rewards. Salesforce gave prizes totalling $1m (£650,000) at a hackathon last year.

Bring in all the talents. Beh says: 'You want expert developers who are a mix of seasoned hackathon goers and newbies, well-known mentors and judges who are specialists and for demos a set of all-rounders who incorporate the strong players in the ecosystem.'

Bandwidth is king. Internet power and reliability is all for your hack. 'You can have a mediocre venue with amazing internet and nobody will complain, but not vice versa,' says Scarboro. Your venue will need some break-out areas and maybe sleeping space. 'Just treat people well,' he adds.

Keep the rules simple. 'We once ran a hackathon where the rules were: 'Be nice, don't cheat, use fresh code only, max five-person teams and please use deodorant,' says Beh. 'It was fantastic.'

Add motivation. There doesn't have to be a winner, but do highlight the best solutions. The best teams are formed organically, says Scarboro. Get everyone to run through their ideas, and let people decide what they want to work on.

And remember the pizza. Plentiful beer, pizza, and more imaginative refreshments, will encourage participation and fuel the brainpower.

DO SAY:

'The best of your ideas will be given support to become reality.'

DON'T SAY:

'We could get a bunch of bright kids to fix this for us for virtually no cost in a fraction of the time.'

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