A Guide to Organizing and Running a Successful Hackathon

Guest Post By: Elea Andrea Almazora

With the rise of the digital age, technological challenges are growing more complex. One way to meet them head-on is through hackathons. A hackathon can be a breeding ground and an incubator for new product ideas and creative solutions, and hosting them regularly can help create an innovative mindset in your organization.

What is a hackathon?

A hackathon is an event that (usually) runs for 24 to 48 hours. Software developers, engineers, and creatives work in teams to solve a complicated problem or to develop a new feature, or design a new product. 

There are two main types of hackathons: internal, and external. Internal events are limited to a company’s employees. External events have your employees as well as other industry experts, potential new talent, and partner companies. By allowing for external talent into the fold, you increase the knowledge base available. 

A successful hackathon needs a robust challenge, the right infrastructure, and an engaged crowd. While hackathons can be run in a physical or digital space, in light of the current pandemic, hackathons are mostly digital these days. In fact, hackathons in a COVID-19 world are a great way for developers to spend their time. A digital space allows for more diversity and anyone from anywhere in the world can join. This increases the creative output and helps you collaborate with a huge variety of people – especially if you can engage teams on a team messaging app like Twist.

A hackathon is a prolific exercise in problem-solving. There have been hackathons to solve problems related to:

Software designers and IT experts are given a problem and any appropriate knowledge they might need. From there, they’ll be expected to design a solution from scratch. Hackathons are successful because they enable a liberal creative process to create solutions. But just how do you run a successful one?


Step 1: Choose a theme

While it is possible to theme your hackathon around your organization’s niche in general, it’s usually better to have a single focus in mind. If you’re looking to foster innovative product ideas, you’re more likely to generate a commercially viable solution by narrowing the field. A successful hackathon will almost always focus on projects confined to a particular problem and/or goal. 

For example, if you’re a communication software provider, you might choose to focus on creating a new piece of software for teams and customer service. This could lead to solutions like an online telephone management system, or a team collaboration app with video conferencing.

When choosing the theme or topic, it’s important to make sure all your stakeholders have been briefed. This gives you the opportunity to ensure everyone is on the same page, and that people are familiar with your topic of choice. It also ensures that the theme you’ve chosen fits with your company’s overall goals and ethos.

Step 2: Set clear goals and guidelines

Once you have a theme in mind, define the key deliverable that your participants need to focus on while developing the solution. Do you want a small, but finished product? Broad strokes of something that can be developed later? Decide what points the teams will need to present their initial ideas, the first sketches, and how to present the solution as they develop it. Teams should know if you expect them to pitch their idea, and how much time they will get. 

It’s important to decide whether there’ll be a single winner or multiple winners, and if everyone gets to reach the finish line or if you’ll filter out teams as the hackathon goes on. Don’t forget to make it clear who will be the owner of the intellectual property resulting from the hackathon. You might need help from your legal team to draft terms and conditions related to intellectual property. Transparency and traceability are important for everything that you develop. 

The decisions you make now will affect how the event runs, so spend time laying out a clear code of conduct. Some examples of things to include are:

  • No bias among the judges due to race, gender, ethnicity, previous hackathon attendance, computing experience or chosen programming language.
  • No tolerance of harassment among participants or from the judges.
  • Who participants should talk to if harassment does occur

Considering the aim of your hackathon, make it abundantly clear what software, UI, UX, firmware, and DevOps best practices need to be followed. Your organization could have some preferences, and it would be best to make participants aware of those. 

Step 3: Marketing

Like any event, you need to build anticipation. This will help attract participants – and hopefully, sponsors! Hackathons are expensive and you will need investors. Marketing your hackathon in good time will help attract even third parties – from government agencies to other software companies – who might be interested in the result of your hackathon and willing to contribute resources.

You should use social media, email marketing, and even cold calling techniques to market your hackathon. If it’s an external one, make sure you advertise to university students and have fliers in and around the computer science building. You can use AngelHack in order to get access to the world’s largest and most diverse developer ecosystem. 

One important factor in your advertising will be the prize you offer. That could be a monetary prize, hardware, paid-for conference places, or other enticing options. 

Step 4: Planning and preparation

Organize your hackathon by defining the roles and responsibilities as below:

  • Organizational team: this team is responsible for any and all administrative things, including taking care of the venue, food, Wi-Fi, and tracking the event.
  • Sponsors: find sponsors who are well known in order to attract more talent to your hackathon. You can invite them as speakers, ask them to make videos, or include their products. Sponsors will often donate money towards the prize, but you might also find some to sponsor food or equipment.  
  • Judges: can your sponsors, management, or other leaders from the industry. Have clear criteria in mind, and ensure they understand what your goals are. 
  • Participants: the heart of the hackathon. To have the best talent attending, make sure you have an online presence. This makes it easier for people from all around the world to be able to participate. Be clear on your website about the prize, the sponsors, and the challenge.

You need meticulous planning to host a successful hackathon. For an on-site event, you need to make sure you have ample time for set-up and all other preparation. The following are necessities to have a successful event:

  • Proper seating so teams can collaborate 
  • A power strip, per table
  • Wi-Fi that is fast and reliable
  • A projector
  • A microphone
  • Food and drink (especially coffee)
  • Accessible entrances
  • Accessible bathrooms

Make sure to have contingency plans for all of the above – you don’t want it to fail on the day because a caterer can’t make it, or your microphone breaks!

For digital hackathons, you need to decide on which team chat apps to use. Look at a comparison of Teams and Glip (popular team chat apps), along with their functionalities and choose one in advance. Sign up for a video conferencing software for speeches and virtual meetings. 

Virtual hackathons may need more guidelines, so over-communicate about timings and deadlines. For a global hackathon, a schedule will require some finesse to accommodate different time zones.

For both on-site and digital events, make sure to provide any data needed to design the app, as well as market research. Clearly define what you will be looking for in the winning solution. Innovation, technical achievement and impact should be all major criteria for winning. 

Let’s go back to our communications software example. To make sure everyone is on the same page, you’ll need a clear definition of customer service solutions, easy-to-understand expectations, and access to information about customer profiles. These will be helpful to provide an exact understanding of the needs and expectations of the hackathon participants. 


Step 5: Kick off the hackathon

At this point, you should know whether you’re assigning groups or letting teams self-form and whether this will be done in advance or at the start of the first day. If you would like to have free form teams, do not try to influence team selection. Let participants gravitate towards the ideas they like and form autonomous teams around them. 

It is your job to enable an environment that lets creative juices flow freely. Keep up the food and coffee supply, and offer encouragement when needed. You should have members of the organizational team be constantly active and roaming around to answer questions that participants may have. You can even moderate group discussions on the team collaboration platforms you use for digital events. Be strict about the time and constantly keep reminding the participants about the time left.


Step 6: Follow-up

Congratulations! You have made it through your first hackathon. However, the work does not end when you have your solution in hand and have awarded the prize. You need to email everyone involved, thank them for their participation and tell them when you plan to host the next hackathon. Ask them for feedback and let them know what stage the winning solution is, whether it is at localization testing or at implementation.


Get hacking!

A hackathon is a fascinating approach to get your problems solved by using the best minds in the business. It is free from the constraints of developing something new in-house. Hackathons are an interactive form of collaboration and they can have an immense, lasting impact. They promote a culture of teamwork and attract a variety of talent; making them a versatile tool for innovation. So why not start planning one today?



Elea is the SEO Content Optimization manager for RingCentral, the leader in global enterprise communication and collaboration solutions on the cloud. She has more than a decade’s worth of experience in on-page optimization, editorial production, and digital publishing. She spends her free time learning new things.