Hackathons - Social Collaboration for Innovation

Posted by Jen Tong on October 4, 2012

In this session Cathy Polinsky talked to us about hackathons. She opened the session by defining a hackathon. Next, she explained how to run a great hackathon. She focused on organizing your event and enabling successful demos. After this, she gave us some inside tips on how to be an effective hackathon participant.

What is a hackathon?

A Hackathon is an event that starts at a schedule time and has a predefined duration. During this interval, participants solve interesting problems by writing code. At the end of the event, participants demo their creations to a panel of judges.

Why are hackathons awesome?

Hackathons foster great ideas. During the event they provide a safe environment for participants to take risks and learn by doing. The short format encourages failing fast and collaborating with different people.

The benefits don’t end with the event. Exciting demos inspire participants, and expose them to new ideas.

Running a great hackathon

You will need to vary your plan to match your environment, but the most successful plans focus on determining the correct event format, supporting a community, encouraging diversity, keeping it fun, and creatively awarding success.

First and foremost, you must select a format for your event. Timing is everything. Keep your event short, but make sure the timing caters to your intended participants. Do you want to attract a crowd of young developers who would love to hack through the night, or would a two day format that allows your participants to return home for dinner fit better? Once you’ve selected the timing for your event, start promoting it. Find creative ways to alert people about your event and remind them as the time to hack approaches.

Community is also very important. Promote discussion leading up to your event and beyond. If you have multiple events, community provides continuity between them. It allows participants to share ideas and form relationships during the hours that they are not hacking. A strong community will also make it more likely that those who have signed up will follow through and show up to code.

The most interesting hacks originate from diverse teams. While planning your event keep in mind that different participants will have different needs and communication styles. Not everyone can hack through the night on pizza and beer alone. Some people will be more effective hacking in a space you provide, and others will hack best in the cafe across the street. Be mindful of these differences.

Amid all of this planning don’t lose sight of what attracts people to hackathons: fun! Encourage a casual, collaborative environment. Make sure your hackers don’t go hungry and enjoy the food you provide. And don’t forget the beer.

Once the code has settled and the demos have ended, it’s time to award your best participants. Counterintuitively, large monetary awards tend not be very effective. Instead, continue your creativity and find interesting ways to award great work. Plan a lunch with a distinguished member of the judging panel or perhaps award the winners with extra time to focus on their innovation projects at work.

Enabling successful demos

Hackathons are about more than just code. For a hack to be successful, it must be accompanied by a great demo. Here are some tips for helping your participants demo smoothly.

  • Encourage your participants to work towards the demo. Remind them that their project does not need to be ready for production tomorrow. Focus on producing an expressive core flow. They can talk to the edge cases as they demo.
  • Keep demos short. 1-5 minutes should be plenty of time.
  • Allow participants to schedule their demo after they’ve started hacking. Share a spreadsheet and have them order themselves. Remember, not every team will be ready to demo at the end of the event.
  • Prepare your audio/visual flow. For example, if you have remote participants, set up a video conference. If people will be developing on mobile devices, provide them a projector.
  • Select your judges carefully. If you have a panel of distinguished judges, participants will be more excited to present.

Insider tips for great hacks

Those of us who plan hackathons also tend to participate in them. Here are Cathy’s tips for success when its your turn to turn 24 hours of coding into an exciting demo.

  • Plan ahead. Form your team before the event. Brainstorm ideas together. Come in with a plan.
  • Prepare your environment. Install the development tools you will need and resolve any hosting issues before the event begins. Use the event time to focus on your hack instead of troubleshooting tools.
  • Be entertaining. The most engaging demos are fun. Be creative with your sample data. Frame your idea with a story.
  • Perfect your elevator pitch. Before you know it, your hacking time will be over. While you develop, keep thinking about how you will present your idea as if you were explaining it in an elevator.