Hackathon — Marathon for hackers

Don’t feel very familiar with the IT industry? Then you may ask yourself what a hackathon is at all. In short, we can describe it as a kind of marathon, however it’s not a traditional event for runners, but one for programmers. In the space of 24 hours they must meet, design, code and run a brand new piece of software. The term is a combination of two words: hack and marathon, but it doesn’t mean these people intend to break into banks or military headquarters. In modern day terms the word hack has taken on a new meaning — to quickly (and often badly) cobble together some software in a short space of time. Very fitting for the event.

Hackathons can be a community event or part of a conference, although in this post I will focus on the hackathon as an internal company meeting.

Wake up your creativity

In everyday life we usually don’t have too much time for innovation and our creativity suffers because of that. A hackathon is a potential origin of new company projects. This is the time in the year when we open our minds for totally new ideas. But it’s not so easy to switch from the daily mode and find our creative resources. However we have some tools that can help us to find our hidden power.

Venue

One of them could be an inspiring venue. Hackathon in the old theatre? Why not! I went to the theatre once and accidentally spotted a bunch of people coding while seated on the red velvet armchairs in front of the stage. For our first Assertis hackathon last year we went to Kraków and rented space in the magic coworking office in the heart of the old town.

Your budget is limited? Organize your hackathon in the office but take steps to change the regular conditions you work in. You can try to re-arrange the office, move desks to an untypical configuration or to your chill out space. Want to code in the kitchen? Why not? It’s always nice to be close to the food and coffee stocks.

Let me give you an important tip — check the internet speed and access points long before the event. I would suggest 50Mb/s as the minimum requirement, but all depends how big your group is and what exactly you plan to achieve. You may also need to install additional access points that will be sufficient enough for your needs. The venue could be wonderful but without access to the speedy internet your hackathon might be in trouble.

Hackathon t-shirts are important part of the event. Don’t forget about it!

People reshuffle

Our team is partially distributed so gathering together in one place is already an unusual situation. During the event we also encourage ourselves to work with team members who we don’t interact with too much everyday. Another great solution we haven’t implemented yet is to invite external guests. New people, fresh look, fresh blood — sounds perfect. Although, before you invite guests for your internal hackathon, make sure that your team is integrated enough to accept them and feel relaxed despite having strangers on board.

Hackathon without pizza? Never!

What’s the key for a successful hackathon? Having fun! Pure fun makes our brains relax and releases the most breakthrough ideas. That’s why one of the very basic rules for the coding marathon is not trying to solve everyday company problems.

How to choose the topic?

As I wrote before, during the hackathon we don’t solve our technical problems from everyday life, we don’t try to improve velocity and desperately patch projects’ shortcomings to meet deadlines. At Assertis we have only one general rule for topic selection: as we are a rail focused company, we stay in the widely understood transport area.

Hardware projects are also welcome on the programming hackathon.

Long before the hackathon every member of the team submits a project proposal with a short description. Then we discuss them together with the whole team and vote for the most attractive. Next we form groups and chat about details on a dedicated slack channel.

Timing

In the typical company schedule it’s not easy for the whole team to take a day off, leave current projects and switch their brains to think in a different way. Before you set the date, check deadlines, holidays and other important events in your organisation’s life. There is never a perfect day for everyone, but you can always try to get closer to this magic time spot.

Hackathon is supposed to be a 24 hour long event (that’s why it’s a coding marathon), but for internal needs I would advise limiting this time to a regular working day. If people volunteer to stay longer — that’s great. But it’s not the best idea to put a pressure on them. Remember — it’s for fun. And it’s not funny at all when you feel imprisoned for a night in your office.

Good advice for the end — a small amount of beer could be a great creativity enhancer but be careful not to overdose on this magic remedy.

First aid beer — ideal hackathon solution

After hackathon. Demo.

We are done. Hackathon is over. Everyone is back home, exhausted, infused with caffeine but happy. Some people are hungry for more. That’s a better option than being fed up. What’s next?

Good practise is to present the final version of the projects to the other teams. Don’t worry if you can’t show a working MVP in the end. Failure during a hackathon is not a failure at all. It teaches us and shows new directions. We can confront our knowledge and expectations with reality. Try the tools we’ve never tried. Maybe next time we will succeed, who knows. And maybe not. But it will always be fun to experiment with our own abilities and cross knowledge boundaries.

Author: Kasia Popek

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