How to hold a happy hackathon

Whether you’re a small group of friends or a big organisation collaborating cross-sector, Bec Evans lays out the steps for running a positive and productive hackathon.

As an impatient sort of person I’m always on the lookout for ways of doing things faster. Indeed, in my work leading innovation I have found that having time constraints can do wonders for creativity, productivity and also quality of output. That said, I’ve managed to get through my digital career without doing a hackday. Until now. Fresh from my recent experience, I’m evangelical about the possibilities they offer. So here’s my take on organising and running a mini-hackathon.

Hackathons aren’t just for big companies and universities. Though many events are collaborations between like-minded organisations across a sector -see FutureBook’s 2014 ‘hack this book’ — individual businesses can also organise in-house events, as can teams of colleagues, or groups of friends. All you need is a small number of people with a shared goal to make something. Think of a hackathon as an opportunity to co-create in a short, intense period of time.

Think of a hackathon as an opportunity to co-create in a short, intense period of time.

At my publishing startup Write Track we rarely get the chance to come together physically to build something. All of us have day jobs, so time for product development is grabbed from the nooks and crannies of our lives. Our eagerness to create collaboratively — at the same time and in the same place — gave us the idea to have a hackday. It was the perfect opportunity to challenge ourselves, hang out together and eat pizza, whilst working. We agreed a Saturday and got planning.

Step 1: Get prepared

I might have been a hack novice, but I knew enough to realise we couldn’t just turn up and start building. A week before the hackday we met to thrash out the problem we wanted to solve. This involved ‘user story mapping’: basically putting yourself in the shoes of your users to describe what they want to achieve. It’s up to you to build a solution to their problem. Having this conversation gave us the outline of what we’d do and what research and resources we needed for the day.

Step 2: Kick off the day

I decided to host the hackathon at my house. That meant I had to get up extra especially early on the Saturday to tidy the house and gather together essential resources like flipchart paper, post it notes, pens, biscuits and snacks. Not very digital — but no-one wants to work around your dirty dishes.

We kicked off just after 9am by understanding who we were building for. We listened to snippets of interviews with current users, and then talked through our product personas to agree a pen portrait to focus the day’s efforts on. This was especially important for the developers who are further removed from users on a day-to-day basis.

Once we all had a clear user in mind we set a goal for what we’d like to achieve by the end of the day; a mere 12 hours later. We wrote the goal on flip chart paper and stuck it on the kitchen wall just under clock. Our next step was to agree a plan using post it notes — the perfect tool to visualise a user journey or a set of screens that need developing.

The final part of the kick-off meeting was agreeing how we’d work together. It might seem like a poor use of limited time, but if you pull together a team of people who are used to working remotely, you have figure out how you’ll get along. People can have very different attitudes to communication, accountability… even if and when they want to break. Being honest upfront saves a lot of hassle later. As a control freak I wanted to break the day into timed ‘sprints’ with regular updates, reviews and retrospectives. Needless to say no-one agreed with me!

Step 3: Build, create and eat pizza

We decided to split into two groups, with the developers together and the non-techs doing user experience, design and content creation. While the devs got stuck into code in the kitchen, my co-founder and I dug into the detail of the user journey. Not having office facilities to hand, I used the floor to work things out — I call this carpet wire-framing.

After a few hours we regrouped to update over pizza (a hackathon tradition that must be respected). Then it was back to work.

The afternoon flew past, Chris and I wrote content and recorded videos. It didn’t always go to plan. You can see our fail on YouTube (important lesson learnt: press record). We were into the evening and starting to flag.

Step 4: A final push to achieve the goal (or not)

Hackathons are a portmanteau of hacking and marathon — and the final stretch is hard going. I’m not advocating alcohol but as the night drew in we cracked open a few beers: it was a Saturday and after ten hours of work we all needed a boost.

As 9 o’clock approached we frantically pulled things together. Would we achieve our goal and build a product in a day?

Time was up: it was late, we were tired, we had nothing more to give.

We met back in the kitchen for the big reveal. Time was up: it was late, we were tired, we had nothing more to give. And after all that, we didn’t cross the finish line — we were close but we didn’t meet our goal.

Were we disappointed? On one level yes, everyone wants to achieve their goals. But after a well-earned rest we picked it up the following week and finished the build. So, as a product team we did manage to co-create something in a short space of time. And, if you take the broader goal of collaborative working I believe we exceeded our goal — we had a shared sense of purpose, solidarity and support from setting ambitious goals and working towards them as a team. Would I do it again? Hell yes!

If you’re interested in organising a hackathon, check out the hack day manifesto and be careful to avoid the cliché in the urban dictionary: “Having company employees come in and work all night under the guise of innovation and opportunity with little or no reward to one’s self for the sole purpose of benefiting the company. Please join us in our hackathon next week, we will provide pizza and beer in exchange for you burning yourself out.”

A happy, healthy and productive hack day is possible — although it probably won’t turn out the way you expect. And that’s probably the best sign that it’s worked.

Originally published at