How to Host the Ultimate Hackathon

Hackathons are changing the face of corporate innovation and recruiting. You’re intrigued by the idea of hackathons and how diverse organizations such as the NBA, Tate Museum of Art and General Electric have hosted events to drive innovation, recruit talent and solve tough problems. You’re ready to dip your toes into uncharted hackathon waters, but before taking the plunge you’ve got questions such as: “Should we hold a virtual or in-person hackathon?” “How do we get people to come?” “How do we manage all the ideas generated?”

These are all good questions. Hackathons are fast becoming a powerful new tool for innovation, but to keep participants engaged and to get the most return on your event investment, there are some important things to know:

Identify the Issue

First and foremost, you need to have a clear understanding of what issue(s) you’re trying to address with your hackathon. Before you start planning, you should ask yourself a few questions: What would your organization like to accomplish as a result of the event? What is the specific challenge you’re trying to solve? What do you want to build, or what kind of new ideas do you want to generate?

Once the purpose of the hackathon is clearly defined, it’s time to decide on a theme. Establishing a strong theme helps participants focus on one specific area of innovation; it can also make it easier for first-time participants to find an idea. Consider this guidance from John Walicki, a Watson Internet of Things (IoT) Developer Ecosystem Advocate for IBM and hackathon evangelist who has organized, attended and sponsored dozens of hackathons. “Take the time to develop a strong theme for your hackathon, like healthcare or smart cities, and stick to it,” he said. “Having a strong theme and organizing prizes around that theme leads to an overall amplification of the concept and can spur some really incredible innovation.”

Set Attainable Goals

Once you’ve established why you’re hacking, then clearly define your goals. Strive for attainable goals so your participants walk away feeling accomplished and eager to participate again. Decide beforehand what you want to accomplish. Are you looking to upgrade an existing software or business process? Integrate together two aspects of your industry for a more seamless and robust service? Want to discover the latest innovation that can help your business pull ahead in the industry? Whatever it is, be specific. The more specific you are, the easier it will be to create an event to meet your specific objectives.

Earlier this year, Procter & Gamble organized a hackathon with the goal of promoting its Febreze plug-in scent dispensers and driving new product development. They invited companies focused on connected homes such as Xerox, Google and Amazon to leverage their technologies to create innovative, connected Febreze dispensers. The results aligned well with their goals: One winning project connected the scent dispenser via Wi-Fi to a smartphone so users could control scent as well as temperature and mood lighting.

Identify Your Audience

Who you invite to your hackathon will be influenced by a number of factors. If you’re hosting an internal hackathon with just your employees, consider including everyone. At Atlassian, hackathons have become an integral part of the company culture. Each year, a company-wide hack encourages employees to work on whatever they want, assemble a crew and make something in 24 hours. Outcomes have ranged from replacing inefficient light bulbs in phone-booth rooms to creating a new JIRA Service Desk.

For external hackathons, who you invite is often influenced by your theme and goals. Niche or special interest hacks that focus on a specific social group, theme, or skill set will require one type of guest list, while a corporate or applications-focused hackathon may require a very different audience. You may also want to consider conducting an online idea submission phase as part of your external hackathon; this allows you to shortlist teams and ideas that are relevant to your theme, and can give your judges more time to focus on submissions that are relevant to your hackathon goals.

Virtual or In-Person?

You’ll need to decide early in the process whether to hold your hackathon virtually (online) or in-person. Online hackathons work well when companies want to engage their employees simultaneously across different geographies and time zones to solve a problem or drive innovation. It’s also a good option for narrowly-defined coding challenges that test participants’ experience and expertise.

In-person hackathons, on the other hand, are great for driving external developer engagement and recruiting, and also for solving specific business problems, innovating new apps, and beta-testing existing products. They are useful when you want to provide personal mentoring to attendees and promote your brand to potential employees.

Regardless of which you choose, you’ll need to use a powerful platform to organize the event. Dreaming up new ideas is fun, but capturing those ideas, managing participant registration and interactions, and tracking outcomes is a different story. A strong platform will help you connect with the right audience, set reasonable goals around what work will be accomplished during the hackathon, gather and record the ideas and prototypes generated, and move you through the process of judging those ideas.

That’s not easy. John Walicki offers this advice to companies contemplating a hackathon: “I’ve attended a lot of hackathons and the event quality is certainly going up – the venues, food and beverage offerings and overall organization have improved. So if the Wi-Fi doesn’t work or there aren’t enough electrical outlets, it’s a bit of a trainwreck.”

“If you’re going to host a successful hackathon you need to focus on the details,” he continued. “There are lots of moving parts, and we usually partner with a ‘Hackathon As A Service’ (HAAS) organization. It’s extremely hard to keep track of all of the logistics associated with hackathons, and finding a good HAAS company is critical.”

An experienced HAAS can help you with other important details, such as guidance on who to invite, whether you should obtain sponsors for your hackathon, and what kinds of prizes you should offer.

Putting the Pieces Together

Here are some tips to keep in mind once you’ve nailed down some of your hackathon basics:

Before the hackathon – promote, promote, and promote some more. It’s beneficial to partner with an organizer who has relationships with a large ecosystem of developers and who can market your event widely – both directly to their audience as well as indirectly online and via social media. (An additional benefit of working with Dice to host a hackathon is that you gain direct access to our community of over 2 million highly skilled tech professionals.)

During the hackathon – keep things organized. While a loosely-structured approach might spur creativity, everyone needs a bit of direction to get things started. Don’t just throw your participants into a free-for-all and expect something to come of it. Have everything organized, including objectives, location, sponsors, schedule, rules, and event leaders before launch.

After the hackathon – extend the experience. Don’t let your hackathon happen in a vacuum. Share the learnings with the organization. Blogs, mailing lists, or lunch-and-learns are all great ways to spread the news. Showcase any outputs and cool apps that were built. Remember that hackathons are part of a longer-term strategy to engage developers, build your employer brand and foster a culture of innovation within your company.

Hackathon Dos and Don’ts

If executed well, hackathons can raise your brand awareness, introduce developers to your technology, help you find top tech talent, and spark new product ideas. But preparation is paramount. Here are some handy “Dos” and “Don’ts” to keep in mind when planning a hackathon; while no two events are exactly alike, the successful ones get these key elements right:

Looking for even more information on hosting a successful hackathon? Get in touch and we’ll show you how Dice’s partner HackerEarth can get you started!