In June 1999, OpenBSD ran the first hackathon, and since then the events have become a beloved part of developer culture, uniting like-minded individuals with events, and also ambassador programs to promote the entire concept of having a community to call your own. The sense of community and the fun intensity of coding alongside like-minded strangers is unparalleled. Over the past two years, virtual hackathons have been made a necessity by the pandemic.
As with remote work, they can lack some of the fun and energy of an in-person event. But if you adapt and embrace the benefits a remote environment offers, you can hold a productive, successful, and fun virtual hackathon.
1. Choose your theme
Hackathons need a clear theme. This will help with the promotion, so maybe pick a trending theme like machine learning, cryptocurrency, or another blockchain technology, and there’s lots of room to be creative here. It could be as niche as “build a real business application on top of our CRM”, or “use our VoIP device for the most creative use you can think of”. The possibilities are endless.
Consider that your target audience for a hackathon needn’t just be coders. There are plenty of code-literate designers out there who could focus on making your team’s projects appear more polished. Writers with some UX knowledge can turn your teams’ ideas into clear user journeys. Hackathon themes determine who you’re marketing your event to, so choose carefully.
One benefit of virtual hackathons is that the cost of running them is significantly lower. Just hiring a venue could see your investment skyrocketing into the thousands. It’s easy to assume then that virtual hackathons have no logistical difficulties. It’s just a video conference, right? We’ll discuss tech later, but for now, let’s focus on scheduling.
- Decide dates early
You want to schedule your hackathon at least two months in advance. This gives you adequate time to promote your event and prepare everything you’ll need.
A good lead time for your hackathon will also give attendees adequate time to prepare. Engineers are busy people and the usual 48 hours hackathon is a big chunk of time to commit-. they’ll need time to schedule your event. By scheduling a couple of months in advance you’re also giving them time to research software and ideas relevant to your theme.
This will help them come up with something interesting within the time limit. The better your hackathon’s projects turn out to be, the more cachet you’ll have to promote your next event.
Avoid overlap with any major holidays or company/community events. If you’re running SwiftUI developer hackathons, you don’t want them downing tools halfway through to watch the new Apple keynote.
- Deciding the time and duration
Think globally. Another benefit of the virtual hackathon is that you can have attendees from all over the world, so you want to account for time zones. If your hackathon starts at 12 pm Friday PST, a software engineer in the UK is going to be attending your kick-off event at 8 pm. That’s not ideal for them or their team.
The usual 48-hour time for an in-person hackathon might not translate to a virtual setting ideally, so a three or four-day hackathon might be more suitable for everyone attending your event. It’s more open to time zone differences and leaves a little more room for asynchronous communication. If your teams employ synchronous event time, you’ll end up with even better-quality group projects than you would have otherwise.
Also, the great thing is that since you’re not renting a venue, there’s not much additional cost to extending your event longer than originally planned.
3. Identify partners
Organizing and running a hackathon is a lot of work. It’ll be easier to focus on the things you do well if you enlist some partners to help you. You can put a lot more effort into promoting your event if you can hand over some of the work of setting up and running your event to others.
Find at least two developers who you can trust to help lead the event- you might need more depending on how many people you’ve got attending your event. In order to find some partners to help you with your event, think about your theme and reach out to relevant communities for volunteers.
You might be joining Discord servers or Twitter threads, or finding newsletters with small but engaged reader bases. Seek out startups and communities attached to accelerator programs in your chosen field to aid in the process of recruitment.
Volunteering at a hackathon can be a great experience. For passionate community members – say, web3 enthusiasts – it’s a way to contribute to the cultures and technologies they want to see grow. For inexperienced coders, helping out with a hackathon is a way to get exposure to the kind of team and environment they want to be a part of.
One advantage of the virtual event is that there’s less time and effort involved for a high-profile judge to attend. They will be more inclined to attend and can be a huge publicity win for your event and a big opportunity for the team with the winning project. Think about your theme and aim for someone who’s well-known within your event’s community.
Once you have your team, you’ll want to develop a work breakdown structure listing everything you need to do to prepare and run your hackathon. This doesn’t have to be complicated, just a list of tasks and deadlines would suffice.
You’ll also need to think about the technology you’ll need. Different events require different programs- If it’s a small event you might be able to get everyone chatting over Discord. However, you might need something more interoperable like an SMB phone system, if you are dealing with hackathons on a larger scale.
5. Write a code of conduct
In any online community, you’ll find a rules page that new users have to agree to follow.
It’s important that you write a code of conduct for your virtual hackathons. You’re about to have people from all backgrounds who don’t know each other working closely together. It’s essential to set basic expectations about what is and isn’t acceptable behavior.
A code of conduct should also help your hackathon’s social events run more smoothly, and it’s also important to create a safe, diverse, and welcoming environment for people who haven’t attended a hackathon before. Having an agreement from all participants will aid in all to ensure no discrepancy occurs.
6. Make a landing page for the event
Your hackathon’s site needs to fulfill two roles:
- it has to be the one place to capture all promotional leads and signups
- the single source of truth for what’s going on in your event and when
Your site should include aspects like how to get registered for your event and a place you should direct questions to. This will be a huge help for hackathon first-timers to cover all the bases.
Make sure your site is SEO-friendly and easy to find. Include the search terms you want to show up for in the headings and subheadings of your page, which might look like “what is .io domain” rather than something more complex but less searchable.
As with your scheduling, embrace the possibilities of virtual hackathons and think globally. Make sure that your site displays times in the user’s local timezone as standard so that you can attract everyone regardless of their geographic location.
Front-end developers will know that even your font choice plays a part here. Consider the ongoing case of Zawgyi to Unicode interoperability, which is an issue as the Unicode standard wasn’t built to account for Burmese text. In the age of auto-translated web pages, make sure your font supports as many characters in as many languages as possible.
When promoting your hackathon, broaden your pool of potential attendees by making sure you mention non-coders in your promotional text. You are not only appealing to hackers, but also to people from other experts.
For your hacker teams to focus on programming, you can include more aspects in the judging criteria by involving a need for other fields. They’d be happy to have a UX designer refining their customer satisfaction process, a dedicated project manager prioritizing tasks, or a writer making their customer journey as smooth as possible – and this will allow the hacker to concentrate solely on what they are great at.
8. Running a fun event
Although virtual hackathons are tailored for convenience, some can find it draining to try and work with people through the constraints of a cloud-hosted phone system or video calling software.
Many companies have found that dedicated social time was a great way to mitigate tedium. But more importantly, you’ll be recreating one of the most fun and rewarding aspects of an in-person hackathon – spending a lot of time hanging out with ambitious, like-minded people.
You should build dedicated social and bonding time into your hackathon schedule – this could be anything from a short half-hour coffee break in the afternoon to happy hour drinks and trivia events.
In-person, Hackathon teams often have food and beverage handled for them by the event organizers. As that’s not possible online, you can consider a food stipend for your teams so they can get food delivered while they work for a small reward as motivation.
The communal experience of everyone grabbing pizza around the same time will get people from different countries around the same virtual tables, which might just be the best thing a virtual hackathon offers over an in-person event.
The unique benefits of a successful virtual hackathon
Like remote work, virtual hackathons aren’t going away. People are embracing the unique opportunities the remote environment offers and in doing so, it captures the unique magic of the in-person hackathon.
By running a successful virtual hackathon, you’re setting the bar and inspiring other people to run their own by following your example. That’s a big responsibility, as well but it’s also a huge opportunity to connect developers from around the world, build networks, and close-knit developer communities that couldn’t exist before.
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