The Three Ingredients You Need To Deliver a Killer Hackathon

Last month my team and I delivered SEEK’s 10th Hackathon. It was my third time in the hot seat as Project Manager, and my fifth time on the Committee. I’ve learnt a lot running hackathons at SEEK and I want to share with you the three ingredients you need to thrive in the hot seat and deliver a killer hackathon:

  1. Create a buzz
  2. Foster engagement and collaboration
  3. Recognise people’s time, energy and ideas
Deep into problem solving at Hackathon 10

Create a buzz

Buzz, good vibes, positive energy, excitement, anticipation. These are all crucial to a successful hackathon and it all starts with you and your Hackathon organising team (we call ours a Hackathon Committee). Pick your committee wisely, they need to be as passionate about hackathon as you are. You need the committee to keep energy flowing from the first day of planning through to the awards ceremony. Once you have this energy, it will catch on and spread like wildfire throughout your organisation.

Nail the theme

Next, you need to nail the theme (make it exciting, inclusive and extensible so it can work with all parts of the hackathon and everyone can have fun with it). And lock it in as early as possible. This ensures you can hit the ground running, and maintain a high level of momentum throughout the event. For Hackathon 10 we landed on SEEKvivor X. Out Think. Out Hack. Out Shine. Align every aspect of the hackathon back to the theme to deliver a consistent and memorable message.

SEEKvivor X logo designed by Judy Shaul in consultation with Scott Lacey

Get your craft on

Ever planned a wedding? Or a child’s first birthday party? You know how easy it is to go OTT when looking at decorations. Bring the same vigour and passion to your hackathon. We got our craft on with the decorations for Hackathon 10, running ‘crafternoons’ with a bunch of volunteers. The impact of investing time and effort in our very public decorations created excitement and anticipation (we turned our lobby into a jungle with LED powered bamboo torches) — it was also a great excuse to step away from day-to-day responsibilities and build comradery with people from across the business. The entire office was on a high. It was the topic on everyone’s lips and the decorations doubled as a great communication tool, helping to spread the word and eliminate comms blindness.

Let your Hackers be your billboard

Furnish them with a great event t-shirt. Each hackathon we gift SEEKers (a collective term for SEEK employees) with a hackathon branded t-shirt to help unify the event and encourage participation. This year, we also introduced a limited number of themed bandannas. The bandannas were used for prizes and rewards throughout the three-day event.

Sugar

Guaranteed to get your office on a high (and a large crash afterwards). We create buzz, and fuel to keep SEEKers forging ahead, with a mammoth snack bar filled with all the sugar you could dream of. The snack bar (& t-shirts) are also a huge talking point and really help make the event stand out.

Sugar for days at the Hackathon 10 Snack Bar

Go above and beyond. Hackathon is not about you or your committee — it is about people coming together to create new ideas and have a little fun along the way. Model the behaviour you want to see in your committee and build a strong and supportive crew who are empowered to support your organisation and its people in having a successful hackathon and a positive experience. This can be anything from booking rooms, to topping up the snack bar, to delivering coffee.

Foster engagement and collaboration

Now you’ve created a buzz, the next thing you need is teamwork. SEEK hackathons are for our entire organisation, and we encourage participation from each and every department, not just our tech teams. There are a few simple steps we take to foster engagement and collaboration across the organisation.

Remove limitations

Don’t prescribe a theme, or a type of technology you want people to work on during hackathon. At SEEK, we simply ask that SEEKers start with a problem. What is the problem they want to solve? And from there, teams form, ideas generate, and solutions are born.

SEEKers getting extra help with their hack idea!

Upskill your hackers

We give SEEKers a chance to build on their skills and learn from each other through Masterclasses in the lead up to hackathon. These Masterclasses are a great way for SEEKers to meet and connect with their peers. Hackathon 10 Masterclasses included How to Win at Pitching, Codeless Prototyping, Jobs to Be Done, and SEEK’s first Code Retreat.

Provide opportunities for people to connect

We know big teams with a cross section of knowledge and skills have more success. To make sure SEEKers have a chance to connect, we hold a Problem Mixer the week prior to hackathon. This gives people with problems to solve the opportunity to connect with those looking to join a team in a highly sociable and interactive setting.

Connecting at the Problem Mixer

Think creatively to foster engagement

There are endless ways you can ‘surprise and delight’ during a hackathon especially if you have a great theme like SEEKvivor. Here are a few ways in which we encouraged collaboration and engagement during Hackathon 10:

  • Design Bar. We worked with some of our internal graphic designers to create a design service for the teams to have logos, posters or presentation decks created to support their hackathon idea.
  • Immunity idols. These were hidden around the office with clues posted in a dedicated Slack channel for teams to win an advantage (e.g. extra time with the judges, consultation from a member of our Executive Team). As soon as a clue was posted, SEEKers were racing across the building to find the idol.
  • Tribal Council. In true Survivor style, we asked SEEKers to ‘vote in’ a tribal council who created and judged their own award (our Tribal Council settled on the Humanitarian Award).
  • Baristas. With our main office based in Melbourne, it’s fairly safe to say the majority of us are coffee snobs. To start the day with a bit of fun and our drug of choice, we hired baristas to make coffee for everyone. SEEKers had the option to pop into The Hub (our central meeting place), or order via Slack and have their coffee delivered to their desk by a member of our Executive Team. The Slack channel was on fire in the mornings and it’s a fun way to start the day.
Voting in the Tribal Council

Recognise people’s time, energy and ideas

Offer up more than a ship-to-production award. Here at SEEK, we’ve got eight hackathon awards up for grabs:

  • Ubergeek — most bleeding edge, technologically advanced and buzzword compliant innovation
  • Disruptor — has the potential to have the biggest business impact
  • Ship-IT — meets a significant unmet customer need or solves a business problem and can be shipped within 48 hours by the winning team
  • Shift-IT — like the Ship-IT award, only it takes more time than the two days we allocate to a team to deliver their Hack. Winning this sees the idea placed on the product roadmap within the coming 12 months
  • Internal Innovation — best internal improvement with respect to our platform, existing systems or internal processes
  • Marketeer — best pitch, branding and presentation
  • Global Impact — greatest potential for global impact across our international businesses
  • People’s Choice — SEEKers favourite hack, voted during the Marketplace, where all teams have a booth where they demonstrate what they developed.

Having a variety of awards opens more space for non-tech teams to get involved and helps people to think more widely about the problem they want to solve.

Judging — Shark Tank style

Make judging an event in and of itself. We run our judging Shark Tank style. Giving SEEKers time to present their idea to a panel of Executives, including our CEO. It’s a long day for the judging panel with Shark Tank running for three to four hours straight but it gives the teams the recognition they deserve.

Four guiding principles

On top of my three essential ingredients, at SEEK we have four hackathon guiding principles — Collaboration, Engagement, Involvement and Innovation. When planning the hackathon event, we make sure every idea is cross-checked against these principles. They help keep us inline and make sure we deliver a fun and inclusive event.

So get your hackathon committee together, create a buzz, foster engagement and collaboration and go out of your way to recognise people’s time, energy and ideas to deliver your best hackathon yet.

I’d love to know what you have done to make your hackathon event special.