Engineering Blog

Hack to the Future: Planning a Hackathon

tl;dr

We ran a hackathon, you should too. These are some of the things we’ve learnt along the way.


So you’ve decided to run a Hackathon at your company (we did, and it turned out great). Then you realise you have no idea what you’re doing. We didn’t either, but we can share the ideas we’ve had since.

What follows are a few pieces of advice that will hopefully help in organising your own event. I’m going to gloss over the specifics as they vary from hackathon to hackathon.

So, enough introduction and on to the recommendations.

It’s dangerous to go alone…

There is a surprising amount of stuff to do: compose emails, gather ideas, get budget, internal marketing, external marketing, round up judges, order food…

Find a partner. At Huddle we’ve tended to have had two organisers each year – a developer and a product manager. Splitting the work load, sharing ideas and getting different viewpoints has been invaluable.

The mix of technical and non-technical skill-sets is also important. You will need to do a lot of people management and communication alongside all the expected technical jobs like defining the scope of the event and providing frameworks or APIs for building hacks on.

All aboard

Someone needs to approve the budget.
Someone needs to OK the dates of the event.
Someone needs make the cool posters.

It’s best to get these key players on-board early and feeling positive about the event. Make them feel involved as a contributor and not as blocker. They could have great ideas for the event or some fundamental requirement that needs to be addressed before you can continue planning.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Don’t expect everyone to be as knowledgeable or enthusiastic about the event as you are. Emails are great for getting hard facts across, but not everyone reads them. Calendars will book out peoples time, but not pique their interest. Nothing beats a face to face conversation to gain mind share.

Buzz doesn’t generate itself, so you’ll need to work on it and it’s best to use a combination of communication channels. Attend other team’s stand-ups, put up posters and if nothing else works, corner people in the kitchen.

Motivate

Go for the carrot not the stick. To get people excited you’ll need to give them reasons to be excited. Highlight great ideas and products that have come from other Hackathons. Show people they can unleash their creativity. Showcase the cool technology and gadgets they could play with. And, if you have the budget, tell people there will be food and prizes.

Keep it fun and flexible

Just like with the hacks themselves, no one is expecting perfection from the event. Learning, team building, great ideas – all the benefits of a Hackathon don’t come from a perfectly executed agenda. They come from providing the opportunity to mix with new people and to build new things.

Remember that fundamentally a Hackathon should be fun; try to keep it light-hearted, silly and not too competitive. This shouldn’t be unpaid overtime, don’t make it feel like it is.


This may all sound like a lot of hard work for you, and maybe it is. Hopefully this post should help alleviated some of it. But whether you’ve been considering organizing your own Hackathon, or you’ve never thought about it before, I can offer one final piece of advice. You should. It will be worth it.

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