How to organize and run your own hackathon
How to Organize a Hackathon
A hackathon is typically a weekend-long event, during which computer programmers and code writers come together to solve a coding or programming problem. Hackathons can also occur outside of the programming industry. The word has recently taken on a broader meaning and now includes any group of professionals who come together to address a common problem within their field.To organize a hackathon, first put together clear and achievable goals, then begin inviting participants, finding sponsors, and arranging a venue, food, and transportation.
Determining the Focus and Major Details
Articulate a clear goal for the hackathon.In order for your hackathon to be a success, you and all of the participants will need to have a clear goal of what’s actually being accomplished. Hackathons are a valuable networking resource, but most attempt to solve a specific problem or create new technology. For example, the goal of your hackathon could be:
- Solving a medical issue related to breathing-related deaths in infants.
- Addressing the need for more food startup companies.
Find a venue for your hackathon.A month or 2 in advance, start making arrangements for a physical venue for the event. Make sure that it will have adequate seating for the hackathon attendees, as well as a projector, microphone, and bathrooms. If you have no sponsors and limited financial means, you may need to find a cheap, local venue. Depending on the time and resources at your business’s disposal, consider venues like:
- 2 or 3 conference rooms in a local hotel.
- Space on a college campus.
- A nearby public library.
Schedule the hackathon for a typically slow weekend.You’ll have a better turnout for your event if it’s scheduled on a weekend when most participants will be free. This means that you should avoid scheduling the event during summer and winter breaks or near national holidays. Also make sure that your hackathon doesn’t overlap with major conferences in your field.
- For example, the weekends immediately before and after Memorial Day (or any other major holiday) would both be poor choices for holding a hackathon.
Recruit 1 or more sponsors for your event.Ask around in your industry to find at least 1 commercial sponsor. Sponsors can help cover the costs of large hackathons in various ways: through providing a space to host the event, providing food, or simply providing cash. In return, sponsoring companies will expect something in return: perhaps time to address hackathon participants or a booth to sell their products.
- If the hackathon is a success, your sponsors will be likely to return year after year. If the hackathon continues to expand in size, you can recruit additional sponsors.
Contact prospective participants a couple months in advance.Hackathon organizers often recruit professionals from diverse industries for your hackathon or reach out to people they don’t already know. In this scenario, reach out to professionals in the field well in advance, so they’ll have time to rearrange their schedules and make travel plans in order to attend the hackathon.
- On the other hand, if the hackathon is a required event within your company or business, you don’t need to give as much advance notice. Inform employees about the upcoming hackathon a week or 2 in advance.
Cap the number of participants.Popular hackathons can quickly become massive affairs. To avoid a huge, bloated event, limit the number of participants in advance. If you cap the number at 300 or 400, you’ll have enough participants to fill the various hacking and training sessions, but not so many that the event feels out of control.
- A useful rule of thumb is that all of the hackathon participants should fit in a single large meeting room or gymnasium.
- Keep in mind that, since attendance is purely voluntary for most hackathons, only about 60% of the invitees will actually attend.
Planning for Comfort and Convenience
Organize transportation for hackathon participants.A popular method for bringing participants to the hackathon venue is to rent a charter bus. The bus can drive through a state or 2 and pick up participants at 6 or 7 separate locations before bringing them to the hackathon location.
- Once participants are at the hackathon location, consider their local transportation needs. For example, if the hackathon is held at a hotel, talk to the hotel concierge and see if the hotel has a shuttle that can ferry hackathon participants around town if needed.
Order more than enough food for the hackathon.In order to keep event participants happy and productive, they’ll need to be well fed. Plan to have a light breakfast spread when participants arrive each morning, and provide a filling lunch around 1 or 2 pm. Ask participants in advance about any dietary restrictions you’ll need to accommodate.
- The type of food you provide depends on the hackathon budget. If you’re low on cash, plenty of pizzas and soda will suffice.
- If you have a larger budget, look into hiring a local catering company or restaurant to provide 2 healthy meals a day.
Make sure that venue has stable internet and electrical connectivity.Speak with the venue manager or owner and confirm that their Wi-Fi can handle 400+ devices accessing the internet simultaneously. Also confirm that the venue has plenty of outlets to plug in laptops, phones, and tablets.
- Keep in mind that many participants will bring 2 or more electronic items.
- Ideally, the venue should have enough outlets (or power strips) that each hackathon participant has access to on average 1.5 outlets.
Plan evening entertainment if the event budget permits.If the main hackathon events conclude each day at 5 or 6 pm, schedule some type of entertainment to help participants unwind and relax. Invite a local cover band to perform one evening, or rent a karaoke machine and set it up in the main conference room for guests to use.
- Even a minimal budget should cover a little entertainment. Call up a local bar and ask if they have a private room that a couple dozen hackathon participants could rent for the evening.
Facilitating the Hackathon
Divide participants into effective groups.Most hackathons have many groups of 4-6 individuals working together to solve the problem posed by the hackathon. Successful groups will blend subject-matter experts (e.g. medical professionals, professional coders, or restaurant managers) with relative newcomers (e.g. high school or college students, and interested amateurs).
- Avoid allowing groups comprised of only experts and only newcomers, as the newcomers will flounder and struggle to find ways to compete with the experts.
Establish clear rules for the hackathon.Hackathons often encourage different groups of programmers (or other types of professionals) to compete with each other. The most successful team often receives a monetary reward or a tech item like a new computer or camera. Rules often include time limits: for example, participants may be working in multiple 60-minute time intervals. Also specify to participants what types of technology they are or are not allowed to use.
- On the other hand, if your event is meant to be collaborative rather than competitive, an elaborate structure of rules may not be necessary.
Feature a few small competitions rather than 1 large contest.By multiplying the number of competitions featured during the hackathon, you’ll also be multiplying the number of prizes offered and the number of chances to win. This will motivate hackathon participants and draw in participants that might not otherwise be interested.
- For example, offer a small prize for best innovation using a certain type of technology.
- Of course, the prizes for each contest will be smaller and less expensive than if the hackathon were to only have 1 overall prize.
Announce prizes in advance.If your hackathon features a contest or competition, let the various groups know at the beginning of the event what item(s) they’re competing for. This will increase the participants’ motivation, since they know what they’ll be competing for.
- For example, if your hackathon is sponsored by Dell, they may be willing to donate a high-end laptop as a prize.
- Or, if you’re hosting an education-related hackathon, one of the prizes could be a 2-year subscription to an education-related magazine.
Dedicate time to training workshops for newcomers.Some hackathons focus exclusively on developing new technology, while others include training sessions for novices within the field. Training workshops pair 1 or 2 experts with a group of 10-12 relative novices. Workshops should focus on specific topics: e.g., developing proficiency in a specific coding language.
- Training sessions are especially common in hackathons within the tech field. They allow new programmers, developers, and coders to learn from successful professionals.
Video: How to organise a Hackathon - Laurence Dusoswa
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