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How to Run a Company Hackathon

Management Tips
Cyber Security Trends, IT Solutions, IT Infrastructure, Tips for Businesses, Company Hackathon, Creative Problem Solving, Hackathon

Have you ever wondered how to run a company hackathon? If you’re interested in conducting an internal hackathon for your organization, we recommend you consider the following steps to prepare:

  1. Figure out the goal of the hackathon.
  2. Decide on the type of hackathon.
  3. Allow preparation time.

Although hackathons are meant to be a place for spontaneous creativity, laying the proper foundation for your hackathon is key to its success.

Keep reading to learn more about what exactly a company hackathon is, the benefits of running a hackathon, the preparations you can take to make your hackathon a success, and our personal experience with hackathons so far.

What Is a Hackathon?

When you hear the word “hackathon,” you might conjure images of sleepless IT professionals working for 72 straight hours to come up with brand new inventions while downing caffeine, doodling on whiteboards, and typing frantically on laptops. This is what hackathons look like in most popular media—and in some cases, this is what hackathons are really like.

However, not all hackathons are run in this sprint style. Many of them take place over a series of non-consecutive working hours. And even the ones that are non-stop involve some level of preparation beforehand.

There is no single correct way to run a company hackathon. The structure of the hackathon is much more flexible than reflected in popular media. Hackathons may or may not exclusively involve tech professionals, and they can take place over any duration of time. 

So, what exactly is a hackathon? A hackathon is an event where people gather to creatively solve problems. Hackathons can take place over a few hours, days, or even weeks or months. The participants usually form groups of 2–5 individuals who work as a team. Hackathons can involve people working in any specialty, be it software, finance, recruitment, or another field.

Whatever the duration or field of work, hackathons try to foster a creative environment free from typical business restrictions. This setup allows participants to think, work, and collaborate in ways they aren’t often able to while on the job.

Why Run a Company Hackathon?

Hackathons have been on the rise in recent years. In 2018, over 5,600 hackathons were conducted across the globe. That’s a staggering 40% increase from 2016.

It’s no accident or mere fad that’s driven the rising popularity of hackathons worldwide. Running a company hackathon provides a range of potential benefits for both individual employees and your company as a whole.

Consider these benefits of hosting an internal hackathon:

  • Shift company mindsets. Even if your employees are happy at their jobs, it’s common for many teams to become stuck in certain habits, often unconsciously. A hackathon can help loosen those seemingly established company mindsets.
  • Collaborate with different people. Hackathons typically provide employees the chance to work with those they might not collaborate with on a regular basis. Depending on the particular goals of your hackathon, this might mean that teams within an internal department get shuffled around into new combinations. You might also choose to design a hackathon in which people from multiple departments or with different specialties work together. Some hackathons even choose to invite external participants, sometimes as part of a recruiting effort. 
  • Increase employee autonomy. Hackathons give employees both time and space to pursue projects they are interested in. Allowing employees this type of freedom helps to breed new ways of thinking about old problems and methodologies. 
  • Break from the usual day-to-day. Hackathons often focus upon projects or problems outside of an employee’s typical job responsibilities. It is usually a time uninterrupted by the need to help clients, gather for meetings, answer emails, or other normal tasks. A hackathon can provide a refreshing change of pace and the chance for employees to get excited about learning something new.
  • Build community. Fostering a company culture that is both productive and supportive can be challenging at times, but a hackathon can help with both. Hackathons tend to generate excitement among participants, which allows them to feel part of a community. A well-structured hackathon helps make new employees feel included and strengthen bonds between coworkers.
  • Innovate as individuals and as a company. Whether your business is new or well-established, you likely know that continual innovation is key to your company’s success. There are, of course, multiple ways to support a spirit of innovation within a business. A hackathon is a great way to do so, because it can quickly shake things up and help employees think outside of the box.

How to Run a Company Hackathon

Ready to reap the rewards of your very own internal hackathon? Set yourself up for success with these 3 tips for how to run a company hackathon:

Keep reading or check out our infographic for tips on how to run a company hackathon.

1. Figure Out the Goal

What do you hope to accomplish with your hackathon? Knowing the answer to this question influences every other decision about how you run a company hackathon, so figuring out the purpose should come before anything else. 

The goal of the hackathon can be as broad or as specific as fits your organization’s needs. A broad goal, for example, and a common one for hackathons, is allowing participants to work on passion projects they’ve never had time for among their regular job duties. 

A hackathon goal can also be more specific. Maybe your company wants to improve internal communications, find new ways to use your IT systems to support AI technology, encourage a specific demographic to brainstorm solutions, or strengthen your product offerings.

Whether you end up with a narrow or broad focus, the purpose of the hackathon should be shared with participants in advance. Allowing time to brainstorm, form teams, and finish preliminary work before the main event increases the likelihood of your hackathon participants reaching the designated goal. 

2. Decide on the Type of Hackathon

When it comes to knowing how to run a company hackathon, choosing the right structure is very important. There are several main components to a hackathon structure:

  • The who. Will your hackathon be run within one specific department at your company? Will it involve employees from multiple fields? Will you invite external participants?
  • The where. Will your event be in-person? If so, do you have the capacity to host the hackathon at your company headquarters, or will you need to rent a space? Or would you prefer your event to take place virtually and all work happen remotely? If so, do participants have all the technology they need within their homes?
  • The how. Will your hackathon take place over 24–72 consecutive hours, or will its hours be non-consecutive (for example, a week with 2 hours at the start of each day dedicated to the hackathon)? Can you block off the hours of your hackathon during company time, and if so, how will you handle customers during this time? Or will the hackathon take place during non-traditional work hours? 

While determining the answers to all of these questions might feel overwhelming at first, keeping your hackathon goal in mind should help you make these decisions. If, for instance, the goal of your hackathon is to recruit people to a specific department, you may not need any other departments to participate. Or if your goal is to improve on-site communication, allowing virtual participation would probably add confusion.

3. Allow Preparation Time

employees participating in a company hackathon

Whether you decide that your hackathon should be a 24-consecutive-hours marathon or spread out over a more relaxed time frame, allowing both hackathon organizers and participants adequate preparation time is key to achieving your goals. 

As with the set-up of your hackathon, this preparation will vary depending upon your particular objectives. But overall, prep time serves to make sure that participants are able to dedicate the hackathon event itself solely to the actual development of their project. They should have already completed the necessary groundwork before the hackathon begins. 

This means that, by the time the actual event rolls around, hackathon teams should have already brainstormed ideas, assembled teams, outlined the project design, and ensured that each team member has a clear role with actionable steps. In other words, the logistics should be handled ahead of time so that the hackathon itself can be devoted to team work, problem solving, and development.

Consider offering hackathon teams some help with preparation. Some hackathons, for instance, recruit well-known figures within a related field to give lectures during the prep period. You could also host workshops or training sessions prior to the main event to help get the creative juices flowing. If you’re asking participants to learn new or fledgling skills for the event, consider arranging one-on-one meetings between yourself and participants or between team members and their leader. 

Sentient Digital, Inc’s Internal Hackathon: Our Experience So Far

How exactly do we know how to run a company hackathon? Sentient Digital, Inc. is excited to currently be in the preparation stages for our own internal hackathon!

Our engineering manager, Alex Radka, is responsible for running our hackathon. Radka has participated in several hackathons before, usually run in a traditional style where the hackathon lasts 1–2 consecutive days. At a previous company Radka worked for, he was part of a team that successfully built a prototype for an AI-enabled camera that could pinpoint the location of a gas turbine leak.

Radka says he enjoyed the energizing experience of these marathon sessions and the innovative spirit they fostered. However, for Sentient Digital, Inc’s first marathon, he knew the pace would need to be slowed down. That’s because one of his primary goals for the hackathon was for his team of systems administrators and engineers to learn how to use a scripting tool, PowerShell, that they were unfamiliar with. 

Radka wants Sentient Digital, Inc’s hackathon participants to not only have the time to learn a new skill, but also to shift their typical paradigm of thinking about their job functions, systems operations, systems engineering, and administration. Specifically, Radka would like his team to think more about how to automate processes that they currently do manually. “I’m honestly trying to change the culture of this team,” said Radka.

As learning a new skill and way of thinking does not happen overnight, Radka has allotted several months preparation for his hackathon participants. These participants are currently reading The Unicorn Project by Gene Kim, a book about the unique challenges and opportunities provided by the rapidly changing digital landscape, as well as Learn Windows PowerShell in a Month of Lunches, a book about learning PowerShell over the course of a month with just one hour per day. In addition, Radka has been holding bi-weekly one-on-ones with participants to check in on their individual and team progress.

While the main event of the hackathon has yet to happen, Radka has already noticed a shift in approach among some of his team members. In recent months, he has had several employees approach him with new ideas, both for potential hackathon projects and beyond.

“Even in this short time, I seem to be having more of those conversations,” Radka shares.

Let Us Help with Your Innovations

At Sentient Digital, Inc. we are proud of our abilities and efforts to continually innovate with new technology, projects, and mindsets. We are excited not only by the chance to run a company hackathon for the first time, but also to continue seeing its ripple effects across our company culture.

If your organization is looking for ways to innovate with technology, we are ready to take on the challenge! Our team is on the cutting edge of multiple tech fields, including cybersecurity, machine learning, software development, IT contracting, and more. Contact us today to learn more about how our companies can innovate together.

Are you a technology professional looking for a dynamic, challenging, and innovative work environment? Contact us about our job opportunities!