When Your Hackathon Goes Remote
When Merrill Bajana, one of our product managers and myself volunteered to take over the hosting of GumGum’s 5th annual Hackathon, it was pre-COVID-19. We began planning for an event in our Santa Monica office, but later made the call to go fully remote this year. We put a lot of thought into how to make 2020 the most successful Hackathon yet — here are some considerations and ideas for hosting a remote hackathon!
- Website, hype video, Zoom background: We launched our Hackathon website with the help of our amazing designer Sebastien Shaeffer. The site features an incredible teaser video shot by and one of our actor-cum-engineer Florian Dambrine. We also had Sebastien put together a themed Zoom background, which we used in meetings leading up to the event.
- Hackathon archive: We put together and then promoted a page that showcases each past Hackathon (teams, ideas, presentation videos, and winners) to give people an idea of how hackathons work and to hopefully inspire some new ideas.
- Posts in our Slack chats: Leading up to the sign up deadline and event, we posted in our company channels. For example, this throwback style post:
Other posts we did: reminders, key dates, post a photo from past Hackathons, and post pic a pic of you with swag.
- Exec support: We had the execs of every department encourage participation within their teams, and mentioned the Hackathon several times on our weekly company call.
- Guest judge: This is the first year we had a guest judge to give some input from a new perspective. Thank you to our board member, Lisa Licht for participating!
Sign up and forming teams
- Reducing sign up friction: Previous hackathons required participants to sign up as teams. We found this increases sign up friction, as people need to come up with an idea and find a team before the deadline. We do need deadlines because we need to plan for, budget, and order swag, but this just requires a participant count. So we separated the sign up to be individual team sign up, followed by team sign up. This took the pressure off forming a team, and people just needed to indicate they were interested in participating.
- Addressing level of commitment: Understandably, people are always concerned that they won’t be able to participate because of their day to day work. We proactively reached out to managers to ask them to cancel meetings during this time, and asked them to support anyone who wants to participate, as the Hackathon always brings a lot of value to the business. We also reiterated to everyone that participating doesn’t need to take the full 2 days — you can contribute in many ways!
- Facilitating team formation: We are extremely firm believers that everyone, not just engineers, should participate in hackathons, and everyone has skills to contribute. One of our goals was to increase sign up, especially among departments other than engineering.
- We created a document with everyone who signed up to indicate their skills and team status (looking for team, has a team, has an idea) to encourage people to find and form teams. This made it so anyone with an idea could find people with the skillsets they needed. We had many people reach out to others from this list. You can find a template of this document here.
- Since Merrill and I have both been at the company for a while now and know almost everyone, we made it clear that we would personally help match anyone who was looking for specific skillsets — and we did!
- Anyone who didn’t have a team by the week before the Hackathon, we matched into teams, so there was no risk in not finding a team.
We hosted a pre-Hackathon brainstorm call to facilitate ideas. Ahead of the meeting, Merrill and I pre-filled a Trello board with categories, ideas and thought starters. We circulated the board, and then encouraged people to add their own ideas and join cards of ideas they were interested in. During the meeting, we went over each of the ideas and had people ask questions or mention if they were interested in it. This sparked some additional ideas, and some of the ideas here ended up being explored in the Hackathon.
Perks and Swag
Generally perks and swag are a big incentive for participants. In office, we would provide meals and fun surprises throughout the Hackathon. Going remote meant we needed to be creative about what we could offer. We decided to go with:
- Lunch: Participants could expense lunch on both days. This also ended up being great because people posted their lunch selections in the #hackathon channel during the event!
- Swag: We mailed swag boxes to all participants. We had a lot of fun picking the swag and ended up with a Hackathon branded t-shirt, face mask (essential during Covid-19 times), blue light glasses, reusable grocery bag, and individual pour over coffees and teas. We also included snacks to keep everyone’s energy up, supporting these amazing Black owned businesses: popcorn from Pipcorn, cookies from Partake, and energy bars from Teasquares. Mailing the swag created a lot of excitement— people loved getting it in the mail and the surprise of unboxing it!
Presentations template: We had Sebastien put together a Hackathon themed Google presentation template so participants had one less thing to worry about.
- Zoom backgrounds: As previously mentioned, we had a themed Zoom background that we encouraged everyone to use for the event — and to wear their t-shirts! We also had custom backgrounds for the judges.
- Facilitating participation: The presentations felt a lot more interactive this year than previous years hosting in the office. We told everyone to write in Slack or the Zoom chat window any thoughts or questions, which led to a lot of great audience encouragement and engagement! We also asked participants to share thoughts, photos, and videos throughout the event, even giving out gift cards to the people who showed the most spirit.
- Criteria: We changed the awards and judging criteria slightly this year. First and second place were based on the judging criteria, but we wanted to also be able to recognize an entry that captured the spirit of the Hackathon. Before the event, we provided judges a spreadsheet with the judging criteria so they just needed to fill it out during each presentation.
- Scheduling: Previously, judges needed to watch all the presentations, then judge right before giving out the awards, which led to a long day that was tricky to schedule. We moved the awards to the next day to give the judges some more time to think about and/or watch the presentations again. This also helped us better accommodate remote participants in various time zones.
- Event: We scheduled a Zoom meeting and invited to whole company to join to give out the awards. This year was also made special by a few surprises:
- Giving stock grants to the Hackathon ideas that went into production from last year.
- The judges put together their thoughts and feedback on every presentation to later share with the teams.
- This year, we increased sign ups by 9%, with 81 participants, representing all major departments in the company, across the globe!
- Overall, the ideas and presentations were the best they’ve been in the history of our Hackathon. In fact, the judges ended up not being able to choose just one winner for the Almost There prize. GumGum is already at work to put several of the ideas into production, with the most of any Hackathon so far. We believe a few things led to this outcome: greater diversity of people participating, teams increasingly made of people from different departments, and encouraging collaborative idea brainstorming and team forming.
- Although we were first concerned that hosting a remote hackathon would be more difficult and lose some of the excitement of an in person event, it ended up being more inclusive and interactive due to the changes we needed to make to support it remotely.