What is a Hackathon? The Complete Guide

What is a Hackathon?

A hackathon - formed from the root words hacking and marathon - is an event which brings people together for a short duration of time to problem solve and find unique solutions using technology. The goal is to take ideas and turn them into reality by by the end of the event.

The term codefest, hackfest or hackday are also common terms for this type of event. They have a certain intensity to them which differ from regular brainstorming sessions: the idea is to bring people together within one venue and within a short space of time - often lasting 24 to 48 hours -  and promote a high energy atmosphere by supplying sustenance like food, sleeping arrangements or caffeine, and also provides prizes to spur people on. Not all hackathons are the same, there are many who may opt for a more healthy approach and who see positive and inclusive energy as being more influential than the more competitive natured ones.

There are many different genres. When we think of hackathons many of us imagine computer programmers and other software development experts, but these short-sprinted events also include project managers, graphic designers and all other domain experts who collaborate to see projects through. They are also not solely limited to software development for websites and mobile apps, there are hackathons for just about everything. Some hackathons are global and expansive, such as Music Hack Day - a 3 day festival style event which takes place at cities all over the world and is an interdisciplinary event promoting collaboration between developers, researchers and musicians to create music-related software. There are also more internal focused hackathons within one company to come up with new products or innovative solutions to an existing product such as Facebook with its invention of the ‘like’ button.  There are government run hackathons and ones devoted to improving social issues such as DementiaHack. They also take place in colleges across campuses, as well as more unconventional ones such as StartupBus which takes the concept of the road trip as a way to connect tech communities across the globe.

No matter what unique variation or form it takes, the purpose of hackathons are to provide an exciting and lively environment where technology and creativity come together to create new realities out of a freedom of self expression. In this article we will outline all the details associated with the preparations, the actual event and the final reflections to give a holistic picture of what these events entail.

Preparing for a Hackathon

Sponsorship and Marketing

Before any successful event can be carried out, there needs to be funds in place (however, before approaching anyone, make sure there is a detailed budget for venue and food costs drawn up so you know how much you’re asking for when approaching people).

If companies are doing this internally, the funds will come through business budgets, but if the event is outside of this remit and brings together a large group of people from many different areas, it will need to be funded through donors and sponsorships. What’s the best way to go about finding this? Well, rather than thinking of someone just handing out money, think of it as an opportunity for a mutually beneficial exchange. Whatever it is that a sponsor provides - such as a venue to host the event in, money, or even food and other paraphernalia like logo-clothing - the event should provide them something useful as well. It could be part of their hiring strategy where they use the event to scout new recruits or they may use it for marketing purposes to push their own products. When pitching to a company, think of it less as a cold call, and more as a collaboration for why you want to work with them.

After you have secured a collaborator/funder, make sure you show your support whether that’s through a social media shoutout, introducing them at the event or giving them their own section of the venue to promote themselves and their product.

Preparation and Organization

Depending on how many people will be attending, organising an event can be overwhelming. It’s best to break it down into manageable sections; your to-do list should be categorised by pre-event registration, then followed by the two-week mark, one-week mark and one-day mark before tasks. As an organiser, you want to make sure you get as much organised ahead of time as possible, such as knowing exactly which projects will be pursued at the event so appropriate lead organizers are chosen.

For registration: choose an event registration website, and make sure you create a limit on the amount of people who can sign up, taking into account the capacity of the venue and your budget. You can make this number slightly higher than the capacity, as generally you will only get about 65-70% attendance, especially if it’s a free event. The registration form will then give you the necessary information you need about each person to create teams, such as:

  • their name
  • contact info
  • previous experience of these type of events
  • which workshop or event they are interested in
  • any special needs or dietary requirements
  • what is their job role and expertise

Two weeks before the event: This is a good time to start identifying your project leaders. Each team (generally 2-5 people per team) should have a leader, as well as someone to be a leader overseeing all the teams. Once these roles are chosen, the leaders can then prepare for the specific projects and become a liaison so each member feels welcomed and understands their role and what is expected of them. It is important to make sure each participating project has a clear and coherent problem they are looking to solve - articulation is key. Depending on your budget, and whether or not you have paid employees or volunteers, there needs to be help. This could mean someone to turn to at the workshops, running the registration area, taking behind the scenes photos or running the social media updates. Generally two weeks ahead is a good time to also email those attending to keep everyone in the loop as well as a reminder.

One week before the event: By this point, you should have all your media and marketing strategies in place; have you made a hashtag? Do you have someone taking photos? Is there somewhere all the documentation can go, such as a shared domain like a Tumblr? Make sure you have all the supplies you need including all administrative must haves like paper, pens, tape and nametags. If you’ve prepared catering, make sure the order is in, and you have all the plates and cups you need. Make sure you create a list of everyone attending and organize it by alphabetical name. Now it’s time to send another email - to remind any journalists - but also to set up communication between all the different teams. Make sure each group has their dedicated shared ideation space, like google doc or another software.

The day before: There is so much you will need to remember to prepare for the event, it’s a good idea to have this checklist printed off in advance. The day before the event you should just be checking each part on your list rather than necessarily carrying out the task. These are the most import things to remember:

  • charge everything; phone, camera, computer!
  • print handouts for each attendee which includes vital information like wifi codes, social media info and hashtags, a map of where the team rooms and workshops will be, locations and time for eating and of course, a schedule.
  • One final email, making sure everyone knows how the event will unfold. Every attendee should be emailed prior to the event with: the organiser’s contact information, the location, the food menu, exact date and times, any external gatherings outside the main scheduled event. It should also act as a final reminder for everyone to bring their ID’s and their chargers. This is also where you could express your code of conduct, acknowledge the sponsors and let anyone know if there are special workshops being offered.
  • Visit the venue and check all the pragmatic things off your list; do you have enough tables and chairs for everyone? Where are the power sockets? Do you need extension cords? Does the wifi work?

Making sure you’re properly prepared and organised is so important for running a smooth hackathon, so don’t rush or scrimp on this very important process!

During the Hackathon

Getting everyone involved

To make sure your event runs smoothly, you’ll want to make sure you have a strong foundation first. This means curating an atmosphere where newcomers feel welcome, and where a code of conduct will set the precedent for everyone to be treated the same. The code of conduct is a written declaration that sets out your rules and expectations, and if you run into any problems this can be a guide to help bring awareness to any conscious or unconscious bias that may be permeating the space.

Newcomers themselves will most likely feel intimidated or suffer from imposter syndrome. It is the leader's job to minimise this feeling and create a positive atmosphere so that everyone reaches their maximum potential and contributes their best ideas. Some helpful ways to create a positive environment:

  • keep things light; don’t put your participants under pressure to solve any problems by the end of the event. It is much more helpful to think of these kinds of sessions as part of a longer journey of discovery. The purpose is about finding solutions and exploring new ideas, and this process comes in all shapes and sizes.
  • assess the nature of the event; do you think the participants will do well in a competitive, highly caffeinated atmosphere, or does something a little calmer and healthier make more sense for the situation?
  • clearly outlined tasks; making sure each team knows their goals and tasks will help participants feel less lost, and will put horse blinders on the project in a beneficial way.
  • put people in the right teams; based on their skill, expertise and previous experience, make sure you organise people appropriately so the right collaborations and chemistry can happen. If the participant understands how the leader finds them useful, this will also give them more confidence.
  • offer other ways to socialize; this could be holding Happy Hours before and after the event so participants can get to know each other in a relaxed way outside of the hackathon setting. Find a nearby venue so that it isn’t a last minute afterthought, but rather a planned event that everyone looks forward to.

Workshops and Training

Offering workshops and training is another way to expand your event, and bring people together. This is especially helpful if there are alot of participants new to the scene and can act as an icebreaker. Your workshop could be on a simple topic such as ‘an introduction to hackathons’ themselves, or it could be more isolated and focused on a specific topic or skill. They could also take an open forum approach to allow people to discuss and debate a contemporary topic in the field. When choosing workshop speakers or offering training sessions, make sure the leaders you choose are experienced and reflect your code of conduct commitment to being as diverse as possible. For any lecture or workshop, it is best to keep it around the one-hour mark, and give half hour breaks, to hold everyone's attention.

The Nuts and Bolts of running an Event

The nuts and bolts of running the event refers mainly to venue and food. Without these staples in place, your event will fall flat. Adding what some refer to as ‘swag’ - the shirts, stickers and other fun branded content - should be focused on and budgeted for after the nuts and bolts are in place.

When deciding on a venue, keep in mind what events you will be hosting. Hacking events are generally laid out banquet-style, with circular tables for teams to be able to talk to each other easily. Just like planning a wedding, your seating arrangements and making sure the space is big enough should all be organised well in advance of the day. Workshops and training sessions can be set up in other rooms, and could be more informal or a classroom type setting. Of course, don’t forget about accessibility for certain participants who are not able-bodied. Running your event during a low season time (not summer or holidays) will make hiring a venue much less expensive. While the cost for a venue is always generally quite high, if you get enough participants you can split the cost evenly which makes it much more affordable.

Different venues also have different food rules, so make sure you look into this. Food is important for hackathons to keep everyone's energy levels high and their minds focused. Breakfast, lunch and dinner should all be provided, including snacks and drinks throughout the day. It’s probably best to choose foods that are healthy so team members stay alert, and of course make sure you know everyones dietary requirements. You should budget for around 20 dollars per person to be safe.

Lastly, make sure you visit the venue a day before, as well as the morning of, to double check everything is in order such as the right amount of seating, a working projector, bathrooms are running. Print out any signs and maps and post them where necessary.

The Schedule

Having a schedule in place is a must. Organise the event to a T, and then hand each person a printed version as well as online. When drawing up your schedule, think of three main points:

  • Start the day off with a Welcome Session: This is where participants will register themselves and find their name badge. Host a nice introduction so participants can meet the organizers as well as the venue or sponsors. It is during this section that you will remind everyone why they are here, and the common goal of the event. If your Hackathon is on the smaller scale, you can have attendees all introduce themselves as well, and if it’s larger perhaps there are break off rooms to enable this. Before getting tucked into the Hackathon, make sure everyone knows logistical details of when workshops are being held and when breaks are.
  • The Hackathon: Once all the intros are finished, it’s time to get into your teams and start hacking! Make sure there’s a designated volunteer or employed leader who is available to everyone, by walking around the space and overseeing everything is running smoothly and on schedule. It is also this person’s job to let everyone know when the breaks are, or when the workshops are. The less the participants have to think about external things such as time or where to get food, the better.

After the Hackathon

Make sure you dedicate a good amount of time to wrapping up the event properly. This is another opportunity to touch base, connect everyone and hear about what each team did that day. Each team’s leader should give a short synopsis on their achievements or perhaps just share what they learned from encountering any problems. If you have access to a projector, it’s a good idea to use this, as visual accompaniments are always more interesting than just spoken. Make sure each group summarizes their work in under 5 minutes, or you will run way over time. After this is wrapped up, don’t forget to thank your venue or sponsors again, and all who attended. You can then move on to a happy hour wrap up, but don’t forget to clean up the space and make sure you left the venue as you found it!

Once the whole event is over, as an organiser or lead, it’s a good idea to take some time to assess how you’ve done or what you’ve learned. Writing down the positives and negatives of the experience will help you repeat or avoid the right things next time. Look over your budget again, and study how well you managed to pull things off within it. Will the next one need tweaking or did you hit the mark? You should also send one more email out to everyone, and gather feedback. Remember to keep things light and don’t expect perfect results from a hackathon - it’s all about what you learn along the journey!

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