How to run a Hackathon

12 minute read

We’re big fans of the hackathon at Gravitywell and with a few under our belt, it’s time we shared our experiences with others and offer some tips on how to run them.

Table of Contents

Hackathons are not just for tech agencies, you can run one too!
Why do it?
How to pick a project
Where should we hold the event?
Tips and Techniques
Specific thoughts for agencies
Don’t just take our word for it

Gravitywell hackathon ideas workshop

Hackathons are not just for tech agencies, you can run one too!

Are you keen to unlock innovation within your organisation? Perhaps you have some difficult challenges to solve? Do you have an idea for a product or tool that you want to test out but struggle to find time or budget for it?

If you can relate to any of the above, then running your own internal hackathon could be the answer. 

You might need some outside help

If this is your first time planning a hackathon, or if you think there might be a skill gap in your team, then reaching out to an agency like Gravitywell can help get your hack off the ground. 

For example, if you’re expecting software to be built, you’ll need sufficient developers present. If you’re building something that people will be interacting with, then UX/UI designers will be a necessity. Depending on the specific subject matter, bringing onboard experts in that field is also crucial. 

Why do it?

So why should you use up valuable work time on a hackathon? If you’re an agency and there’s no client budget involved, or you’re a business with plenty of other tasks that demand your time - what’s the benefit?

Collaboration skills

Hackathons bring the team together and teaches people to cooperate. But the bonding experience is vastly better than one of those cheesy team-building exercises that nobody really wants to do and probably include awkward interactions involving planks and bits of rope.

Stimulation

Ideally the hackathon would be a break from the normal routine in many ways. The process should be exciting, refreshing and energising. You’re working on something for yourselves and not the client. It’s an opportunity to try new tools and techniques. Everyone should feel invested in the outcome and enthused by the end of it.

Encourages creativity from all disciplines

Short deadlines will teach you to compromise. Designers will be forced to wrestle with the balance of quality and delivering on time. Everyone will need to make quick, rational decisions. You’ll all be forced to find creative solutions that work for the deadline, rather than a vision of perfection.

R&D tax credit

If you’re a company in the UK, the government will give you a tax rebate for investment in R&D. On its own, it’s not a strong enough reason to plan a hackathon, but it’s certainly a sweetener!

 

Of course it’s difficult to measure the Cost vs Benefit of a hackathon and everyone’s mileage may vary. But from our own experience, it’s brought us closer together as a team, taught us new skills which we’ve applied to client work and given us new internal projects to take forwards in the future.

Sam drawing up wireframes on paper

How to pick a project

If you’re a business

There might be changes happening in your industry that you know you’ll need to address in the near future. Maybe there are some upcoming challenges on the horizon? Running an internal hackathon event is the perfect opportunity to face these changes and challenges head-on.

Perhaps your situation isn’t as pressing, but you have ideas for your business that you thought you’d never have time for. Why not take this opportunity to innovate and discover, and dedicate some time to develop these ideas before they fall by the wayside?

But more generally

“Tinder for cats” - is the suggestion made at Gravitywell every year, mocking the apparent silliness or arbitrariness of previous projects rather well. But in a sense, the actual project chosen doesn’t matter - it’s the experience of the event and the skills we all learn that are the true value of the hackathon.

However, you may want to consider the following factors when selecting a project for your event:

Try to make it as multidisciplinary and inclusive for the whole team as possible. Something that requires input from everyone and should keep them busy and challenged throughout. Not an easy task!

Can you solve a problem for an existing client or a client you’d like to work with? Having a ‘real’ project to work on will help you identify the requirements and provide you with knowledge about actual users rather than imaginary ones. Plus, it’s likely your client will be very grateful!

Maybe you’d like to help a charity? You’re probably not going to be able to solve world hunger but it might be worth speaking to a local charity to see if you can identify a suitable project for your team. Perhaps an app for volunteers or a system that automates processes to save administrators time?

It might be that someone in your team has their eye on a new technology or software library that they’re itching to try out. Discussing its capabilities or future potential might tease out a possibility for the hackathon.

You could even throw open the topic to your team - why not ask them if they can submit ideas for the event.

Here’s a few topics we’ve covered in the past:

  • Mobile app that matches your tastes to t-shirt designs from dozens of different designers
  • Buy and sell personal items, like eBay, but via a chatbot interface only
  • A system for scalable simple multi-player games and interactions, controlled with mobile phones and displayed on giant screens, for use at conferences
Co-working space

Where should we hold the event?

Preferably out of the studio / office. A different place, somewhere people can’t easily fall into the familiar routines or retreat into isolation.

We’ve taken the route of hiring holiday houses, off season, in Cornwall or Majorca in the past. Yes, it does mean that some of us might be working on a kitchen table or a sofa in the conservatory for a few days but the change of scenery shakes things up in a positive way.

A week away from home may present problems for the staff, especially if they’re not used to being separated from family for so long. This is something you’ll have to discuss with your team in advance to see if there is a workaround.

There are also numerous options for a change of scenery within a more structured environment if that’s preferable. Co-working spaces are springing up at a great rate across cities in the UK, and typically offer working areas that are conducive to a collaborative approach. It’s also worth researching general spaces for hire. For example, The Forge in Bristol provides an envious setting for company events.

If going away is impossible then try to change the environment in your office. Can you move to a different floor or area of the building for the duration of the event? Even just shifting desks around or switching seats to encourage different conversations and working practices could be extremely beneficial.

Tips and Techniques

Hold Stand-ups. Time is a premium so long meetings are going to eat into what little you have and set a lethargic pace for the week. If you’re not doing stand ups in the studio already then consider starting immediately! On a hack they invaluable for finding out where everyone is without wasting much work time. Is anyone twiddling their thumbs? Is anyone going down a rabbit hole that could be sidestepped easily? You can find out in just 5 minutes every day.

Presentations or demos at the end of every day. This forces people to think about deliverables every day. It means everyone is clear on what is actually working, rather than just hearing what is being worked on. The pressure of having to present means that the team is more likely to test their work before demo time.

Encourage the team to find compromises and solutions between themselves. This seems obvious but if you don’t already have this culture then it may be hard to introduce.

Your team’s dictators and prima-donnas may need to restrain themselves for best results. Egos need to be parked.

Consider how much planning and research you want to do in advance. Although starting the conceptual process during the event can be fun, you might want to arrive with a pre-prepared topic in order to save precious time. It’s easy to lose a day exploring ideas for the event so it’s useful to have some key decisions made already, but at the other end of the scale be careful not to dictate too much otherwise the project will lose the sense of discovery and excitement.

Make it competitive! A great way to keep your hackathon engaging is by introducing a competitive element to proceedings. If your company is big enough to split into multiple teams, then that’s perfect. If not, you can always open up the hack and invite external teams. Don’t forget to think about a suitable award for the best entry. You could also consider collaborating with a subject matter expert who might give the project some much needed guidance or clarification.

Don’t forget that your team is sacrificing time and energy to be at the event; make sure you treat them well and try to make the event memorable for all the right reasons!

Luke and Henry working during hackathon

Specific thoughts for agencies

What about client work?

What can you do about existing commitments and problems or opportunities that can emerge during the week?

The key is to provide as much notice as possible. Then perhaps the odd reminder, nearer the time.

Be clear. Explain what you’re doing and why. Provide details of the plan with dates and times. Point out that this is important for the team and the benefits will ultimately be felt by all clients.

Be strict. Allow emergency contact only.

You might be able to redirect the studio phone to the mobile of someone on the hackathon who should then try to deflect calls or arrange callbacks for after the event.

If you have support commitments then perhaps build in specific parts of each day to handle support queries and therefore minimise the impact on the rest of the hackathon time.

Reactions from clients

At some point you’ll need to let your clients know about your plan for a Hackthon. Perhaps their work will be put on hold or you’ll need to ask for their patience during the event. Of course you should warn your clients in advance but try to extol the virtues of a revitalised and more committed team.

A few clients have said that it sounds like an excuse for a company holiday. While it’s true that having meals together and the odd evening drinking cocktails by a pool is a lot of fun, we’re usually working longer hours than we do back in the studio.

But mostly clients have been very positive and supportive. They can see the value and are keen to follow the progress. Some have even asked to come along too. You might be surprised by the reactions from your own clients.

smartphone showing facebook app icon

Don’t just take our word for it

There are numerous examples of forward-thinking companies who regularly run hackathons to drive innovation and collaborative effort internally. 

For example, Facebook has been running internal hackathons since its conception, when Mark Zuckerberg and his team would use the process to kickstart innovation and discovery. Hackathons remain an integral part of the culture at Facebook, and more recent events have led to the creation of features including ‘Donations’ and the ‘Like’ button.

Tech startups Mercer | Mettl and Culture Amp run internal hackathons to promote collaboration and team bonding across their different departments, with tangible innovation an ancillary benefit. 

Hasbro, one of America’s oldest toy companies, has saved billions of dollars and years of research by using laser-focused hackathon events to develop new products at a rate previously unheard of in the industry. 

 

Hopefully you’re now confident enough to organise your own hackathon event.
Let us know on Twitter how it went.

If you’d like to learn more about how Gravitywell can help with your hackathon, then please get in touch.


Find out exactly how we ran our most recent hackathon.
Check out our other hackathon related articles.

Fowey bay late afternoon