Hackathons are a great way to increase innovation and team spirit! At Visual Meta, we have been running Hackathons regularly for more than 2 years. During the Hackathon, everyone in the company has the opportunity to propose ideas, and to collaborate intensively with colleagues to make the ideas a reality. The Hackathon lasts only a few days, yet the benefits of the completed projects can have business value to the company. And for those who participate, the Hackathon is a chance to learn a new skill, be inspired by new ideas, work on something outside of their daily responsibilities, win a prize, and most of all, have fun!
In this article we describe how we organize our Hackathons and what we learned along the way, hopefully giving you inspiration and helping you to get your own Hackathon started easily.
Before you start promoting your Hackathon, put some thought into how often you will run them and how many participants and projects you can accommodate. People love to get involved and to have the opportunity to work on their own projects, so your Hackathon could be very popular!
To give you some idea, at Visual Meta we run Hackathons every 6 months, and the last Hackathon had 33 participants across 7 projects. This is a great participation rate for a company of 250 people. We are fortunate enough to have a large room onsite (called the Playground) where we can host events of this size. If you don’t have a large room available, then one option to consider would be putting an upper limit on the number of participants and adding a waiting list. If you get a lot of interest you could run the Hackathons more often.
After you have done some thinking about how you will accommodate everyone, it is time to start promoting your Hackathon. Use whatever forums you have available to let people know the important details and the benefits of getting involved. We have an announcement during the monthly company meeting, and we also advertise in our company Skype channels.
Keep your subscription process simple. We provide a Confluence page with a table and ask people to add their name, and the name and description of their idea/project. Other people who like the idea and want to be part of the team are encouraged to register by adding their names to the project.
To encourage participation we also have a pitching round where the originator of the idea pitches to the company. This is straightforward and informal – no slides, just a few minutes speaking. After the pitches participants can join projects, and the idea originator can approach people and ask them to be on the team. If an idea originator is struggling to form a team, they can approach us for help. We recommend that you provide your idea originator’s with this support as it will boost their confidence knowing they can get assistance. But be aware, not every project will go ahead. We require a minimum of three people per project to foster collaboration and informal structures and some ideas don’t gain enough support to make it to the next stage. This is perfectly normal and all part of the process of creating great Hackathon projects.
Recent Successful Projects
We ask people for Amazon links if they need hardware or other supplies to build their project, so we can order them upfront.
An important corner stone of a successful hackathon is the catering. In order to make full focus on the realisation of the projects possible you want to make sure no one needs to leave the office during the event. This means that you provide the participants with everything they need – including food and beverages for the duration of the hackathon. At Visual Meta we order pastries for breakfast and make sure there is a variety of different kinds of food for lunch and dinner as – believe it or not – even pizza gets boring after a few days. The lasagna, salads, sandwiches, chili con/sin carne or bagels we serve are quite popular amongst the participants and to ensure no one gets hungry in between we provide snacks like pretzels, cookies and haribo sweets too. On top of the coffee and water available in our kitchens it is wise to serve some energy boosters like Red Bull, Coke or the all time favourite Club Mate.
The Hackathon takes three days (Wednesday-Friday) plus the weekend where we also provide catering, to give teams a buffer of two more days if they’d like to continue working on their project. This usually applies to 30-50% of the participants.
Well you can imagine what our “Playground” looks like after the first hours and meals. This leads us to the introduction of our next best-practice: the so called Putzplan. We introduced the Putzplan in our second hackathon and since then we make sure we never forget it! Each team is responsible for cleaning up after one of the meals and in order to ensure a tidy environment for the prototype presentation, each participant is asked to come in early on that day to move their equipment back to their work space and help us prepare everything for a fantastic hackathon presentation and voting ceremony.
We make it a real show like “Britain’s got talent”, placing the jury prominently in front of the audience on nice chairs, with an evaluation sheet and a glass of water on their table. And, of course, there are two amazing show mistresses! We play upbeat music and motivate the audience to clap and cheer in order to create a great atmosphere. A good start is a funny introduction for the jury members. To ensure everyone is prepared, we provide the participants with all details necessary a few days before: the timebox for each presentation (10 minutes per team including questions from the audience), the order in which they take place and the email address they should send their presentation to, so that we can open everything on a pc in advance. Everyone has experienced those awkward moments when somebody tries to login or access a presentation in front of hundreds of people – try to avoid them.
Presentations usually get neglected at first but become important in the end, so it is helpful if the organizers remind teams to keep it in mind or work on it early on. Presentations are a great opportunity for people to get involved because team members who cannot contribute much to the core but are interested in the project can focus on preparing and presenting the results in awesome and creative ways.
Additionally, make sure that the agenda of the show and the voting procedure is clear to everyone. We adapted the latter several times and currently have three categories the project teams can win in: business potential, operational benefits and tech innovation. The voting is the last part of the ceremony and our system creates an even balance between the number of votes of the jury and the audience.
As it takes some time for the jury to deliberate after the presentations and we need to count all votes to identify the winners, the winners are announced at a separate meetings a few days later – our monthly “All Hands” meeting. Given that the entire company takes part in the meeting, this is the right platform to recognize the winner teams and to handover the trophies, certificates and lunch vouchers.
After a successful hackathon the question arises of how to proceed with all the amazing ideas resulting from the event. Depending on the Product Ideation process your company is following it makes sense to consider the ideas like any other, meaning evaluating it’s business potential and prioritizing it against the other items in the roadmap. At Visual Meta we assign a person responsible for following up with the hackathon teams if needed for example to ask for some more details or clarification on the effort needed for the realisation. If projects don’t make it to the roadmap, the hack teams get notified including the reasoning behind the decision. But we can count quite a few ideas that have made it to realisation! The return on investment that we get from organizing hackathons is amazing – not only regarding the business ideas but also regarding employee motivation. It truly is worth the effort of organizing it. And to make it a little easier for you, we would like to give you our handy hackathon organisation checklist.
When organizing a hackathon there is a heaps to consider. The following checklist can help you not to forget anything:
Before the Hackathon
- Find date + organize room
- Book room for jury consultation after the project presentations
- Think of winner categories
- Define departments to participate
- Get a decision on a motto
- Send a “save the date”
- Create a wiki page including a table of participants and one for the projects as well as the timeline for the event
- Send first email
- Define prizes and get approval
- Reminder and explanation of pitches: send email to idea contributors
- Book room for pitches
- Prepare pitching session
- Prepare technical infrastructure
- Organize food and drinks/sparkling wine for winners
- Room setup
- Send email to Finance with approved budget/cash needed for the weekend catering
- Send blocker for prototype presentations (jury + employees)
- Define voting process for categories/get approval
- Book slot for winner announcement in All Hands meeting
- Order trophies for winners
- Confirm numbers of participants with Office and Finance for catering
- Prepare room: tables + cables
- Send email to participants to know the number of PC’s needed (who has a laptop, who can share a PC)
- Send email to participants concerning licenses
- Make sure for Design to create vouchers/ certificates
During the Hackathon
- Putzplan: allocate one team per meal to clean up
- Prepare voting box/es + pens
- Prepare voting forms (print sheets with list of participating teams)
- Send presentation invitation to participants
- Prepare jury evaluation form
- Weekend administration: food, security, lock up process, get cash from finance
- Prepare presentations session
- Confirm weekend numbers and collect money from Finance for weekend catering
After the Hackathon
- Buy restaurant vouchers for winners
- Return money from the weekend + bills to Finance
- Prepare certificates (signatures from the jury, fill in the winner team names)
- Prepare/brief Manager for winner announcement
- Add follow up steps for each project on Hackathon wikipage
- Announce Hackathon winners to wikipage