The Business Value of College Hackathons

The 2019 Major League Hacking (MLH) season is upon us. You’ve probably already been contacted by one of the many colleges across the country hosting these hackathons. I’m a huge supporter of college-level hackathons and have been sponsoring and mentoring at them for years. Despite the fact that I find a huge amount of value in them, I constantly find myself having to explain what a hackathon is and what business value companies can gain from sponsoring them. So let me break it down: Here’s what I focus on when sponsoring a hackathon.

What is a Hackathon?

MLH describes a hackathon as an “invention marathon”. Students from all areas of study gather for 24–36 hours to learn, build, and share ideas in a relaxed and welcoming environment. Sponsoring companies provide access to their APIs and hardware and incentivize hacker teams with branded prizes. Side activities are organized to encourage hackers to take breaks and have fun. Plenty of food, snacks, and coffee fuel the hackers throughout the event.


Regardless of whether you are a well established company or just starting out, hackathons are a great and inexpensive way to reach the next generation of developers. A little bit of goodwill goes a long way. The attendees will soon be entering the workforce and it’s never too early to create a champion.

Be sure your sponsorship package includes a sponsor table. This is the best way to be seen throughout the hackathon. Be sure to bring your brightest, most eye-catching tablecloth and pop-up banner and most importantly, company branded swag and stickers. This is what will draw people to you. The developer community loves stickers. I also like to have a larger raffle item which allows me to send a follow-up email after the event thanking them for stopping by and providing them with a discount code or further company information.

I also like to make sure my sponsorship package includes the company logo on the hackathon t-shirt. These shirts will be worn across many campuses and it’s a great way to keep your company in the forefront of their minds.


A side benefit of increased company awareness is an increase in the recruiting pipeline. Many of the students attending are looking for summer internships and full-time jobs after they graduate. This a great opportunity to partner with your recruiting team. Many sponsorship packages include access to student resumes and extra recruiting specific features. A recruiter can attend and provide information about college-level programs as well as full-time opportunities. Promote your company culture and demonstrate why it’s the best place to work. These simple personal interactions could be the deciding factor in whether or not an offer is accepted.

Real-time Feedback

Hackathons are a great environment to user test a product. Sponsorship packages often provide custom challenges allowing a company to award a prize based on the use of their technology. If your product is new, I highly recommend including a workshop to help hackers get started. It’s also a good idea to have one-page handout describing your challenge, how to get started, and where to find help. Many hackathons are utilizing Slack. Be sure to join it, create a channel for your company and turn on all notifications for that channel. Walk around and observe teams using your product. At the end of the hackathon, you’ll be able to see demos of each project that completed your challenge. I like to create a shared Google Doc to keep track of any feedback given. It’s also a good idea to provide an anonymous method for reporting feedback. I like to use a Google Form. All this feedback gets compiled and sent directly to the product manager and is greatly appreciated.

Cultivate Developer Empathy

Providing a challenge gives you a great opportunity to engage with your own engineers. Bring a couple with you to act as mentors and assist the hackers working with your product. Engineers are happy to return to their Alma Mater. This exposes them to how the product is being used “in the wild” and fosters developer empathy. Many engineers spend their time building a product or application and never get the chance to use it themselves. I’ve many times built applications I thought were brilliant only to later find out they were difficult to use by others. Having your engineers interact directly with the end user provides them with a different perspective and improves your product from within.

If you’re looking to get involved with hackathons, I hope this helped. You can find upcoming hackathons on the MLH site. If you’re an old pro, feel free to comment below with any values I might have missed. I’m always happy to continue the conversation.