Hackathons are the new black. Here’s how you can tap into your employee resource for maximum innovative ideas.
There’s no single way to run a hackathon. Every variable can (and should) be tailored to your company’s specific needs. Still, anyone who has conducted one of these affairs will agree that planning and organisation are vital.
“The one mistake that I see is not planning enough,” says Jeb Banner, CEO of SmallBox, which has run hack events every six months since 2011. “You’ve really got to spend some time getting it set up.”
Here are some expert tips on how to organise your own event:
1. Determine the duration
Hack events can be a day long, or they can stretch an entire week, during which the office shuts down.
The latter is how Banner prefers to do it, remarking that the more unwieldy and undefined the topic, the more time is needed for the hackathon.
2. Pick an off-site location
The key to a successful hackathon is to remove your staff from the mindset of the company’s daily operations. Getting off-site will do that and, depending on the space, make it easier to reorganise workers into teams, feed them without making a mess and even host them overnight if necessary.
Some companies rent conference or meeting spaces to run their hacks, but an off-site location can also be had on the cheap.
SmallBox’s most recent hack week was held at a client’s office, a local public radio station that had plenty of space to loan. Staying at the SmallBox offices would have kept people in their professional comfort zones, according to Banner.
“When we disrupt that, it immediately changes behavioural patterns.”
3. Prioritise safety
Talk to your insurance broker to make sure you’re covered for any mishap that may occur. That includes making sure to have security arrangements for all-night events, monitoring who’s coming and going.
4. Create a collaborative environment
Tech engineer Zac Bowling has participated in more than 140 hackathons and is a big fan of rolling tables that help people break off into teams, providing space to spread out and a modicum of privacy. Multiple rooms also work well.
5. Beef up the WiFi
Being able to set up and work anywhere is the name of the hackathon game, so make sure your wireless Internet network is working before you begin.
According to Bowling, that means testing it out in the farthest corners of your hack space, as well as ensuring that the network can handle the load of everyone connecting to the web at the same time.
6. Create rest areas and serve smart foods
For all-night events, make sure there are quiet rooms or corners for napping. Encourage staffers to bring sleeping bags, and provide comfortable furniture like giant beanbag chairs or couches.
Stock up on coffee, soda and energy drinks. Carb-packed snacks will carry teams to the finish line. “Very bready kinds of things (muffins, rolls, bagels) in the morning really help,” Bowling says. “They also help if you’re going all night.”
Avoid garlicky foods, and keep in mind that people will take meals and snacks back to their workstations, so steer clear of sloppy items.
7. Get in there yourself
Organisers and company leaders should roll up their sleeves and take part. “At Facebook’s hackathon, Mark Zuckerberg was there all weekend,” Bowling says. “It really reinforces the importance of what everyone’s doing and ramps up the tenor of how the event’s going to go.”
If not directly involved in problem-solving, organisers can stay busy by doing everything from bussing food and ferrying garbage to offering insight and spurring teams on.
“The best organisers are the ones who are constantly walking around, talking to people and figuring out how to make the experience better,” Swift says.
8. Limit the pitches
At the end of the hackathon, give each team no more than five minutes to present its solutions via PowerPoint deck, a product demonstration or even sketched out on a whiteboard or giant notepad.
Make sure to time each presentation, ruthlessly cutting off those that go over the limit. According to Swift, this will force teams to focus on their message and prevent them from devoting too much time to their presentations instead of their hacks.