NewRelic blog: How to hold a great hackathon

Holding a hackathon can be a great way to gain publicity for your brand, find the next great programmers to hire, or just to inspire your own dev team. Let’s talk about how you can hold one successfully and what are some of the things to think about to plan the event.

Have a theme and goals. One key is to establish what are the goals of the hackathon – and make sure you’re choices are targeted to that. Just about all of our sources agreed that this was critical to how the hackathon would be shaped and what kind of event you wanted to have. “Are you planning on having everyone contribute to a particular open source project or build something for the community,” said Jana Boruta, who ran several hackathons for New Relic and is now the company’s event planner.

“Establishing a theme creates the alignment between participants, sponsors and mentors to create an experience that everyone values,” says the bloggers at Pollenizer. It also helps keep everyone in the same moment working towards a common goal.  “If you only achieve one thing, what would you like it to be? Now focus on that,” says Kristy Cooke writing on FusePump’s blog.

Having a theme can also focus how to direct your marketing efforts and how to pick the best possible audience too. Boruta produced an event for minorities and women in tech as an example. “The events that have been more successful have had a single focus,” says Travis Sheridan, who is the Assistant VP, Innovation & Entrepreneurship at St. Louis Economic Development Partnership and one of the co-founders of Globalhack.org. They produced their first of what they intend to be a series of quarterly events earlier this year.

Hackathons take two different forms: ones that are put on internally, to benefit a particular corporation and only open to its employees. Others are more public that are open to anyone. Internal events can prove to be very productive: The toy maker Hasbro put on its own event with 150 developers and ended up getting ideas for 45 products as a result. Globalhack, as I described in my previous article, resulted in more than 10 people being hired for various programming jobs.

Use real-world data whenever possible. A Coca Cola distributor in Sydney Australia held a multi-day hackathon earlier this year that resulted in several start up businesses being created.  They wanted to help optimize their supply chain and used various big data sets in the contest. This meant the participants “could focus on fixing actual problems rather than just creating something random,” said one of the judges Annie Parker, who is a co-founder of Telstra’s new accelerator.

Market your event properly. Socrata suggests starting up your publicity three months before the event, including contacting local developer groups, posting flyers around universities and startup incubators, Tweeting and connecting with influencers, adding information on various LinkedIn and Meetup groups and posting announcements on Reddit and Hacker News discussion forums. Also, don’t rest on your laurels. “Just because you hold one successful event doesn’t mean anything,” says Sheridan. “You have to sell it again for the next sponsor and you can’t get comfortable. You should have a pipeline of sponsors ready to bring in for the future events,” he says.

Pick your prizes carefully. Speaking of sponsors, plan on finding a combination of big and smaller companies that can offer up the prize purses. “Money talks,” said Sheridan. He thinks offering at least a first prize of $10,000 will help attract and motivate developers. It is also important to think of the larger picture of how your event will appear to potential participants. “Developers have busy day jobs so you need to be careful how you craft your event,” said Boruta. “You have to figure out the right mix of projects, prizes, and people to make it really compelling.”

Lisa Evans writing for FastCompany says that you should “entice software developers with prizes that inspire them. Prize money is great, but you don’t have to have deep wallets to grab the attention of developers. Think beyond money for incentives that developers will find useful, such as a meeting with someone in your organization who can further the developer’s career, or an introduction with one of your company’s investors.”

Part of selling sponsorships is having the right story to tell, too. Collect important metrics from your event such as how many people finished the contest, where they came from, what degrees they had, and other things that can be used to convince future sponsors to sign up.

Have your infrastructure act together. Don’t forget that you will need to build a website to promote the event and post the results of the individual teams. You might be inclined to build it yourself, but if you need software to run your event, take a look at HackerLeague’s tools. Globalhack is looking to replace Eventbrite for its event registration, because is more appropriate for registering individuals than for teams of people.

And infrastructure can mean the most mundane of things, too. “We ran out of toilet paper for one weekend event because we forgot to notify the building staff that we were going to be occupying the offices,” said Boruta. She ended up making a Costco run before things got ugly. Also make sure there is plenty of outlets and power strips too. She also cautions that catering should be aware of the various food allergies or other dietary restrictions

You should report on the progress of various teams during the event too. “We set clear timescales, announced the start and end of the hack, and gave regular updates regarding the schedule and what we expected at each stage,” says FusePump’s Cooke. Doing real-time blogging or Tweeting can bring in interest from attendees and non-attendees alike, and can help heighten the competition.

Choose your judges carefully. Socrata suggests at least three to five judges, making sure they will not be the same individuals as the core organizers of the event. Great candidates for judges include government officials, key members of the local developer community, or representatives from local media organizations. Your judges don’t need to be there the whole day, but make sure they know to show up at least 30 minutes before judging so you can brief them on how judging will be performed. “At least some of the judges should be technical people, so that developers feel their work has been evaluated properly. And the judging process should be open and clear,” writes Susan Kuchinskas in Forbes earlier this year.  

Globalhack put together four judging teams and had a manual scoring system for its first event. “We are looking for an electronic scoring solution to make the judging process go more smoothly,” said Gabe Lozano, another co-founder of the event. “We made sure to have at least one technical and one business expert on each panel,” he said.

Have some connection with the business or sponsoring organizations. Doreen Bloch from Poshly Inc. writes in The Next Web about how you should “blend the hackathon teams with tech and business talent so that the hacks created are more likely to speak to all aspects of the business.” Look to them to help provide mentors as well, and think about a way that teams can request specific help during the event if they get stuck on a knotty problem.

What will it cost? “The costs of a hackathon can be kept quite low: everyone got food and a branded t-shirt, but there were some administrative costs,” says FusePump’s Cooke. Sheridan says the first Globalhack cost about $15,000 to put on, and that included food, swag, security, and venue and furniture rentals. Another part of the cost is the staff it takes to pull off an event. Globalhack, which was 100% volunteer-driven, took about 20 people working without pay for judging, setup, and monitors.

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