Kisko Story
Hackathons: Introduction and organizers' checklist

Suddenly hackathons seem to be happening everywhere and all the time. I’ve watched how different companies organize these events and wanted to share my ideas on Hackathons.

What’s a hackathon?

One of the most famous hackathon lead projects must be the Facebook Messenger, which was first created in an internal hackathon.

To describe hackathons in one phrase it would be “Creative problem solving in a group within a short timeframe”. In my opinion good hackathons can be described with the following attributes:

  • They are all about creative solutions to problems and try to come up with novel ideas
  • They combine talents from a broad spectrum
  • They are based on a loose brief and data

Why should you organize a hackathon?

I see hackathons as an innovation tool in which you distill ideas by introducing timeframe and constraints on resources. These two limitations are crucial for understanding hackathons. It is the time and resource scarcity that forces you to come up with creative solutions and to focus only on the essentials.

The constraints force you to focus on the most important

Since in a hackathon time and resources are limited, the team must come up with quick and creative solutions to overcome these limitations. This usually guides the team to create a minimum feature set instead of trying to tackle multiple features at the same time.

It can give you surprising results

Hackathons can give you surprising and new solutions, but only if you keep the theme and brief for the teams loose enough. Keeping the brief loose has also another advantage; it’ll make the team feel ownership of their own ideas.

Focus is in doing

The usual short duration of a hackathon forces you to start building and experimenting instead of planning. You will usually get something tangible from a hackathon instead of just plans or concepts. This is great for testing the feasability of ideas and briefs.

Not only for developers

Hackathons are not only for developers. You should include people from different professions to create more novel solutions. Sales, marketing, finance should all be included in the teams.

Practical checklist on how to organize a hackathon

  • Small enough teams (3-4 people). A total of 15-30 people maximum.
  • Time to get to know the data and materials beforehand. The event itself 24-72 hours long.
  • A specialist of the domain being innovated should be present in every team.
  • Very loose theming. Don’t try to control the outcome too much to get the most benefit out of the hackathon.
  • Keep the goal attainable, since most people will overestimate their abilities.
  • Set as an additional goal for each team to sell the idea instead of just building a technical solution.
  • Consider keeping the hackathon during normal working hours, so that everyone from your team can take part.
  • Functional space which encourages teamwork with working amenities like network, electricity and even food.
  • Try to get as much material as possible for the teams to use: own data, public data, results from earlier workshops, market studies – the more the better.
  • If you are organizing a public hackathon instead of an internal one, read what I wrote about the problems of public hackathons first.

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