10 Tips For Running a Successful Hackathon

Brandon Wirtz is the CTO of Stremor.com; a company that provides APIs for natural language processing, summarization and search. You can follow him on Twitter at @BWOps or on LinkedIn.

Following up on an earlier post outlining the top 10 mistakes commonly made at hackathons, Brandon Wirtz now offers his take on 10 things every organizer should do when running a hackathon.

One of the benefits of having a chief product officer who is famous is that she drags me along to be her camera man from time to time. PayPal invited Sarah Austin to be a judge and mentor, so I got to watch, which was a nice change from being a sponsor, participant or judge. I think PayPal may have put together the best Hackathon I have ever attended, but I think there were many lessons from BattleHack that could be replicated even in events with lower budgets. So here are my top 10 Do’s for hackathons.

1. Do code check-ins: The urge to cheat is high in hackathons. Re-entering the same code in multiple events happens (a lot) and doing code check-ins limits the ability to cheat. If a team generates 1500 lines of code in one hour, you can tell they didn’t write that all on the spot. Keeping the play fair makes the playing field fair, and prevents attendees from feeling slighted.

2. Do breaks: The clock at BattleHack stopped for 90 minutes so the teams could have dinner and talk with mentors. This was huge. The teams got to have conversations about their hacks with people who were mostly not judges and could refine their ideas before they were fully committed to them. This better mirrors the real world. It also gave the team time to think about food, which is a good habit. Devs should work hard, but not at the expense of their health.

3. Do free shirts: BattleHack was the best-smelling hackathon I have been to. This was because participants had a steady supply of fresh shirts, and packs with stuff to keep clean. I am seriously considering being the deodorant sponsor at an upcoming hackathon. Keeping the air clean is good for the devs, good for the venue, and good for the judges, but this simple trick gets overlooked a lot.

4. Do encourage female participation: 15% of participants at BattleHack were female. They were shooting for 20%, but considering the roughly 4% that is typical at hackathons, this was awesome. Putting female judges in the mix is also important, because any business idea or hack must appeal to everyone.

5. Do the whole thing: During the entire Hackathon, there were senior staff around and available. Even at 3:00 a.m., PayPal had a staff member there to answer questions and resolve issues for the teams. Staff members probably didn’t need to be there that whole time, but the fact that they were showed the dedication to the event, and to the hackers. That dedication shows in the final output because it encourages teams to keep working even when they are ready to take a break.

6. Pamper your hackers: The staff at BattleHack didn’t just serve food, they encouraged teams to eat, sleep, get up and walk around. There were nap areas, and blankets. Taking the time to let hackers know you care about them is really powerful. These are people who will always remember this event fondly.

7. Do keep to the rules: The judging criteria was laid out early and often. I think this really shaped the nature of the hacks. BattleHack specified that there was a component of “social good,” that the hack was more important than the business plan, and that API Integration was a core part of the judging. This resulted in hacks that, while wildly different on the surface, all had a model that was aimed at helping people, and all used multiple sponsor technologies. While this meant the hacks weren’t as “off the wall” as you might see in some hackathons, it also meant judges didn’t have to choose between a financial services app and a new electronic toy. Pizza and FroYo are both good, but judging them against each other is difficult.

8. Do focus on the hackers: BattleHack had some really great sponsors. They were on stage, but they were on stage a lot less than the teams were, and they were not the focus. They were often mentioned, but it was more like product placement. I never felt like I was being spammed; instead, it felt like the sponsors were just contributors who were enabling great stuff to be built. That is how it should be.

9. Do practice your stage presence: There was a lot of “ceremony” in BattleHack, it felt more like going to the Oscars than going to the SATs. That is a good thing. I really felt that there was a sense that the teams were doing something important, because the event felt produced, and it felt like you were part of something big. Even as a bystander I felt privileged to be there. I can’t recall ever being at a Hackathon that made me feel that way.

10. Do have fun: In everything the whole way through, you could tell people were having fun. The staff laughed and joked, the teams laughed and joked. Things were rambunctious at a few points. Quadrocopters flew overhead, and people got goofy. This wasn’t a war to win. It was people having friendly games. I don’t think anyone walked away not feeling like a winner who participated in something big.

BattleHack was awesome, and this was the first year. They promise that 2014 will be bigger and better. More cities, more attendees, and more beer. They really emphasized the Beer. Which is my only “Don’t” in this list of “Do’s:" Don’t be afraid to embrace the hacker culture. Don’t be afraid to get rowdy. Make some noise, have some fun, and don’t put up any walls between you and the hackers.

Be sure to read the next Events article: WS-REST to Host 5th Edition of International API Workshop