One Way to Run a Hackathon

A place that I used to work ran periodic ‘Hackathons[1]’. After trying to describe them to various people it became clear that there were a number of different definitions of what a ‘Hackathon’ could (or should) be, so here’s my description, with some thoughts as to why structuring it this way might be a good idea.

What is a ‘Hackathon’? It’s a lot of different things to different people. Most definitions I’ve seen see it as an opportunity to spend a day (often 24 hours, or a weekend) building something that they wouldn’t normally build. The thing built is not necessarily a ‘thing’. It could be a website, and app, some other type of computer program, it could even be an organization. The important thing here is that whatever is created/built is taken from the concept stage to working prototype with at least some useful feature(s) by the end of the hackathon.

Why do you want to have a Hackathon? The ones that I’ve been involved with were an opportunity for people in a software organization to try something a little different for a day. Some reasons they did it:
– Learning a new skill or programming language by building something ‘real’
– ‘Scratching that itch’, solving some problem that they never quite get the time or priority to solve in their day-to-day
– Working with people that they don’t normally work with
– Building a full product (instead of working on a tiny piece of a huge system)
– Building a visualization tool
– Doing something totally different

Those involved generally seemed to greatly enjoy the experience, the chance to work on something different, to push themselves in a new and different direction, and perhaps the chance to receive the acclaim of their peers.

How did it work?:

There was a committee formed to organize the Hackathon. They were responsible for:
– Publicity
– Getting buy-in from management (this had already happened, so this part was relatively easy)
– Convincing judges to judge the competition (These were usually senior people in the organization who were not part of a ‘hack’)
– Organizing the various parts of the event
– The ‘pitch’
– The presentations
– The prizes
– The voting for the ‘Audience Choice’
– A/V and some method for telling presenters their time was up (we used a stop light)
– Finding sponsors for any ‘Sponsored Hacks’
– All of the various other small things required to run an event like this
– Buying the pizza for the party after the presentations

How often did they happen?
– The Hackathons happened once per quarter, generally in the middle of the week


During the weeks before:
– Publicity, book rooms, perhaps plan food, plan A/V, location, etc.

A couple of days before:
– Run the ‘Pitch Session’
– Provide a place (usually a wiki page) for people to join groups following the pitches

The first day of the hackathon (The hackathon would run noon to noon, with presentations 3-4pm the following day):
– Start the hackathon, giving any support where necessary

The second day of the hackathon:
– Collect presentations, so they can be presented in a timely manner
– Collect the judges, so they can judge the competition
– Run the presentations
– Run the ‘Audience Choice’ vote
– Count the ‘Audience Choice’ votes
– Distract the people with pizza while the judges are deliberating
– Help the judges present prizes

Some more details:

A ‘Pitch Session’ is:
– Each person gets one minute to talk about their idea, in the hopes that they can attract a group of people to work on it with them. There was a rule that teams had to pitch something if they wanted to win ‘best hack’, to encourage them to participate in the pitches and include others

How are teams formed?
– Teams can be of any number of people, but we never saw a team of more than 12 people or fewer than 1 person[2].
– To encourage different parts of the organization to work together, each team would be awarded points for each group represented in the team. Including someone from ‘Customer Experience’ or ‘Marketing’ would be worth three points, while including people from Engineering (the expected default for a hackday) would be worth 1 point
– Teams, once formed are added to the hackday webpage, for posterity, and so people can coordinate (and so the organizers can coordinate collecting all of the presentations)

What happened during the 24-hour Hackathon period?
– During the 24 hours of ‘hacking’, people generally put their project work aside and work on their hacks. Some people were given more or less time to do so, depending on their particular management chain and the urgency of their specific work at hand. Of course, if a production issue cropped up in the middle of the day, that would have priority.

How did presentations work?
– Each team was given 3 minutes to present. Luckily, we had a traffic light that was repurposed to give an easily visible signal to presenters when they were running short of time.
– There was generally an audience, of the other people hacking, the judges, and whoever else wanted pizza later

How were they judged?
– ‘Best Pitch’ (a friend of mine routinely won this part, due to his uniquely hilarious presentation style)
– This was generally awarded based on presentation originality and style
– ‘Most Productizeable’ (Which hack was easiest to productize for customers, either internal or external?)
– ‘Best Hack’ (this is the ‘best overall’ category)
– Not necessarily the one that won any other category, but the best overall
– ‘Best Presentation’
– Similar to ‘Best Pitch’, but generally a higher level of polish (and humour) is expected
– ‘Best Sponsored Hack’
– This is like ‘Best Hack’, but restricted to the specific sponsored category
– Hacks would be graded on the criteria above by the judges, IIRC on a 1-10 scale. (There may have been other criteria which were then rolled up into the categories above. That would be up to any event organizers, should someone wish to take these instructions and run with them.)

How did ‘Sponsored Hack’ work?
– This was a later innovation after some people saw the power of the various hacks that had taken place.
– A person or persons within the company would put up money for prize(s) for the best hack that would fulfill certain criteria. There was one hack to link a system to a particular enterprise solution, and one hack to use a new internal API that had been developed
– There was generally only one ‘Sponsored Hack’ per hackathon, and it was a bidding contest to determine which one would be the official ‘Sponsored Hack
– We found that having super-clear criteria about what constituted a ‘successful hack’ was extra important when the prize money for ‘Sponsored Hack’ greatly outweighed the prize money for ‘Best Hack’

What were the prizes?
– Generally gift cards of some type, glory, and a trophy
– The gift cards would be in the $50-100 range for first place. The glory was the really important part.
– Part of the trophy process was the expectation that each group would modify the trophy in some way before presenting it to the next team at the next hackaton
– We had some issues with one of the sponsored hacks when the prize money reached into the hundreds of dollars, because we had not clearly defined ‘When is a hack good enough to be considered a successful hack?’, and the difficulty of the particular hack

What types of ‘hacks’ did you see?
– There were a number of visualizations of various parts of the system
– There were a number of creative front-end interfaces for various parts of the system
– There was a one-line fix to a bug, in a effort to win ‘most productizeable’ by already being in production
– There was a musical number
– Once, the entire team of interns worked together on a hack
– We had an issue with not being able to tell whether our non-bookable meeting rooms were occupied, so one group made some lights with door sensors to quickly communicate down the hall that a room was occupied or not
– And many others…

Pleaes drop me a line if you want to run one of these. They’re a lot of fun, and can really help people get to know others and build an ‘esprit do corps’ in an organization.

[1]Unrelated: ‘Stupid Hackathons‘, which have a *totally* different ethos…

[2]Even the ‘Automated PowerPoint Presentation’ hack required someone to give the presentation.

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