If you’ve been anywhere near the tech sector in the past two decades, you may have heard the term ‘hackathon’ in passing. These quick development sprints foster innovation and can lead to revolutionary digital products. But what is a hackathon? And, more importantly, how do you run a hackathon?
What is a hackathon?
A hackathon is an intense design sprint that sees developers, designers, project managers and marketers collaborate on a software project for a pre-defined time. Hackathons are usually conducted over a 24-hour period or across several days.
Hackathons are a great way for your team to learn and develop outside of their regular working commitments or project remits. They get to work on what they’re interested in. They get to work with brand new technologies or in an area they aren’t used to. They get to craft exciting new proof of concepts with the potential to change the world.
Products that started their life as hackathon proof of concepts include the messaging app GroupMe, which Skype acquired for $80 million in 2011. But arguably more successful hackathons products have come from companies like Facebook, who typically hold hackathons every 6 weeks. The Facebook Timeline, “Like” button and much more originally started life in a hackathon.
The point of hackathons is to test out new ideas. So while you won’t walk away with a finished product – hackathons are time-limited; you’ll take shortcuts to just get a proof of concept ready – you could end up with the seeds of something great…
How to run a hackathon
The possibilities with a hackathon are endless. The constraints of the hackathon can foster creativity and innovation in ways you won’t find in the normal working place. A hackathon is also a fantastic team-building exercise and skill builder for your team.
All that’s left then is: how to run a hackathon anyway?
1. Choose a suitable space with the right infrastructure
First off, you need to think about where you’re going to hold your hackathon. For anywhere up to a week – though most likely for a 24- or 36-hour non-stop sprint – your devs, designers, PMs and marketers are going to be holed up in the same venue. You need to make sure it’s a good one.
Think about whether the space invites creativity. You want to choose an inspiring venue, but don’t let this be your only requirement. Another basic requirement is a great internet connection and adequate infrastructure so your teams can really get hacking.
Also, plan what food you’re going to provide for your hackers. Pizza is a good shout, but healthy options could get brains firing more reliably too. In addition, it’s worth planning in some exercise activities to generate a positive and healthy atmosphere. We’ve brought yoga to our annual hackathons and it’s gone down a treat!
2. Pick engaging themes and create exciting briefs
Give your hackathon more focus by selecting one or several themes. A theme helps to channel creativity and makes it easier for teams to come up with hackathon ideas.
There are two different ways that you can approach hackathon briefs. On the one hand, you can direct your teams at real-world problems. Their task will be to find a technical solution to help users overcome pressing problems.
On the other hand, you can focus on emerging technologies to upskill your teams. Alternatively, you could set briefs that push your teams to utilise tech they aren’t used to. You could set your web developers onto building a new mobile app, for instance.
3. Find industry-leading sponsors and facilitators
There is one final way to set briefs for your hackathon. Use your network to find relevant, industry-leading sponsors to support your event. Not only can sponsors provide you with financial or practical assistance to help facilitate your event, but they can also bring interesting hackathon ideas to the table.
In the past at Cyber-Duck, we’ve asked our clients if they have any problems they would like us to solve using new technologies. Then at the last Leeds University Hackathon, Yorkshire Building Society and PwC set the students challenges (and our very own
This is a fantastic way of focusing your teams’ creativity. Likewise, it means that your project may have a future beyond the hackathon itself!
4. Set a time limit
Another reason why hackathons channel creativity so well is because they are time-limited. Teams must deliver a working proof-of-concept by the end of the hackathon, so the short time period pushes teams to keep moving forward.
Teams don’t have time to deliberate and complicate the project, as might happen during an average project. Instead, teams must distil the idea down to its purest form. They will think about what a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) might look like, and deliver that core product to communicate the idea effectively to the judges at the end.
The only question is: how long will your hackathon last?
A full 36-hour sprint is great for senior or skilled developers who have what it takes to create a complex product in a short time frame. But if you have junior developers, it might be more suitable to run a shorter hackathon. Likewise, think carefully about whether your team can actually commit to a long hackathon. Maybe a design sprint over a week is more appropriate.
5. Diversify your teams
Hackathon ideas are all about creative problem-solving. Frankly, there’s no better way to foster that kind of creative thinking than to bring diversity to your teams.
When you start planning the logistics for the day itself, think about whether you have a healthy mix of individuals from a range of backgrounds, professions and seniority levels. The greater the diversity, the greater the ideas and variety of ideas your teams will come up with.
Diversifying your teams also helps the hackers to learn new skills from one another.
6. Select expert judges
All the hard work your hackers put in over the course of the hackathon shouldn’t be for nothing. If you can get distinguished experts to whom your teams can look up to, you might get more exciting material out of the hackathon.
Expert judges can also provide constructive feedback to participants, helping to make projects better during the hackathon itself or giving them a life beyond the sprint.
7. Finally, get everyone pitching their projects!
All the above will help you plan your hackathon, but you shouldn’t stop there. After the hack is finished, get your teams to present their projects to each other and the judges.
Throughout the hackathon, encourage the teams to think about how they would pitch their MVP to a client. They need to make their pitch memorable. Encourage teams to keep pitches visual and interesting, all while ensuring they communicate exactly how the product addresses the brief’s problems.
As we said before, your judges should be experts in their fields, people your teams can look up to. But there’s a more important reason why your judges must be experts. These are the people who will tell your teams if their projects are viable from a business point of view. Judges should have a high degree of technical and/or business knowledge so they can give valuable feedback to teams.
Judges also need to pick a winner, which brings us on to the last point…
8. (Don't forget to reward your participants with prizes!)
Your hackers are giving up their free time to join your hackathon, so you better make it worth their while. A top prize for the winning team is a must, as it’ll give your teams that extra incentive to give the project their all.
Large organisations sometimes offer cash prizes, but smaller hackathons might have a range of other goodies; one year, our prizes included voice assistants like Google Home, Sonos speakers, board games, and headphones!
Just make sure you don’t leave anyone out – everyone should receive a conciliatory prize, even if they don’t make the top three!
Previous Cyber-Duck hackathon ideas
We’ve been running hackathons at Cyber-Duck for years now. It’s no surprise that we’ve created some truly stellar proof of concepts in our time!
Take the Cuckoo Quack. This Internet of Things device was a cuckoo clock that notified the whole office when a new notification came through to our social media accounts. It used an API, Arduino board and a Raspberry Pi to feed information to the clock. We also used Arduino to make our very own duck!
Or the electronic health records project from last year’s hackathon. Here, we utilised blockchain technology to address a pressing concern in the nation’s healthcare sector. With the current system both inefficient and prone to human error or unnecessary delays, our solution would help save lives through a proactive, digital approach.
Jim.Care is another Cyber-Duck hack that we’re really proud of. We wanted to help the elderly who live on their own, especially those at risk of falling over and seriously hurting themselves. Jim.Care was our solution. It harnessed the power of Amazon Alexa and Amazon Dash buttons to make it easier for users to contact their loved ones or the emergency services if they were in distress or danger.
We've also attended external Hackathons, and won the Barclays Hackathon at Unbound London for building a digital update for the traditional children’s piggy bank.
Want to run your own hackathon? Book with Cyber-Duck
There are loads of benefits to hosting your very own hackathon, but even with our guide it can be difficult to know how to pull off a successful hack!
Fortunately, we have the experience you need to run a fantastic hackathon. We’re able to bring a hackathon to your company, running short sprints with your team to foster creativity and drive innovation.