How to Make Your Hackathon Not Suck

Hackathons have been a key part of developer culture. Software-focused companies leverage them often to help employees blow off steam, socialize and generate ideas – for fun and profit.Take Facebook’s perspective on hackathons: Hackathons are a big tradition at Facebook. They serve as the foundation for some great (and not so great) ideas. It gives our employees the opportunity to try out new ideas and collaborate with other people in a fun environment.

To do a hackathon well requires some art and some luck. Here are a few tips we’ve learned through trial-and-error:

Run it like a project and respect everyone’s time investment. Employees give up their personal time to participate in hackathons. Respect that. You’re asking them to give up a Friday evening or even a weekend. This is a big commitment for an often over-worked or stressed out employee.

Make their investment worthwhile, productive, and fun. Have a kickoff a week or so before the hackathon to set expectations and inspire folks to get brainstorming early.

Also make it fun. At Mutual Mobile, we bring in catered food for our hackathons, have kegs and fire up the old margarita machine. A little friendly competition never hurts too.

Do your homework. Having strong inputs for a hackathon can drive better outputs. Consider hosting a preview event to brief your audience on the core focus of the hackathon while allowing them to chat with other participants and get their concepts rolling early. Or, consider enlisting a user researcher or market researcher to better understand a particular problem and audience. Leverage the research to brief participants so they can create solutions for a realistic target audience.

Last thought, at Intuit I’ve heard they do Idea Jams. The process entails having real customers come into the office for a day and specify a problem they’re trying to solve. Teams are 3-person (designer, dev, business / product person) and they spend the day developing a storyboard on how to solve that customer’s problem, and then they pitch their idea back to the client to solicit additional feedback and refine their idea. Iteration and informed by client insights are sure ways to make what you build more meaningful.

Don’t make it too prescriptive. You need to strike a balance. Making a hackathon too prescriptive – focusing on solving a specific problem in a specific way for a specific audience can suck the fun out of a hackathon. Hackathons are supposed to be fun, interesting, hard and provide freedom to the team to insert THEIR ideas into the process. If you box in the exercise too much, your participants will not show up or check out early.

Cross-disciplinary hackathons (bigger than just dev) drive fresh insights. Ideas can come from all parts of the business. Successful hackathons involve cross-disciplinary teams. Drive participation across development, design, content and marketing. Lastly, designers make developers’ functioning prototypes look a hell of a lot better. That means audiences with will be more likely to understand what it is and like it.

Involve marketing or communications in hackathons. Involving marketing in hackathons helps increase the likelihood that concepts or prototypes created will see the light of day. At Mutual Mobile, we commit to specific actions like pitching the prototypes to media, shooting a video, and leveraging prototypes for new business efforts.

Also, marketing people are good at creating buzz. They’re a great advocate to have backing your event to drive not only external awareness, but also internal awareness of the event across your employees. If no one shows up, you don’t have a hackathon. If know one knows what you created, why do it at all?

Make it competitive. Bragging rights matter. Put some competitive spin on your hackathon with prizes, voting, and winners.

If there is ongoing interest, give it a home / life. Once you have momentum, give it a home to live on and evolve. Post-hackathon, we host a demo day. It gives teams a chance to show-off and practice speaking skills. It is also a great way to build credibility as an “expert” in the eyes of other employees.

We also found a lot of employees were still excited about their hackathon ideas. To encourage the momentum, we created a G+ community for the hackathon participants to keep brainstorming, sharing ideas, articles and chat with each other.

Folks share lunch together and get to pitch ideas for future hack-a-thons, teach others about what they have learned, and vote on how to spend a budget to acquire new products and sensors. Build a tribe of passionate folks at your company centered around a particular topic.

I heard at Intuit there is voting after an Idea Jam for the best solution or idea crafted. Winning ideas automatically gain budget and resources to explore further. No questions asks. The company believes in the process. That is a huge motivational factor if participants know the best idea will not only win, but become a reality.

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