Guide to Planning a Hackathon: Ideas, Tips & Resources

The term might sound newfangled, but “hackathons” have a history. Some trace the first hackathon to an open source software development event held in 1999, but programming groups have hosted collaborative meetings since the 1970s. Today the hackathon concept is utilized in virtually every industry, and participation is no longer limited to programmers. 

While the concept of hackathons has expanded, the guiding principle remains constant: intense collaboration among people with specialized knowledge over a fixed period of time can yield amazing results. 

What is a Hackathon?

Hackathon combines the term “hack,” which refers to programming, and “marathon,” which signifies intense work over a specified duration. Such events are also referred to as hackfests, hack days, and code fests. 

Groups host short, sprint-like events where teams collaborate to solve technical and business problems. College and high school students convene for hackathons, as do coding clubs, web-dev groups, design teams, and other collaborators.

What Are the Types of Hackathons? 

Your hackathon ideas can take on any form you’d like. The following list represents a few common hackathon types:

  • Coding hackathon: You may convene a group of coders around a programming language, framework, operating, or management system to develop or upgrade functional software in a 24-72 hour time frame. The most innovative solution may receive a prize.
  • External hackathon: This type of event is public, with a range of experts brought in to attack the problem. It can also be a great way to gain fresh insight from outside your “normal” group. You might find talented individuals you’ll bring onto your team.
  • Internal hackathon: Your company may be using it as a team-building exercise, or you may need to brainstorm an idea for your products and services.
  • Startup hackathon: If you’re not sure about the talents and abilities of startups, you can propose a problem for the startups and then see how the startups handle it. 

Hackathons are most commonly associated with software development, but the focus doesn’t have to be application-based or coding-focused. You might plan a hackathon to innovate ideas for a company, brainstorm with students, or develop better ways to connect with patients.

Why Host a Hackathon?

Hackathons are really about creatively solving problems. It’s a fun way to collaborate with colleagues to solve a problem or overcome a challenge. As a group or organization, you might have a number of reasons for hosting a hackathon:

  • You might want to improve your product, with new features. 
  • A delay in your product launch may inspire you to gather teams to address the technical issues in a fixed-time period. 
  • You might be looking for a way to encourage collaboration between your team members, as a team-building exercise.
  • It might be a way to test out the applicants for your open positions to ensure they have the talents and skills you need.
  • You could host a hackathon as a way for the community of coders or technical professionals to collaborate, learn, and share.

Whatever your reasons or goals for a hackathon, the event should be fun, challenging, collaborative, and solution-oriented. 

Benefits

Team collaboration is always important to groups and organizations, but the hackathon offers a range of immediate benefits. Here are a few top reasons hackathon ideas are becoming more popular, both for education and business: 

  • A hackathon fosters actionable directives and allows your team to explore ideas for innovation.
  • It’s a great way to motivate your team to allow them to achieve amazing results. 
  • Hackathons can feature incentives and rewards for the best ideas. 

Hackathons have traditionally fostered the work of experienced professionals and subject-matter experts, but they can be just as valuable to students and interns who are just breaking into a professional field or area of study.

Statistics 

Tech companies are the most common hackathon hosts, but they’re far from the only participants. Consider these statistics from HackerEarth:

  • More than 80% of all Fortune 100 companies host hackathons
  • More than 20% of FinTech and IT services companies host hackathons
  • More than 10% of logistics companies host hackathons

Hackathon Ideas

Tech companies may be the most well-known for hosting hackathons, but these events are being used to support creative problem-solving and innovation across a myriad of industries. Here are just a few examples of what a hackathon might look like for your company or group. 

AutoTech

Technology has taken on the automobile industry with a myriad of applications and performance-enhancing features. Your AutoTech hackathon can focus on developing applications for safety, maintenance, or other car-based features. 

ConsumerTech

Everyone is familiar with popular consumer tech like drones, smartphones, and even smart home technology. With such widespread use, it’s a perfect opportunity for you to innovate the current uses and functionality of consumer tech solutions. 

EdTech

Your hackathon can focus on education-related issues, with the goal of building a learning application, developing a classroom management tool, or even improving the performance of current platforms or online experiences. 

FinTech

With a FinTech hackathon, you want the teams to find solutions that might create or improve upon the current financial applications. They could develop tools that effectively address business challenges. 

HealthTech

Hackathons are popular for health-related technology, particularly as medical and healthcare providers rely more on the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to revolutionize their services. Your hackathon ideas could develop new features for virtual health monitoring, data processing, and remote patient monitoring. 

Stages of Organizing a Hackathon 

The stages of organizing a hackathon are simple. You start with the individuals or groups you’d like to involve in the event, then move forward with planning.. 

Define your group 

Who will participate in your hackathon? Will you require specific credentials or expertise? How will you gauge who will qualify? Is it an MVP event or can anyone participate? You should iron out all the details about who will be invited to participate before you 

Arrange the logistics 

Where will the event take place? Will you have sponsors? What food or beverage options will you offer? How will you promote it? To ensure your success with the hackathon, you should determine the hackathon dates, location, and other details as early as possible. Depending on the purpose of the event and the number of participants, you might iron out the initial details a year in advance. 

Develop the rules

Formal guidelines for your hackathon are important to ensure that your participants understand what they can and can’t do. It’s also a great way to reiterate and gain buy-in from participants about the event’s direction and objectives. 

You can include benchmarking details, requirements for behavior, and other suggestions. Include instructions on how you will handle disagreements or other possible breakdowns in communication during the event. 

Go with the flow

Your hackathon event may not progress exactly as you’ve planned it. You want a fun and productive atmosphere, so just focus on making sure that you communicate your expectations and address any concerns that arise along the way. 

Prepare to award prizes

Even if your hackathon doesn’t unfold as you’d hoped, you can still bring a positive close to the event by rewarding the best efforts of the participating teams. Gather judges who are knowledgeable and fair as they determine the winner. 

Hackathon Tips 

Your hackathon ideas should allow participants to have fun, but there’s also a lot that can go wrong, particularly if you’ve never hosted a hackathon before. By thinking about what your goals are, and carefully planning ahead, you can avoid potential pitfalls. Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you’re moving forward with your hackathon. 

Planning 

The success or failure of your hackathon depends upon how well you plan out the event. So, where do you start? Who will be involved? Will it be online or in-person? Here are some key factors you should consider as you’re planning your hackathon ideas. 

  • Determine the goal and purpose of your hackathon.
  • Find and approach your sponsors early. It’s a great way to cover the costs, while also supporting great prize opportunities. 
  • Nail down the date as soon as possible. 
  • Notify participants well in advance. Let them know you’d like them to be involved with your hackathon, and follow up with them to get their buy-in.
  • Break out the groups in a way that ensures fair collaboration, if possible. In most cases, you can focus on including at least one subject-matter expert (SME) in each group. 
  • Take care when you outline the rules and requirements for the hackathon. 

Planning and preparing for every possible scenario for a hackathon may feel daunting if you’ve never hosted one before. So, use this guide to think through why you’re hosting the event, what you want your participants to get out of it, and what the best possible result might be. Tap into your community to gain insights from others who have hosted hackathons. 

How to Use Hackathons for Innovation 

The purpose of a hackathon is to bring together individuals who can contribute their creative and technical knowledge toward building prototypes, testing out ideas, and solving other problems. The format of a hackathon means that you’re often able to move quickly, with the idea that you reach the innovation your group or organization needs to achieve.

To achieve your objective, you first need to plan and take into account what the pitfalls and drawbacks might be during the hackathon process. Maybe you’re moving so fast that you’ll miss or sidestep solutions that seem too simple. You might further break your product (or process) in the hopes of achieving innovation. 

Anything can happen when you bring together amazingly talented individuals to solve a problem. You might head down a path that’s not productive, but mind-boggling innovation is just as likely! 

Examples of Hackathons 

Facebook’s early days of innovation and growth might not have been possible without hackathon ideas, according to the TechGig Bureau. Features like the “like” button, the idea of uploading videos, the ability to tag people in comments, and even the Facebook timeline all came out of internal hackathons. 

Facebook isn’t the only company to find success from hackathon innovation, though. According to TechCrunch, Disrupt’s NY Hackathon birthed the GroupMe service, which Skype bought for $85 million in 2010. Although the focus is completely different, Hasbro created 45 new products via a hackathon event, according to Forbes. These hackathon successes prove what can happen when a group of people get together to share their unique ideas with a focus on innovation.   

Additional Hackathon Resources 

Here are a few hackathon resources. 

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