hackathon

You’ve heard a lot about this timed competition – the hackathon – and its benefits, but you don’t know how to plan one? This article is for you!

At AT Internet, we held our very first hackathon last month, during our biennial company convention, the AT Summit.

The principle was very simple: an internal competition to create new innovations within 24 hours.

The idea was to work in teams to create a project, and to have something presentable to show during a demo at the end. And where there’s a competition, there’s a winner: After 24 hours, each team presented its creation, then a vote was held to determine the most promising innovation.

Before jumping feet first into your adventure, it’s a good idea to speak with other companies who have already held hackathons, if you can. We’re happy to share our experience with you here with these 10 tips.

 

1. Define the rules of the game

Define a wide scope for the selection of topics. This will limit any self-censoring and will make it easier for teams to be formed of people who don’t typically work together. To define this scope, ask your colleagues to find an idea that inspires them: the selection of topics is open, as long as it’s somehow related to your company. They might decide to create their dream feature, to solve a recurring bug once and for all, or to improve the bike rack in the parking lot! To give you a few concrete examples from our AT Internet hackathon, 11 subjects were determined, including:

 

2. Create an area to save project ideas

To facilitate the forming of teams, dedicate an area where everyone can post their ideas, or view others’ ideas, in order to join a project team. Each project must have a status showing whether the team is full, or if places are still available. No need for a selection committee: on the day of the hackathon, only the projects created in this area that have a sufficient number of team members will be able to take off.

 

3. Choose a prize… or don’t!

When not held internally, hackathons usually involve rather large prizes. But in an internal context, a company hackathon’s objective is to open up new ideas and encourage creativity. Studies in social psychology over the last 30 years have shown that though prizes and rewards are useful for creating motivation around uninteresting tasks requiring little creative thought, they can actually inhibit creativity for other types of tasks.

The idea is therefore to stick with a more intrinsic type of motivation: actions are driven only by the interest and pleasure that the individual draws from this action, without any expectation of an external reward. Nonetheless, if you or your colleagues are not comfortable with this idea, I suggest choosing a team prize (like an outing to a room escape game, a team dinner at a restaurant, a laser tag outing, are just a few ideas).

 

4. Be humble

Experience shows that it’s normal for a first hackathon to have rather low participation. Hackathons are still not extremely common: your teams might not necessarily understand the point of this first hackathon – or they might be lacking ideas! From the very start, set a participation goal based on what you would consider a success. For example, our goal was to reach 20% participation (and we reached even more than that!).

Additionally, it’s important to emphasise to your teams that the hackathon should remain a relaxed, easy-going event, and that there are no obligations regarding results. And by holding hackathons regularly, you’ll enable ground-breaking innovations to emerge. Creating a context where it’s OK to make mistakes is absolutely crucial to boosting participation and liberating your teams’ creativity. I guarantee you’ll be amazed by the ideas and projects your teams come up with!

 

5. Communicate regularly

Two months prior to the event, you should send out a communication explaining the rules of the game: the principle, the date, the scope, and how things will be organised.

One month prior to the event, open up the area for project ideas to be posted and saved.

Then, every week leading up to the event, send a recap of projects that have been proposed in order to encourage people to join a certain project, or to contribute a new idea. If you’re seeing low participation during this last phase of communication, it’s possibly due to obstacles that are preventing people from participating. Don’t hesitate to ask around and speak with people to identify these obstacles, and see what solutions you can find to enable people to participate.

 

6. Don’t forget to feed your troops

24 hours is not much time for teams to deliver something that can be demonstrated! So that everyone can remain fully concentrated on their work, it’s a good idea to provide them with food and drink. At the very least, consider making coffee and snacks available throughout the day. You can also organise take-out orders for the various meals, or even have a team cooking. AT Internet actually opted for this last option: We had a team “supporting our troops” – they cooked and handed out cookies, waffles and crepes to our participants.

 

Food is important during a hackathon

 

7. Prepare for the demos

  • The demonstration should be open to everyone, no matter their department, and no matter if they’ve participated in the hackathon. Be sure to communicate widely about the date and location of the demos.
  • Make sure your participating teams know that voting will be based on what they present during the demo, and that the demo is thus a key part of the project for which they should carefully prepare. To help them, the area where your demos will take place should be set up and available a few hours in advance, so that your teams can carry out tests and run-throughs in real conditions.
  • Demos should be “time boxed”: Each project should be presented in 5 to 10 minutes maximum (depending on the total number of projects – the idea is to keep the entire session under 1.5 hours). Demos should therefore be facilitated by someone who will keep an eye on the time, ensure a smooth transition between teams, and remind each team to speak loudly and clearly.

 

Demo during hackathon

 

8. Organise the voting

No selected jury is needed for the vote – your audience will give their opinion! Nonetheless, asking people to choose just one of the subjects presented can be frustrating and difficult. I suggest you allow for multiple votes, with a limit of 2 or 3 votes per person. To set up your voting system, I suggest you use a system enabling the results to be known immediately: either by simply raising and counting hands, by using stickers, or by using an online survey/quiz tool, if all your participants have smartphones and are watching the demos remotely.

At our first hackathon, it’s the “Geode Academy” project which won. Its objective is to provide new users with a reassuring learning environment involving interactive, fun tutorials and tests integrated directly in our tools.

 

Organise the voting of a hackaton

 

9. Celebrate!

You’ll be able to gauge your event’s success thanks to the energy felt during the demos. Keep this momentum going by organising a fun coffee break or happy hour, which will give the audience a chance to discuss with teams, and serve as a nice way to wrap up the event.

 

10. Be ready for what happens next

Following your first hackathon and the waves it makes throughout your company, you can expect to be asked present a few demos again! To satisfy those who weren’t present during the demos, you can also make a summary available for each project, explaining their objectives and the results obtained.

 

Bonus

After the event, you can create a committee tasked with studying the follow-up actions to be taken on each project, and then keep all hackathon participants updated on the outcomes.

After our first hackathon experience here at AT Internet, our takeaway is that this type of event indeed allows you to unleash the motivation and creativity that many companies are in search of today. We also noticed that letting teams form in an open manner helped to break down silos, giving people who don’t typically work together an opportunity to do so. In the end, this event enabled us to fully exhibit our company values: enthusiasm, innovation and collective intelligence. We’re already thinking about planning the next one!

 

Author

Claire is a methods manager and Agile coach within AT Internet’s R&D department. Passionate about how organisations function and the challenges they face, she decided to focus on these issues after having spent more than 10 years in software development. She also teaches at a school of engineering, where she shares her knowledge of the methods used at AT Internet.

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