10 Hints for Holding a Great Hackathon

Just like getting the most out of participating in a hackathon, deriving maximum value from holding a hackathon takes careful preparation and advanced planning, especially about what you hope to gain from the event. But planning and implementing a successful hackathon may be harder than actually winning one.

I have attended plenty of hackathons as an observer and mentor, but I’ve never actually run one myself. So I spoke to people who have–including New Relic’s own in-house expert–to gather some of their best practices and suggestions.

See also: 6 Ways To Get the Most Out of Participating in a Hackathon


The first hint they shared was to get clear on the kind of hackathon you want to hold. Hackathons come in two different forms: Those that are put on internally, to benefit a particular corporation and open only to its employees; and public events that are open to anyone. (Internal events can be very productive: The toy maker Hasbro put on its own event with 150 developers and ended up getting viable ideas for some 45 products.) Most of the tips below are aimed at public hackathons, but they may be relevant for private events as well.

Tip 1: Set goals

Holding a hackathon can be a great way to gain publicity for your brand, find the next great programmers to hire, or just to inspire your own dev team.

But even the best hackathon can’t do everything, so you need to clearly establish the goals of your hackathon–and make sure your choices are targeted to achieving them. Just about all of our sources agreed that this was critical to shaping the event. For example, Jana Boruta, who ran several hackathons for New Relic and is now our event planner, asks, “Are you planning on having everyone contribute to a particular open source project, or build something for the community?”

Tip 2: Create a theme

“Establishing a theme creates the alignment between participants, sponsors, and mentors to create an experience that everyone values,” say the bloggers at Pollenizer. It also helps keep everyone working towards a common goal. “If you only achieve one thing, what would you like it to be? Now focus on that,” says Kristy Cooke writing on FusePump’s blog.

A theme can also focus your marketing efforts and help attract the best possible participants. “The events that have been more successful have had a single focus,” says Travis Sheridan, who is the assistant vice president, innovation & entrepreneurship at the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership and one of the co-founders of Globalhack.org. (The organization produced the first of what it intends to be a series of quarterly events earlier this year.)

Tip 3: Use real-world problems and real data

A Coca-Cola distributor in Sydney, Australia, held a multiday hackathon earlier this year that resulted in the creation of several start-up businesses. Coke wanted to optimize its supply chain and used various big data sets in the contest. This meant the participants “could focus on fixing actual problems rather than just creating something random,” notes one of the judges, Annie Parker, who is a co-founder of Telstra’s new accelerator.

Tip 4: Market your event properly

Socrata suggests starting a publicity push for public hackathons three months before the event, including contacting local developer groups, posting flyers around universities and startup incubators, tweeting and connecting with influencers, adding information on various LinkedIn and Meetup groups, and posting announcements on Reddit and Hacker News discussion forums.

Also, don’t rest on your laurels. “Just because you hold one successful event doesn’t mean anything,” says Sheridan. “You have to sell it again for the next sponsor and you can’t get comfortable. You should have a pipeline of sponsors ready to bring in for future events.”

Tip 5: Pick your prizes carefully

“Developers have busy day jobs so you need to be careful how you craft your event,” adds New Relic’s Boruta. “You have to figure out the right mix of projects, prizes, and people to make it really compelling.”

If you need sponsors, look for a combination of big and smaller companies that can offer up various prize purses. “Money talks,” says Sheridan. Offering a first prize of at least $10,000 will help attract and motivate developers.

Of course, money isn’t everything. Lisa Evans, writing for Fast Company, says that you should “entice software developers with prizes that inspire them. Prize money is great, but you don’t have to have deep wallets to grab the attention of developers. Think beyond cash for incentives that developers will find useful, such as a meeting with someone in your organization who can further the developer’s career, or an introduction with one of your company’s investors.”

Tip 6: Measure everything

Getting serious sponsorships means telling the right story, so it’s important to collect important metrics from your event, such as how many people finished the contest, where they came from, what degrees they had, and other data that can be used to entice future sponsors. The reporter in me understands this, but you might have to convince your event organizers how important it is.

Tip 7: Get your infrastructure act together

Don’t forget that you will need to build a website to promote the event and post the results of the participating teams. You might be inclined to build it yourself or use general-purpose tools, but that isn’t always optimal. GlobalHack, for example is looking to replace Eventbrite for its event registration, because that service seemed more appropriate for registering individuals than teams. If you need specific software to run your event, Hacker League lets you use its registration and submission services for your event.

And then there’s the real-world infrastructure, from the monumental to the mundane. “We ran out of toilet paper for one weekend event because we forgot to notify the building staff that we were going to be occupying the offices,” recalls Boruta. She ended up making a Costco run before things got ugly. Make sure there are plenty of outlets and power strips too. Catering should be aware of any various food allergies or other dietary restrictions among the participants. Despite the stereotype of developers living on beer and pizza, the ones I know are particularly fussy about their food—and they’re going to spend a lot of time at your event.

You should report on the progress of the various teams during the event. “We set clear timescales, announced the start and end of the hack, and gave regular updates regarding the schedule and what we expected at each stage,” says FusePump’s Cooke. Real-time blogging or tweeting can attract interest from attendees and non-attendees alike, and can help heighten the competition.

Tip 8: Choose your judges carefully

I have seen events with good and bad judging panels, and the quality of the judging can make all the difference. Socrata suggests at least three to five judges, definitely not the same individuals as the core organizers of the event. Great candidates for judges include government officials, key members of the local developer community, or representatives from local media organizations. Your judges don’t need to be there the whole day, but make sure they show up at least 30 minutes before judging so you can brief them on how the process works. “At least some of the judges should be technical people, so that developers feel their work has been evaluated properly. And the judging process should be open and clear,” writes Susan Kuchinskas in Forbes.

GlobalHack put together four judging teams and had a manual scoring system for its first event. “We are looking for an electronic scoring solution to make the judging process go more smoothly,” says Gabe Lozano, another co-founder of the event. “We made sure to have at least one technical and one business expert on each panel,” he adds.

Tip 9: Have some connection with the business or sponsoring organizations

Doreen Bloch at Poshly Inc. was quoted in The Next Web advising hackathon holders to “blend the hackathon teams with tech and business talent so that the hacks created are more likely to speak to all aspects of the business.” Look to them to help provide mentors as well, and think about a way that teams can request specific help during the event if they get stuck on a knotty problem.

Tip 10: Figure out how much it will cost

“The costs of a hackathon can be kept quite low, says FusePump’s Cooke. At his event, “everyone got food and a branded t-shirt, but there were some administrative costs.”

Sheridan says the first GlobalHack cost about $15,000, and that included food, swag, security, and venue and furniture rentals. But you also have to consider staffing costs: GlobalHack, which was 100 percent volunteer-driven, had about 20 people working on judging, setup, and monitors. That would be expensive if you had to pay them, of course, which is why many hackathons rely on existing company employees.


David Strom is one of the leading experts on network and Internet technologies and has written and spoken extensively on topics such as VOIP, convergence, email, cloud computing, network management, Internet applications, software development, wireless and Web services for more than 25 years. He has had several editorial management positions for both print and online properties in the enthusiast, gaming, IT, network, channel, and electronics industries, including the editor-in-chief of Network Computing print, Digital Landing.com, eeTimes.com, ReadWrite.com and Tom's Hardware.com. He currently writes for GigaOm, Slashdot, Dice, Techtarget and Network World. He began his career working in varying roles in end-user computing in the IT industry. View posts by .

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