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Hackathon 101: How to Host A Hackathon


Why Hosting One Transforms Your Team and How to Do It Right

When you hear the word “Hackathon”, what comes to mind? 

A room full of programmers on their computers? Overnight marathon coding sessions fuelled by coffee and Red Bull? Something that is only limited to the tech industry?

While this is sometimes the case, hackathons are much more versatile than stereotypes suggest. These events can be transformative team-building experiences for any company looking to boost collaboration, spark innovation, and strengthen company culture. It’s not just for tech giants like Facebook or Google; any organization can harness the power of a well-executed hackathon. 

hackathon poster

What does a Hackathon look like? 

A hackathon is an event where people come together to build something innovative. It could be creating new products and features or finding solutions to specific business challenges. 

At Bucketlist, our hackathon was open to anyone in our company, no matter what department they were in. The event lasted two business days and consisted of self-organized teams of up to four people who collaborated on an idea of their own making. The only required outcomes were a working prototype and a sales pitch presentation to the judges. The panel of judges evaluated each sales pitch and picked winners. 

5 Ways a Hackathon Can Boost Employee Engagement

1. Change of Pace and Creative Freedom:

Hackathons provide a refreshing break from the usual work routine, allowing employees to brainstorm and collaborate on new ideas. Participants can team up with colleagues they don’t typically work with; fostering new connections and perspectives. 

2. Strengthening Company Culture :

Anyone is welcome to join a hackathon; no previous experience is necessary, making them inclusive events that immerse new hires and long-term employees in the company culture. These high-energy and engaging events foster a sense of belonging and teamwork across all levels of the organization. During our recent Bucketlist Hackathon, we observed a significant spike in employee recognition as participants built new connections and worked together on innovative projects. 

sum of recognitions during the hackathon

3. Cross-Departmental Collaboration:

Break down silos with an event where people from different departments are broken down into small groups. Working together to hack out a new idea builds camaraderie and showcases how all see the pieces – marketing, sales, product, engineers, HR, etc – come together to foster company success. Teams will develop a newfound cross-departmental appreciation for the skills that everyone brings to the table. 

4. Professional Development Opportunities:

Participating in a hackathon encourages employees to step into new roles and expand their existing skill sets. Engineers can gain insights into sales and strategies, marketers can experience product management challenges, and customer service representatives can try their hand at pitching product ideas. Employees may discover areas in which they would like to grow, contributing to a more versatile and agile workforce.

5. Fostering Innovation:

The workday is often consumed by day-to-day tasks. Innovative ideas and experiments are likely put on the back burner, un-prioritized. Hackathons are a great way to provide dedicated time for employees to work on ideas that may not fit into their usual job functions. This freedom to think outside the box can lead to developing new products or process improvements that might otherwise be overlooked. 84% of executives agree that innovation is critical to their growth strategy, and organizations that consciously foster innovative business practices are 45% likelier to report above-average growth in their industry. By encouraging innovative thinking through initiatives like Hackathons, companies can stay ahead of the curve and continuously improve their offerings and operations.

Convinced to host your hackathon? Get started with these simple steps: 

Decide on the format of your event using this Hackathon planning checklist: 

  • How many days will your event be?
  • What date(s) and time frames? 

Hint: Having the event take place over at least 2 business days is more manageable for employees who need to work on other tasks during the duration of this event. Avoid overnighters

  • How many people should be on each team? 
  • Should teams be self-organized or assigned? 
  • Who will be your judges? What are the criteria that hacks will be judged against?

Hint: Create a scoring sheet or rubric

  • What will be your winner categories? 

Hint: We had four – “Best Fast Hack”, “Best for Customer”, “Best Hack for Revenue”, “Best overall hack”

Tips for Promoting the Hackathon

Once you’ve decided on the dates and structure of the event, it’s time to promote it so that employees will participate! Here are some tips: 

  • Announce the event in public company channels like during company-wide events, Slack/Microsoft Teams channels, or emails
  • Promote the event more than once in the weeks leading up to it
  • Make it sound exciting—Creating a vibrant poster and having an awesome event name will go a long way to hyping up the hackathon. Encourage people to sign up with fun team names. Create a sign-up sheet (here is our template) so people can see what ideas they want to work on and what teams have already formed. 
  • Identify champions that will spread the word for you and form their teams; peer-to-peer and word-of-mouth promotion is key
  • Many people may be unfamiliar with the concept of hackathons. Ensure you provide information they can reference so they feel prepared to participate. It may help to create an event agenda and FAQ (template here). 
  • Get buy-in from leaders to give teams permission to de-prioritize normal day-to-day work in order to participate fully in the event. 

Sustaining Excitement During the Event

There are many things you can do to keep up the excitement during the event: 

Create a channel (eg. Slack, Microsoft Teams) specifically for the event and encourage teams to share team pictures 

the hackathon team

If your event is online, create virtual backgrounds that people can use. Here are some ideas.

virtual backgrounds for hackathon

With event souvenirs, make the event extra memorable for your participants. For example, we designed 3 options for branded Bucketlist Hackathon swag. People could choose to receive a mousepad, T-shirt, or mug. 

hackathon company swag

The presentation to the judges was a public event that all participants were encouraged to attend. It was a great way to celebrate all the amazing work that was accomplished over the course of the event. We limited each presentation to 15 minutes to ensure that each group had enough time to present.

hacketlist team presentation

We created custom badges and rewards for the winners, which were shared company-wide on our rewards and recognition platform! 

hackathon team awards

Once the hackathon is over, make sure that Product Management has a plan to either bring the best hacks to life or put them on hold until the time is right. We recommend doing post-event group debriefs to dive deeper into their ideas and findings. 

It’s also imperative to conduct event feedback surveys to know what resonated with your team and what could be adjusted for future events. Here is a template for a survey for participants. 

And there you have it – a few tips on how to host your next Hackathon. Happy Hacking! 

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