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When Your Hackathon Goes.. Global

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post about planning a remote Hackathon as we shifted to work from home. Since then, GumGum has grown substantially — with 2 companies joining us; one in Europe, and one in Australia. This year, we encouraged our new team members to join Hackathon, so we decided to make some changes due to the truly global nature of our company (and we had some learnings for next time).

We kept most of the same items talked about in 2020’s blog post, but changed a few things based on prior years’ learnings and to ensure that everyone around the world could participate. Read ahead if you are interested in planning a global Hackathon event!

Many many time zones

When we were doing Hackathon in our Los Angeles office, times were simple; the Hackathon started and stopped at the one designated time. Although we did have people participating remotely and in other offices, that number was on the smaller side, and we made small adjustments to accomodate them.

Since we knew this year there would be more people participating globally, we knew we needed to make changes.

The first change was to make sure it was clear to everyone in different time zones what time the event was happening. So we had an amazing website created as usual, but we made sure to include times in all different regions to make it easy for participants in all countries to quickly see what time things happened in their time zone (9!! total different time zones).

Technically, the rules say you can hack for a full 48 hours if you want to, but we don’t encourage that since we want people to have a good work/life balance. So we kept “official hacking hours” that all started at the same time, but also included the “normal working days” so you could see what work days we recommend you hack in your time zone (Monday and Tuesday for some time zones, and Tuesday and Wednesday for others).

Screengrab showing an example of how we separated it into official times and work days

Logistically, this also needed to be considered throughout the event, making sure that any communication was also recorded, sending everything out in advance time to ensure people in all time zones had enough time to read it, and shifting much of the communication to async. For example, when I previously had a kick off meeting on video at a specific time, this year I created a presentation and sent that out.

Swag

One thing we learned from 2020 is shipping food or drinks from the US to different countries is a nightmare — those products can have shipping restrictions and customs issues which result in delays in people receiving their swag. So, since then, we’ve chosen to avoid putting any food or drinks products in our swag.

Also, in 2020 and 2021, we shipped all swag to Los Angeles, packaged it here, and shipped from here. This year we used a swag provider that could not only create all the swag, but also package and ship everything out for us, since we actually had more people outside of the US than inside the US. We also checked who was participating per office to be able to ship some of the swag in one shipment instead of individually. You wouldn’t think it, but handling swag actually requires a great deal of thought and work especially when you’re shipping globally and with so many people with different preferences (we offer some customization per person for our swag), so plan ahead and give yourself a lot of extra time here!

Image of this year’s swag including a mug, beeswax wrapper, t-shirt, reusable shopping bag, and reusable container.
This year’s swag was eco themed and included a mug, beeswax wrapper, t-shirt, reusable shopping bag, and reusable container.

The presentations

As with prior years, we slotted 2 days for hacking, 1 day of presentations, and then the awards announced on the 4th day.

Unfortunately, it’s tough to plan ahead of time without knowing who will actually sign up. This year, we actually had over double the amount of teams participating from last year (21!), and almost double the participants from last year (with only 1/3 of participants in the US).

screengrab of presentation schedule showing all teams

Due to the huge increase in the number of teams, we decided to not include time for Q&A after every presentation, as it would have made the presentation day too long. Additionally, since people were participating from time zones that didn’t align with the presentation schedule, we had a good number of teams who pre-recorded their presentations (9 teams), and it didn’t seem fair to have some people asked questions and given an opportunity to answer them, and others not.

However, we still did do a Q&A in a different format. We encouraged everyone to ask their questions on our #hackathon Slack channel so they could be answered asynchronously. I thought this worked well in some regards since anyone could ask questions and get answers, it encouraged more discussion, and it made it easier to read the responses later (compared to needing to watch the full video).

However, next year I will definitely reconsider this and work on an alternative presentation schedule. Not having Q&A did make us stay on schedule very well! But, it felt like we really needed a break between presentations, otherwise it just went too quickly to the next. And something I didn’t consider until after the presentations started is that the judges need a few minutes to write down notes in between presentations. Some initial ideas to think about for next year include making the presentations 2 days across different time zone blocks, or possibly doing it in one day but staggering it with a long break in the middle, or even having the judges watch some live in their time zones and some on video later.

One final takeaway — our company uses Zoom and I used that to record all the presentations. We definitely needed recordings for everyone to watch later who could not attend. What I didn’t consider is I should have 1000000% choose the option to save to computer. I had a tight turnover to get the videos cut into a video for each team and sent out to some people who needed to reference them, so it was a bit stressful waiting for Zoom to process everything and not knowing how long it would take 😅

People’s Choice Award

One of the awards we give out is determined by voting. In the past, we’ve announced this award with the rest of the awards. But if you’re unable to attend the presentations (because you have other commitments or because of time zone), that doesn’t give people time to watch all the presentations and vote. So this year, we extended the deadline for people to vote, turned around the video links quickly, and announced this winner later. I think this helped a lot because we had a significant increase in the number of people voting (up 150% from last year).

This year’s People’s Choice was great in my opinion because the top projects were extremely close. And most of the other projects also got a good number of votes. So this shows how great the teams were this year and how difficult it was to choose!

Digital award for People’s Choice with a medal and winner name

Conclusion

Planning a global remote Hackathon definitely comes with its challenges. Be sure to consider all time zones, how the experience will be for those in other time zones, and logistics if you’re sending out swag. In the end, it’s all worth it — everyone had a great time participating and watching the presentations!

Screengrab of photos of people participating in hackathon and all the countries the teams came from
Slide from my presentations kick off presentation

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