Run a Hackathon, not a Hack Job

Hackathons are as crucial to developer culture as Reddit and Red Bull. Software-focused companies often leverage these events to help employees blow off steam, socialize and generate ideas—both for fun and profit. However, hosting a hackathon without a gameplan can do more damage than Leeroy Jenkins.

Here at Mutual Mobile, we’ve planned hackathons on everything from wearable tech to Beacons, and we’ve learned a lot along the way. After taking all the successes and shortcomings into account, we’ve created the quintessential Cliff Notes on how to run a hackathon:

1. Respect everyone’s time

Employees give up their personal time to participate in hackathons. Respect that. You’re asking them to give up a Friday evening or sometimes even a weekend. This is a big commitment for working professionals, especially those in a field as stressful and demanding as emerging technology.

Make the time they are investing worthwhile, productive and enjoyable. Have team leads set structure and host kickoff events a week or so leading up to the hackathon to ensure participants their time will be used well. This also helps set expectations and can inspire folks to get brainstorming early.

Also, make it fun. At Mutual Mobile, we provide catering, kegs and a margarita machine. We also make it a family-friendly environment, so spouses, kids and even canines can stop by to cheer on their loved one.

2. 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 audience segment you’d like to serve. Leverage the researcher’s data to brief all hackathon participants so they can create solutions for an actual target audience.

Intuit has a similar program they call Idea Jams. The process begins by having real customers come into the office for a day to discuss a problem they’re trying to solve. The company then breaks into 3-person teams (designer, developer, business/product person) that spend the day creating a storyboard on how to solve their client’s problem. When all is said and done, they pitch their concept to the client to solicit additional feedback. Iterations informed by client insights are sure ways to make what you build more meaningful.

3. Don’t make it too specific

You need to strike a balance between focus and a free-for-all. Making a hackathon too centered around a specific problem for a specific audience can suck the fun right out of your event and turn it into another work assignment. Hackathons are supposed to be fun, interesting, hard, and provide freedom for the team to insert themselves and THEIR ideas into the process. If you box in the exercise too much, your participants will be less likely to show up, physically or mentally.

4. Send invites to developers … AND BEYOND!

Innovation can come from all parts of the business. When selecting a hackathon topic, get stakeholders from multiple teams on the same page. Ask those team leads to appoint a lieutenant from each discipline to be your day-to-day contact and lead the details. Successful hackathons involve cross-disciplinary teams. Drive participation across development, design, content and marketing.

While developers may be responsible for a functioning prototype, designers are the ones who bring their idea to life. Add marketers to the mix, and your post-hackathon presentations will be as polished as a new business pitch. Involving marketing in hackathons also helps increase the likelihood that the concepts or prototypes created will see the light of day.

We let our hackathon teams know upfront that we will be filming, photographing, and leveraging prototypes for new business efforts. The fact that their creations could have real-world implications adds an extra element of excitement for our hackathon participants. But whatever you do, do NOT lie. If you make promises to your volunteers, you better be ready to keep them. Otherwise, you’ll only have yourself to blame when interest begins to wane.

5. Make it competitive

Bragging rights matter. Put some competitive spin on your hackathon with polls, winners and prizes. Have your contestants pitch their ideas to the rest of the company once the hackathon is complete. Then, have everyone in the company vote on their favorite execution. Reward the winner with a fun prize, like a job perk or a 3D-printed trophy.

6. Keep the excitement alive until the next event

Don’t let the buzz of a hackathon end once everyone leaves the office. Give the results a home to live on and evolve. Post-hackathon, we host a Demo Day, which gives teams that participated a chance to show-off internally and practice their presentation skills. It’s also a great way to build rapport internally as an “expert” in the eyes of other employees. In addition to Demo Day, we tape the events and presentations for those who missed out on the festivities—or for any participant who would like to relive the moment.

We then host the video on our internal G+ community, giving everyone a great opportunity to find, watch and comment on the video. Platforms like G+ are also a great way to make announcements about upcoming events and recruit participants. We’ve even seen some teams create subcommunities within our G+ Intranet, allowing them brainstorm and discuss how they plan on approaching the next hackathon assignment. With the number of attendees increasing each event, it became very clear that If you build a tribe of passionate folks centered around a particular topic, others will come.

7. Go for it!

You’ve studied the tech. You’ve purchased all the components. You’ve prepped the participants. You’ve ordered the snacks. You’ve alerted the marketers. And, your MakerBot is currently printing a sweet hackathon trophy. All that’s left is to put it in action and watch the innovation and employee satisfaction of your company hit an all time high.

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