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What is a hackathon?

TLDR

A brief guide about hackathons and what they are about.

What is a hackathon?

Hackathon is a word creation of the words hack(-ing) and marathon. In this context, hacking stands for the development of software- or hardware-solution and the marathon describes the format, which is a 1–3 days lasting event.

Usually, it takes place in a spacious venue, which fits sometimes several hundred hackers.

HackZurich 2019 from above
HackZurich 2019

In some cases, the hackathons can also take place completely online, as it happened now during the Corona outbreak 2020.

The goal of a hackathon is to develop a solution for a given problem. The solution can be in different forms: it could be a pitch deck containing the concept and business model, a mockup/wireframe of an app or functioning software or hardware prototypes.

Conception phase at Hack Winterthur 2019

The participants are mostly computer programmers, business and marketing professionals, designers and domain experts.

Together they form teams to tackle a challenge and usually the solution they develop needs to be created throughout the event, without prior preparation, and will then be presented in front of a jury.

How does a hackathon work?

A Hackathon usually takes place on a weekend, starting on Friday and ending on Sunday with the final pitches.

Opening Start Hack 2019
Opening Ceremony Start Hack 2019

On Friday, the event starts off with an opening ceremony with inspiring presentations from creative minds or successful entrepreneurs. Then it’s time to introduce the different challenges.

Challenges can be submitted from industry partners, who outline a challenge they are facing, or they just like to gather creative new business ideas with an outside view. A hackathon can also follow a non-commercial theme, where for example solutions for a better cause are developed.

City of Winterthur Challenge Pitch — Hack Winterthur 2019 | Team matchmaking — F10 Hackathon Zurich 2019

After the challenges have been presented, the participants form interdisciplinary teams and then choose one of the challenges they want to solve.

Teams can as well be formed in advance, but it is also possible to attend a hackathon alone since there is always a matchmaking and team building process before the start.

After the team is complete and a workspace has been secured, the ideation process begins. During the next 24–72h this space will usually only be left for eating and sleeping.

At the beginning of every invention stands the idea, that’s why every team starts with a brainstorming session, which can sometimes take the whole first night, to find the right angle to tackle the challenge.
Different ideas are bounced back and forth between the teammates and a lot of online research is conducted until the first great idea arises, which still can changeover the course of the hackathon.

Team eQtiq -F10 Hackathon Zurich 2019 | Climathon Zurich 2019

During the event, the teams are also able to coordinate with the challenge responsible on site, to get some advice and input on their concept.

Once the idea is in place, the team members split up and start researching, coding, drawing concepts and creating power point slides. The team gets together once in a while to synchronize the progress or to have a meal together, which is usually provided by the organizers.

Diner — HackZurich 2019 | Dessert — Hack Winterthur 2019 | Camping at Climathon 2019

Sleeping takes place in a quiet corner of the venue and usually only for a few hours.

As the deadline approaches, usually on Sunday noon, the nervousness and the tension increases.

The whole team adds the final touch to their product and presentation, before they have to turn in the code and slide deck, then the judging process begins.
The team presents their solution to the jury members of their challenge — mostly it’s a 2–3 minutes long pitch, where the problem will be identified, the solution described, the business model outlined and the prototype presented.

The judges for the challenges rank the projects based on defined criteria’s and usually the best three teams will get to the final round, where they compete with the other challenge winners.

Team eQtiq Pitch F10 Hackathon Zurich 2019 | Crowd at #SBHack19 | Jury Hack Winterthur 2019

The final pitch will be held in front of all participants and a jury, who will choose the best project of the hackathon.

The winners receive different prices like tech gadgets or cash and sometimes also the possibility to continue with their idea together with the challenge partner.

Team eQtiq F10 Hack 2019 | Team Caretaker Hack Winterthur 2019 | Team Blockbyte #SBHack19 Zurich

About the Author

Mike Schälchli, is Co-Founder, CEO and Product Designer at Earlybyte.

Earlybyte is an IT consultancy firm specialized in developing new digital solutions for companies around the world from digitalization to IoT solutions, close to the client and its business embracing agility.

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