Tips for Great Hackathons

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.

For Organizers:

  • 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.

For Participants:

  • 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.

Wads of cash and goofy trophies make for memorable prizes.

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