What is a hackathon?
Hackathons are multi-day competitions that force teams or individuals to address a specific problem. As the name implies, "hackathons" have a strong association with software development, programming language, and computer science. The first recorded hackathon was organized by the security-focused operating system OpenBSD in 1999. Many Big Tech companies like Facebook's Meta are well known for using hackathons as a part of their business strategy.
Although hackathons are closely associated with coders and computer programmers, the format of hackathons has spread to many industries. Companies as diverse as Hasbro, Capital One, and TD Ameritrade have all hosted hackathons in the past.
Hackathons generally last for a few days and can take place virtually or in person. Some hackathons welcome individual students or professionals, while others invite teams. Many hackathon organizers welcome participants from outside the sponsor or sponsors’ companies, but others may opt for "internal hackathons" where current employees work to create a solution.
Not every hackathon leads to a breakthrough product, but some have led to novel start-up companies and mobile apps. Hackathons also help event organizers and sponsors connect with talented students, entrepreneurs, and working professionals.
How do hackathons work?
Organizers can design a hackathon in many ways, but most follow a similar format. It starts with an organizer presenting the issue at the event’s beginning to hackathon participants. Then, the host informs everyone about the hackathon's rules and judging criteria.
After participants or competitors are clear on the problem they need to solve, they usually split into teams and start working on their respective solutions. They have a limited amount of time to create a plausible solution. Generally, hackathons don't last longer than three days.
Once time is up, teams present their hackathon projects to a panel of judges for review. Lastly, the judges will review each proposed solution and announce the winner. Typically, hackathon winners receive cash rewards.
Examples of companies started at hackathons
Many start-ups got their start at a hackathon. Here are a few notable start-ups that began as a hackathon pitch:
- EasyTaxi: The global taxi tracking service EasyTaxi was first developed at Startup Weekend Rio in 2011. After taking the top prize at this event, EasyTaxi launched one year later in Brazil. Presently, the company operates in 30 countries and hundreds of cities.
- Zapier: Although Zapier's team previously discussed integrating multiple apps and APIs into a workflow application, they didn't flesh out this idea until 2011's Startup Weekend in Columbia, Missouri. After taking the top prize for their proposal, the Zapier team launched this app the next year to great success. Today, Zapier can handle thousands of app integrations, and it has a multi-billion-dollar valuation.
- Carousell: The eCommerce app Carousell started as the winning project at Startup Weekend Singapore 2012. After receiving positive reviews at their hackathon, the Carousell team decided to launch their app a few months later. Carousell remains a successful eCommerce app in many countries, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Malaysia.
- CropSafe: The Dublin-based agriculture-tracking app CropSafe was first proposed at Code4Good Space Hackathon in Belfast, Northern Ireland. After taking the top prize at this event, the team put their plan of using satellite imagery to capture crop data into practice. Today, the CropSafe app is available for download on iOS and Android devices.
Why join hackathons?
Hackathons aren't just about competing for the grand prize. Indeed, many people who participate in hackathons claim their best memories happened outside the competition. Even if you're unsure whether you'd finish in the top spot, there's much to gain from your first hackathon. Here’s what you can expect:
- Networking: This works both ways, as it benefits organizers and participants. Organizers and sponsors often use hackathons to recruit new employees, while competitors have the chance to connect with many mentors in their professional fields.
- Potential for creative breakthroughs: The limited timeframe in a hackathon is designed to make you think on your toes. If you've been struggling to put together projects and solutions, the pressure of a hackathon may help break your "writer's block."
- Team-building and brainstorming skills: While there are some solo hackathons, most require participants to work as a team to come up with a solution. Going through the "stress test" of a hackathon may reveal the strengths and weaknesses of your team's communication skills.
- Resume-strengthening opportunity: The projects and ideas that come out of a hackathon are a great addition to your resume. Depending on the stipulations at your hackathon, you may be able to use these proposals in future competitions.
Preparing for a hackathon
Organizers don't want hackathon participants to know too much about the problem they must face beforehand. However, most successful hackathon teams have general ideas on what to focus on before their event starts. Here are a few hackathon tips to keep in mind before attending your competition:
Conduct thorough research on the organizer
You should be familiar with your organizer's mission statement and its products and services. Research whether your organizer has previously led any hackathons. Pay careful attention to the projects that catch the judges' eyes. This can help you better tailor your team's strategy during the competition.
Practice building fast templates
Since time is limited during a hackathon, you need to be well-versed in creating presentable templates on the fly. Be sure to know how to quickly use your preferred presentation software. Practice building a few test templates at home to ensure you know how to navigate all the applications you'll be using during your hackathon.
Assign clear tasks for your team
While hackathons are collaborative efforts, the most efficient teams have a clear organization and chain of command. Take the time to figure out each team member's strengths and how you can use them to your advantage during a hackathon. Be sure to schedule a few meetings together to discuss each team member's responsibilities and a rough game plan.
How to run a hackathon
If you’re a host curious about how to organize a hackathon, you need to consider many elements to have a successful event. Here's a basic strategy you can follow when putting together a hackathon competition:
- Carefully choose your problem: The central focus of every hackathon is the issue your organization wants to solve. Be sure the problem you're going to center your hackathon around will add value to your business. Perform plenty of internal research into why your problem is such a pressing concern and how much more you can generate if you solve it.
- Set your format and theme: Most hackathons have a clear theme, so you should take plenty of time to decide what impression you want to give during your competition. Ensure all your hackathon's design elements align with your overarching theme. Also, figure out the logistics for whether you want to host an in-person or virtual event.
- Set a realistic timeframe and judging criteria: Consider what task you're asking participants to accomplish and how long it should take to produce a viable prototype. Also, ensure you weigh your judging criteria based on what you're most looking for. For instance, some organizers may prefer innovation over efficiency, while others might be most interested in cost savings. Be sure to communicate how you'll grade each prototype before the hackathon starts.
- Speak to relevant sponsors: Hackathons aren't just about the central organizer. Many of these events bring dozens of companies and start-ups together for a few days of collaboration and networking. Create a shortlist of viable sponsors for your event and encourage as many as possible to attend. Spread the word about your hackathon on various social media sites, company memos, and university fliers to ensure a high turnout.
Hackathons have proven to be a successful tool for collaboration and innovation. These competitions are also prime networking opportunities for sponsors or organizers and participants alike. While not every hackathon leads to a multi-billion-dollar company, they often rank as one of the most valuable experiences for professional development.
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