In addition to participating in a variety of hackathon, I’ve helped organize the Cleanweb Berkeley hackathon twice. From my experience on both sides of the judging stand, I have a few thoughts on what makes a good hackathon- and it’s more than just big prizes or awesome prompts.
- Clear Goals: “Hackathon” can cover anything from pitching a business plan to exploring a dataset looking for interesting correlations. Set clear expectations for what judges are looking for, and share them with participants.
- Break the Ice: Most people show up to a hackathon without a project or team; combat uncertainty and anxiety by providing a mechanism for everyone -even the shy ones- to highlight their interests and what they hope to contribute and learn. This can be a brainstorming activity, a ‘speed dating’ session, or fast pitches.
- Keep Energy Up: You’re asking people to push their limits for 8-36 hours; in return you need to push your limits during the communal sections- especially team formation and judging. Build on their adrenaline, match that energy, and get them excited.
- Make Prizes Fun: There’s nothing more rewarding than a true fistful of cash, even if it’s $1 bills. There’s nothing goofier than a 6-foot check. There’s nothing more hipster than a laser-cut unicorn trophy. If you want to get value out of the winners -whether startups or employees- make the award the biggest rush they’ll get until they IPO.
- Focus on the Deliverable: Most teams spend 80% of their time working on things which they don’t have time to integrate into the final product. Have a true MVP that’s up-and-running that you can incrementally improve, rather than trying to orchestrate a masterpiece that falls apart on the finish line.
- Put Yourself Out There: Introduce yourself to strangers. Admit that you’re not the best coder. Offer to do the grunt work. This is a great opportunity to fail safely without disappointing anyone.
- Set up Infrastructure ASAP: You don’t want to spend the first 2 hours of an 8-hour hackathon setting up user accounts and virtual environments. As soon as you have a team, agree on a place to share files/data, a common development framework, and start a draft deliverable.
- Relax; you’re here for fun: A hackathon can be some of the most tense coding you’ll ever do. Make sure that’s good stress, not bad stress- get into the groove, not into a rut. For me, the difference is between focusing on doing each piece well, and obsessing about how far we are from the outcome.