Behind The Scenes: How To Run a Successful Hackathon

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One of our favorite events at Savings.com are the 2-day, company-wide hackathons we do at the end of every quarter.  Hackathons have become an important part of our company culture. They’re where everyone gets to let out their inner-entrepreneur. They’re where anybody’s passion can get an equal shot of turning into something tangible and great. For two days, we get to step away from our day-to-day jobs and focus 100% of our energy into something new and different. We get a chance to work closely with colleagues in other departments, whom we may rarely get to work with otherwise, and engineers get a chance to immerse themselves in new and exciting technologies. The benefits from a culture standpoint are endless. Best of all, they make great business-sense too. Our hackathons provide the perfect way to harvest the creativity and brainpower of all of the incredibly smart people in our company, not just the major decision makers. Several ideas that have started out in hackathons have made their way onto out production site is some way, shape or form.

What follows are some of the key learnings that we here at Savings.com have made while putting on these events. At the end of each event, we hold a judging competition where every team has to make an “investor pitch” their of their idea a la TechCrunch.

Disrupt or LAUNCH.

Each team gets a total of 10 minutes (7 for presenting, 3 for Q&A). Teams are judged not on the coolness of whatever they created, but on the viability of their idea. The grand prize goes to the team that presents the most compelling evidence (if not proof) that their idea has legs. Achieving this is a full team effort that goes far beyond coding. Last quarter’s winners not only had aworking prototype, but research, results from numerous surveys that they ran, and even customer interviews. Doing the hackathon this way not only ensures that all team members (not just the engineers) are busy, but also helps everyone hone important skills in customer development and product management.

Enforce diversity in teams

Hackathons are most effective from both an ideation perspective, as well as a team-building perspective when teams include people from a wide range of departments and skillsets. It’s natural for people to gravitate towards partnering with people they already work with and know really well, but don’t let it happen! We enforce a rule that no more than 2 people from any department can be on a team. That number, of course, will vary depending how big your company is and how many ideas are being worked on.

We have a rule for our hackathons that all ideas worked on must be related, in some way or another, to the core mission of the business, which is to save people time and money. This has the obvious effect of increasing value to the company because all ideas can potentially make sense for us to use immediately. We’ve also found, somewhat counter-intuitively, that the teams are more productive AND creative when working within those constraints. Give your hack teams some loose guidelines to work with and you will likely find them to be less intimidated, and more productive as well.

Get the most respected judges you can

It’s hard to over-invest in your judging panel. The more looked up to the judging panel is, the more people will bring their “A game.” The judges don’t have to be celebrities by any means, and can be from inside the company, outside, or both. Just make sure they are people whose opinions are highly regarded and whose advice people seek.

Make it quirky, fun, and a just little silly

We always try to come up with the most ridiculous prizes to give away during our “awards ceremony” where we announce the winners. This quarter, we were going to give out embroidered beanbags, but we didn’t get them ordered in time. We also make sure there is a good happy hour for us to all head to after the awards ceremony. The more quirky and fun it is, the more people will keep talking about it. The more people talk about it, the more they, and others will be excited about participating in the next one.

Take a leap of faith

When we first pitched the idea of hackathons to the larger team, we got a bit of push-back. Some didn’t see the point. Others liked the idea from a warm-and-fuzzy team building perspective, but felt that the cost, of so many people “losing” 2 days of work was too high.Well I can honestly say, that I don’t know of a single person who still felt that way once we finished our first hackathon. You will probably hear a lot of the same kind of feedback. You may still have some of the same concerns yourself. If so, think about ways that you can try out the concept without being disruptive to business operations. Perhaps, you can do it within a smaller group to start.

Share your successes (and there will be successes) with others so that they can see the potential for themselves. If you’ve never tried a hackathon in your organization before, hopefully this post inspires you to give it a try. If you have, hopefully this post give you some pointers on how to make it better. Of course we’re still learning too, and your mileage may vary on each of the individual points. But give it a try and let us know how it works out for your company!

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  1. ChuckG

    2 years ago

    This is a great idea. Would love to see a short snippets of video of your next hackathon.

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