Ideas for How to Host a Virtual Hackathon

Hackathons can drive innovation and bring teams together — even from a distance.
Tatum Hunter
March 20, 2020
Updated: June 1, 2020
Tatum Hunter
March 20, 2020
Updated: June 1, 2020

Six months ago, more than 3,000 people gathered in one conference center to compete at the Digital Breakthrough hackathon in Kazan, Russia, setting a world record for most hackathon participants to date. 

Today, hackathons need to look a lot different.

On one hand, virtual hackathons are nothing new. HackerEarth, which helps companies like Paypal and Intuit with technical recruitment through contests and hackathons, produces about two virtual events for every eight on-site events it produces, senior director of operations Saurabh Siddhartha said.

On the other hand, developers and organizers across the world are adjusting to a new — if temporary — reality in which most workers are remote and large gatherings are discouraged. This presents major event-planning challenges as companies scramble to shift in-person events to online ones.

It also creates problems for teams, as limited facetime sucks the fun out of working together. Internal hackathons, or hackathons by and for a particular company, have long been a good way to spur innovation. Now, they can also serve to connect and boost morale from afar.

“This week our day-to-day work has been about how to convert onsite hackathons into virtual hackathons without compromising on quality,” Siddhartha said. “We need to increase the number of virtual hackathons, and I see people getting ready to do that, and people are talking internally at our organization and making that a larger plan for our clients.”

We asked Siddhartha, as well as Devpost founder and CEO Brandon Kessler, for their tips on hosting a successful virtual hackathon for your team.

How to host a successful virtual hackathon

  • Clearly define the goal of your virtual event. Do you want to walk away with a minimum viable product, a full-blown feature or a stronger sense of community?
  • Over-communicate about timing and expectations. Virtual hackathons require more guidelines, but sending them all in a document may not serve you.
  • Bring in other teams. Other teams can add value (and fun), even if they don’t code.
  • Educate participants in advance. If they understand protocols and frameworks ahead of time, they can avoid wasting time during hackathon sprints.
  • Avoid a top-down approach. Define the parameters, but let people play.
  • Prioritize the social elements. With the right tools and incentives, you can make the distance seem smaller.

 

internal hackathon
Image: Shutterstock

Clearly define your goals

Keep the focus of your virtual hackathon narrow. That way, it will be easier to plan — and to evaluate later.

Many companies use hackathons to address a specific problem for users or to knock out some technical debt or longstanding Kanban board cards. Others want developers to grow their familiarity with a particular application or API by building something within it. Some simply want to promote collaboration with other pods or teams. And, of course, the event can be just for funsies.

Whatever your goal, your leaders and organizers should commit to it early and loudly. If it’s a problem statement, share it in virtual meetings and in writing. If it’s a boost in employee engagement, define what an engaged remote team looks like.

“Some senior folks, and especially CXOs, CIOs, CTOs, et cetera, should write about the hackathon and position it in their words or from their perspective,” Siddhartha said. “That definitely helps create clarity for the entire event.”

An overarching goal will also help hammer out timelines. Kessler recommended a one- or two-day timespan for internal hackathons — employees get a break from their normal projects without falling too far behind. But if your intention is to walk away with a fully functional product, you’ll need longer than that.

Devpost has been producing virtual hackathons for a decade, Kessler said, and in that time, many companies have taken advantage of the longer timelines virtual events can support.

“If you go to an in-person hackathon, you’re kind of locked in, you’re in the room. And that’s great and that’s an advantage. But on the flip side, you’re lucky to kind of get a barely finished prototype by the end. Whereas with a virtual one, traditionally you’re going to get a more polished application, something that’s better across all areas, often,” he said.

More ways to stay connected with remote teamsOnline Games Are Surging. Research Says Their Social Benefits Are Very Real.

 

remote hackathon
Image: Shutterstock

Over-communicate, and do it verbally

With no one to make announcements or corral participants, it’s easy for virtual hackathons to get disorganized. You can combat that by planning an hour-by-hour schedule (don’t forget breaks) and contest guidelines ahead of time.

Your guidelines should lay out the goals of the event, the process for pitching and team-forming, rules about after-hours hacking, expectations regarding normal work responsibilities and evaluation criteria for the final projects.

If your workforce is globally distributed, creating a schedule will require some finesse. Some organizers opt to keep all participants on the same timeline, so some people get to start hacking in the morning, while others start in the evening. Kessler, however, recommended letting hackers keep individual schedules that make sense for their time zones.

“I think the best practices we’ve seen there is localizing time zones and having different deadlines,” he said. “Tell people to do their best to have local teammates, but if not, that’s fine. They just have to come to an agreement on timing. In other words, if they have one teammate in a very different time zone, they need to take that into consideration when forming the team and make sure everyone is OK with it.”

Once you’ve ironed out a schedule and guidelines, share them with participants as soon as possible. If your hackathon is optional, find an accessible place to host them and send out invites. Then, communicate them again verbally via a tool like Zoom or Google Hangouts, and spend plenty of time unpacking any goal or problem statements, as well as their context.

“One of the biggest problems with virtual hackathons is miscommunication because everything is in a text format,” Siddhartha said. “You’re not able to discuss it with anyone. Now there are tools like Slack where you can ask questions. But when problem statements are thoroughly explained to developers by tech leads or team leads, it really saves a lot of time and ensures the relevance of submissions.”

 

company hackathon
Image: Shutterstock

Bring in other teams

Hackathons may be a developer tradition, but rapid innovation is not just the stuff of coders.

Incorporating other teams, like marketing and customer success, into your virtual event can make it more enjoyable and effective. Cloud infrastructure provider DigitalOcean includes employees in both technical and non-technical roles in its internal hackathons, and the company’s senior manager of community partnerships Daniel Zaltsman called it the key to a successful undertaking.

When hackathon teams include players from different departments who don’t have the benefit of shorthand, virtual communication tools become even more important. Zaltsman recommended Google Hangouts for planning a pitch and dividing up tasks, Slack for communication during the development stage and Zoom conferences for presentations and awards.

“When we facilitate the environment to bring together individuals from different teams with different skill sets, the possibilities for innovation are endless, and physical distance becomes obsolete,” he said via email.

If the aim of your hackathon is to walk away with a product or feature to improve on and eventually implement, insight from non-technical roles during the ideation stage becomes even more valuable.

“We have conducted hackathons where customer success people are interacting with techies or developers. They are giving them market intelligence and business acumen, and the tech team is building the feature. So its teamwork,” Siddhartha said. “In this case, the entire hackathon is conceptualized so that the idea or product that comes out is very much aligned to market expectations.”

There’s room for disparate disciplines on your judging panel as well. Siddhartha recommended including at least one client-facing company leader to assess how each project would impact customers and the bottom line — whether the project is meant for internal or external use.

 

Educate participants ahead of time

Once the hackathon clock is ticking, it’ll hurt to spend time getting participants up to speed on codebases, tooling or frameworks — especially when that work could have been done ahead of time.

Kessler suggested Slack office hours or live demonstrations where soon-to-be hackers can familiarize themselves with the given tech stack. Siddhartha recommended hosting a few 30-minute ask me anything webinars during the week leading up to the virtual event. This works well when you’ve shared a problem statement and its author can weigh in directly. Also include a session with someone highly familiar with the applicable stack. As for webinar tools, he recommended AMA and GoToWebinar.

Lastly, take some time before the big day to make sure everyone is set up with the proper permissions and environments. This includes virtual private network access, sandboxes and git checkouts.

 

planning a hackathon
Image: Shutterstock

Don’t over-structure

The communication barriers that come with a remote event will make it tempting to over-structure your hackathon. But resist the urge — hackathons are fundamentally a participant-driven endeavor.

One way to avoid over-engineering is to create a hackathon committee to govern the event. A diverse committee — with C-suite buy in — is a great way to ensure the event serves both employees and the company. Create what Zaltsman described as a “cross-functional group with employees at all different levels,” and let this group weigh in on overall goals, scheduling and guidelines.

While it’s good to have clear timeframes and expectations, paint with broad strokes when telling teams how to use their time. Leave large chunks of time for hacking, and don’t require participants to tune in for virtual information sessions or progress updates while the challenge is running.

Another area where it’s easy to get too stiff is ideation. Once you’ve shared your central goal or problem statement, step back and let participants respond to it as they will. If organizers are too involved in project selection and team formation, you risk defeating your own purpose.

The Devpost platform addresses this by letting participants post project pitches in advance of the actual event, and that approach can work for internal hackathons as well. Some organizers go in and shortlist ideas, but there are benefits to letting employees self-organize around the ideas that interest them. Some ideas that seem too challenging — or ridiculous — could end up having legs after teams get a chance to work on them.

The best approach, Kessler said, is to start the pitching process early. Giving people plenty of time to solidify ideas and form teams helps ensure the most viable ideas get the most attention, and no one is left scrambling for a team at the last moment.

“Finding teams should be bottom up, not top down,” he said. “In an ideal setting, you’re starting earlier so that there isn’t this crazy virtual rush. It’s hard enough to do that in person at a competition.”

 

virtual hackathon
Image: Shutterstock

Prioritize the fun 

Hackathons have a reputation for being fun. Don’t mess it up by isolating remote participants or treating the event like free after-hours coding work. Freeze all deliverables, get a Slack channel or Google Hangout running and set participants loose.

One way to infuse fun into a virtual hackathon is to make sure your judging system prioritizes learning and collaboration, not just an impressive end result, Zaltsman said. One way to do this is to create some alternative judging categories.

Some suggestions from Siddhartha were: cleanest code award, most functional project award, best-designed project award and audience’s favorite project award.

Another way to boost engagement is to share a final presentation with the entire company via Skype or Zoom. A five- or six-slide presentation per team will do it, Siddhartha said, and it can’t hurt to invite the entire company, regardless of who signed up for the event itself.

Finally, be intentional about prizes for remote teams. Amazon gift cards work well, Siddhartha said — “Participants get ticked off if they have to pay taxes on the prizes,” — as do gadgets.

But going the extra mile for personalized prizes leaves an even bigger impression, Brett Florio said in an email. Florio is CEO at FoxyCart, a shopping cart and checkout application that has hosted multiple internal hackathons with remote teams.

“One thing that worked well was getting everybody’s preferred delivery food figured out ahead of time and scheduling it to be delivered to each team member’s home,” he wrote. “It’s a bit of extra work, but we found it goes a long way in making everybody feel appreciated, and in allowing everybody to focus on the task at hand.”

For reference: Uber Eats is offering free food delivery during March in a handful of cities.

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