7 Step Beginner’s Guide to Hosting a Hackathon

It’s not exactly a secret that hackathons are a powerful tech recruiting tool (some argue they could even be the key to saving the U.S. economy).

I recently attended a panel on Hackathons at SourceCon in Seattle, which included both talent-focused organizers and engineers:

  • Julie Deroche, who runs University Recruiting at Greylock Partners
  • Matthew Shoup, an engineer at LinkedIn
  • Cole Fox, a Partner at HackerBrands

One of the immediate takeaways from the panel was that tech companies large and small, with any budget, should be hosting hackathons to help boost both their branding and recruiting efforts. As an added benefit, they may even present an opportunity to crowdsource solutions to problems you want to solve.

That said, the panelists also stressed that hackathons are not a small undertaking. They take a lot of planning and preparation and work to pull off without a hitch. For those looking to host a hackathon for the first time, the panel provided many helpful tips I’ve organized into seven steps.

How to Host a Successful Hackathon in 7 Steps

Step 1: Set Your Budget

To lock in a budget you need corporate buy in and that means making it very clear what you want and what you expect to get back from the investment. Explain your goals and objectives, as well as the expected outcomes. Typical budgets can range anywhere from $5,000 to $80,000. You’ll need to customize the hackathon to work for your needs and goals.

Step 2: Leverage Internal Resources

The three departments you need to get involved early on are:

  • Legal: This is essential for IP ramifications. If NDAs are needed, try to incentivize attendees with a trade off. Ex: Your company can have rights to the code for a year. If you haven’t done anything with it by that point, then it goes back to the individual.
  • Marketing: To help with promotion for the event and ensuring your messaging is on-brand.
  • Recruiting/HR: Don’t forget one of the primary reasons you’re hosting the hackathon in the first place — to find and network with top tech talent!

Step 3: Come Up with Your Concept & Format

Pick a group of target attendees and start building out the overall theme. Think about the demographic/talent you are attracting (ex: university vs. professional; programmer vs. non-programmer), and what appeals to them.

For example, when attracting college students it’s important to keep it close to campus, keep it casual, and get creative with prizes.

Pro tip: Generally, it’s a good idea for hackathon projects to revolve around the location. For example, for a hackathon in Toronto the challenge could be “how to make Toronto a better city.”

In terms of format, make sure it encourages teamwork, but above all, keep things simple. Teams will tend to come together at the event, even if they haven’t met each other before (a good size is a team of 5). Give them a whiteboard where they can list skills/ideas and teams can generally self-organize from there.

Remember, this is a great opportunity to see how individuals collaborate and assess cultural fit.

Step 4: Get the Right Judges

Get your company executives involved to help you get the big names. If you have a close relationship with VCs that have funded you, ask the partners to help, too.

It’s a good idea to pick local judges who are relevant to the area, and who can serve as major draws to attendees.

Many potential judges understand the value of getting in front of the next generation of technical talent. It’s a relatively small commitment on their part, and you can also position the event as an opportunity for them to promote their latest projects, too.

Pro tip: “A lot of people underestimate the benefits of having a speaker kick off the event. Whether an executive at the company or someone from their network; this will help get people there.”

— Cole Fox, CEO and co-founder, ProtoHack

Step 5: Promote, Promote, Promote

For starters, set up a landing page for the hackathon and/or use an event platform like Eventbrite, then hit your social channels to start generating word of mouth. A great way to get the ball rolling is by reaching out to organizers of other hackathons as well as any other active members of the local tech community and asking them to help spread the word.

Don’t forget to invite people and teams who have participated in previous webinars! Another group you should leverage heavily is your judges (past and present).

Pro tip: In terms of participants, Deroche actually suggests keeping the group realtively small. The number of applications for Greylock’s annual hackathon rises every year, but the firm always shoots to accept only 1/3 of the applications submitted. This number is easier for them to absorb and it also raises the quality bar. Also, keeping the event small and intimate can be a big draw for attendees as well as the judges.

Step 6: Nail Down the Logistics

General prep: In terms of setup, make sure you have tables, whiteboards, and comfortable working areas for the teams. Since working tech is obviously crucial, triple-check to make sure wi-fi works and you have plenty of power strips. It’s not a bad idea to have an IT person onsite, either.

Schedule: Plan on at least an hour to check everyone in and get them situated. While early attendees are waiting, provide them with swag and encourage introductions. Beef up your schedule by including speaking slots and mentor sessions. Just keep in mind that there’s no such thing as a hackathon going exactly according to schedule. Be prepared to adapt and go with the flow.

Food: This is one aspect that’s absolutely crucial. That might seem funny, but the truth is if you don’t have great options or if you run out, that’s what people are going to walk away remembering.

Pro tip: Deroche recommends scheduling a variety of options. Aim to have something different every 3-4 hours (ex: a burrito bar at one point, food trucks late at night). Also, try to spruce up otherwise standard options (ex: offering infused water, or an espresso bar instead of regular coffee).

Breaks: Keep the energy up by having fun activities to try throughout the day such as rock climbing or yoga. Always give ample time for networking.

Judging criteria: Judging should be straight forward. Consider looking at the following:

  • Technicality: How technical and difficult to build was the app?
  • Originality: How unique is it?
  • Functionality: Does it work?
  • Creativity: Does it solve a unique problem?
  • Wow factor: How blown away are the judges?

Step 7: Determine How You’re Going to Measure ROI

You should go into the hackathon with specific goals and clear metrics to track to determine whether you hit them or not. These can vary based on your needs and priorities. Here are a few potential metrics to consider:

  • # of offers made to candidates
  • # of new candidates in your pipeline
  • # of participants/attendees
  • # of ideas and code samples
  • # of press mentions/media opportunities

Hosting a hackathon is a great way to attract talent and build your brand. Many people who attend hackathons are not looking, but when it is time to look, they will remember you.

Depending on your resources and needs, hackathons don’t need to break the bank either. Consider hosting in your office and providing pizza, or bring in additional sponsors. Get creative and get hosting!

Photo by Sebastiaan ter Burg

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Meghan Maher
Meghan Maher
Senior Talent Manager, Engineering

Meghan Maher is Senior Talent Manager, Engineering, actively recruiting top talent for OpenView and its Portfolio Companies. Her tech background has helped OpenView hire for nearly 20 IT and engineering positions. Meghan began her career at AVID Technical Resources, where she was a Technical Recruiter for two years.
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