The ultimate guide for a successful Hackathon
I’ve been working at dailymotion for just over three years now. I started out as a Junior Program Manager in the Engineering department before being promoted to Culture Manager in the People team. For three years in a row, I’ve had the pleasure of leading our yearly company hackathon. Each year differs, and I’m always impressed by people’s energy during the event and the quality of the prototypes. I’m especially pleased to have seen our hackathons become part of our company culture.
After 3 years, the time has come to share my personal recipe for creating successful hackathons. Here are the 9 cardinal rules.
1. Find a good sponsor within the management team
The sine qua non condition to run a hackathon is the management buy-in. Some companies find it very risky and expensive to pull 50 people away from their daily duties for 2 whole days. This means paying for travel expenses, providing them with food and entertainment and leaving them to have fun coding. It’s tricky to find the right time to run a hackathon, but the event is totally worth it. For a start, hackathons can help people unearth the “next big thing” that’ll turn the company around, but it’s first and foremost a great occasion to strengthen bonds and communication. When people that have never talked to each other before, spend two days working hand-in-hand, something magical happens and the connection often stays. Very few initiatives can weave strong human relationships like hackathons.
It’s essential that management shares the same vision and evaluates the hackathon as a positive ROI initiative. There are many benefits, but organizers have to stay realistic. The cost of a hackathon can vary a lot depending on the number of participants, the venue and the proposed activities However, hackathons can be organized for all budgets. We started out with a really “home-made” hackathon, open to just one department on a lemonade budget. But the results were amazing and led management to allocate a fixed sum for the following hackathon. This year we received increased funding to bring employees from different countries to join us for the event.
2. Define the right challenge
Company hackathons mainly help to solve a major strategic issue or just to have fun. Defining a challenge is a key component in the hackathon success and it’s essential to find a balance between a company’s business needs and engineers’ need for adventure.
At the beginning of 2017, we were in the middle of relaunching our platform, so we needed to stay focused on product features, but we also wanted to introduce to keep it lighthearted. The result ended with some cool product features, but the downside was that very few people who worked in infrastructure or less product-oriented technologies actually participated. When launching the second edition, we kept the product category but introduced a “tool category” so more people could participate and create a feature to improve internal tools. This increased the number of participants from various teams, but our theme was very oriented towards our business needs. As a result, we had more participants from business teams but less from product and tech. The overall number of attendees didn’t increase as we had planned.
What is the perfect combination then? It depends on how many people you want to involve and how serious you are about the outcomes. I would suggest having a business-oriented challenge, because it’s of key importance that business and tech people meet each other and think together about the future of the company. However, I would still keep a second more fun category to make sure that more people can participate.
3. Everyone can join
This is closely related to my previous point. Most companies do hackathons only for developers, we try to include as many people as possible. We’ve had designers, data analysts, ad ops, support agents, content managers, sales people and also HR and office managers participate. Having different points of view can improve the final outcome and there are a lot of things non-tech people can bring to the table: brainstorming, wire framing, customer/partner insight, presentation strategies and so on — diversity is key. It’s important that everyone in the company feels included. So far, this has always worked, we have improved cross-department collaboration, cross-product knowledge and an overall feeling of belonging.
4. Find the right venue
People need a comfortable space to work in teams, but also a place to eat, relax, and rest. It’s important to separate activities in order to keep the working space as clean and as silent as possible, but it’s also best to avoid people spreading out between different buildings or floors, as it risks breaking the hackathon bubble.
The first hackathon took place in our offices by blocking two entire floors and creating specific work, rest and entertainment spaces. It really created a feeling of being at home at the office, and due to its DIY configuration, everyone was willing to help prepare and clean during meal times. The only drawback was that it stopped people from really disconnecting from their daily tasks. People make requests, your boss asks you to “make a quick fix”, the interruptions can quickly parasite the attendee and be counterproductive for the hackathon’s outcome.
The following year, we took it outside of our office due to the company’s growth and lack of space. We decided to host it in Vivendi provided us with the materials, all we had to worry about was coding and having fun. However, we lost the “home-made” vibe that made the first hackathon extra special.
Hosting a hackathon on company premises is the most effective way to create a deep link between employees and a company. If for any reason you can’t do it, find a place that is big but cozy enough to make people feel comfortable during all the different activities.
5. Time is of the essence
There are different combinations you can try. Most popular are 12 and 24 hours, but we have tested 48 and 30 hours. The first edition was INTENSE! 48 hours allowed teams to deliver an almost production ready prototype but left them exhausted and ratty.
Not to mention that people with families are unlikely to spend two sleepless nights twiddling with code. The problem is that short formats can accommodate all employees but are too short for teams to deliver a decent product. For this reason, our most recent editions took place over 30 hours, starting at 9 am in the morning and finishing at 4pm the day after. It gives enough time for the teams to create an advanced prototype and still enjoy some activities during the day and night without the looming threat of sleep deprivation.
6. Plan side activities to make it funnier
When planning a long hackathon, plan side activities for people to take a break from work, have some fun and win extra prizes. There is no limit to the activities you can plan. In the first edition, next to the classic FIFA, Smash Bros and table tennis tournament, we had a real cooking contest where teams had to prepare the best tiramisùs. Last year, we had VR, a pool table, and a Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero contest. This year we added Mario Party, darts and a global on-going trivia quiz.
Every team was equipped with a buzzer; occasionally we banged a gong and asked a few questions about our company history, products, culture and people. The team with the most points won a prize! It was a great and free way to share knowledge about the company with employees from different departments or who had just recently joined dailymotion. In addition to gaming we have tested massages, yoga classes, smoothies and even biking. Hackathons are exhausting and can encourage unhealthy habits like, inertia, no sleep, binge eating, it’s important to take care of the well-being of the employees and offer them healthy activities to encourage them to take breaks.
7. Healthy food for healthy minds
Food might seem trivial, but when you are organizing an event for an international company, it’s admittedly hard to take into account food preferences, allergies and religions and still serve yummy food on a budget. No rocket science here, it’s a matter of finding good vendors that can provide a wide variety of ingredients and formulas. In the past we’ve found it convenient to have a salad bar next to more classic food trucks, so that people can pick their own ingredients according to their food preferences. It is also worth look looking towards Asian food, as it is usually very divers, healthy and gluten free.
People who are consuming energy (yes, even intellectual) will eat a LOT of food during the event. Find the right nutritional balance between comfort and healthy food, snacks and fresh fruits, carbs fats and proteins.
8. Reward people for their efforts
Even if winning the hackathon makes you the hero of the day, glory alone doesn’t reward all the effort and the time that people have invested in the hackathon. Prizes for the winners need to be generous and worth working for. Also, make sure you have some unique goodies for the participants that they can keep after, this will make them feel special for being part of the event.
However, tread cautiously. Rewarding people who’ve spent two days without any sleep to build something in the company’s interest is 100% legitimate. However, spoiling them with lavish gifts can be discriminative, especially for people who couldn’t participate, had family obligations or didn’t have the required skillsets. Don’t make the win feel exaggerated.
9. Manage expectations of winning projects
How people felt during the event and what happens to their projects can impact whether people will participate in the next edition. It’s vital to manage participants’ expectations regarding the likelihood of seeing their prototypes go into production. Some of the ideas that come out from the hackathon are amazing, but fitting them into the product roadmap is not always easy. Ideas, even if great, can be misaligned with the overall company/product/brand strategy, or can be too complex to scale on a production level. Or they are simply not as important as what’s already on the roadmap.
This has been quite a pain point for us, because in the last two editions we weren’t able to include the winning ideas in our roadmap and this has created legitimate frustration among the participants. This year, we’ll do our best to at least test some of the ideas and prioritize the most promising ones.
The advice here is to promise only what you can make actionable. Consider that what takes 30 hours to prototype, can take months to fully develop at scale in a regular developing context. Make sure people feel valued for their effort and creativity, without giving unnecessary high hopes.
- To make a hackathon happen and become part of your agile routine, you must have the buy-in of management who will decide to allocate resources and time to innovation.
- Having a challenging theme is essential in order to motivate employees and get them to join in.
- Keeping it open, allowing non-tech employees to participate, bringing diversity to the ideas and creating strong cross-department human relationships improves long term collaboration and reduces silo effects.
- Logistics are important as they give participants a comfortable experience while focusing solely on innovating and having fun.
- Side activities make the event fun and allow people to get to know each other outside of the working context (watching engineers cook is a sight to behold).
- Rewarding people with appealing prizes is essential in making them feel valued for their efforts and encourages them to participate the following year.
- Following up on the best projects is a way of making everyone happy, employees because their work is valued, and management because the hackathon will prove to be worth the investment.