Ten Protips on Avoiding Hackathon Fail

Delyn Simons is VP of Developer Platform for Mashery (a ProgrammableWeb sponsor). Delyn previously worked in developer community for eBay and still believes that people are basically good.

Our Mashery Developer Outreach team co-organized and participated in over 50 hackathon events in 2011. Not yet 3 months in to 2012, we're already up to 25 and counting.  All this exposure to hack events over the last 2 years has given us a lot of insight into what makes for a great hackathon. This insight also helps us  -- and our Enterprise/Fortune 500 customers -- avoid the non-awesome ones.

Ready. Set. Go.

#1: No Powerpoint. Ever.
Decks are for Suits. Nothing kills hackathon spirit quicker than watching teams present a concept Powerpoint better suited for an MBA class.

#2: Icebreaking for Introverts
Hackers socialize a little differently. One of the benefits of hackathons is encouraging teams to form onsite with complementary talent. Help foster a sacred place for collaborative coding. Host a pre-event hackathon meetup to help form teams based on common interest. Offer some type of shared development environment to help with group commits, such as GitHub, Heroku, or DotCloud.

#3: Your Hackathon is a Reflection of your Culture
Branding, Events, Marketing, Legal, Corp Comms teams are stakeholders, not hackathon organizers. Sometimes we all find ourselves in awkward conversations with teams who have never thrown a hack event before about wanting the event to reflect an "exclusive branding presence." Stand your ground. Hackathons are not a branding exercise. Hackathons are not about who has more prominent logo placement. Hackathons are not a photo opp for your boss's personal campaign to appear more "innovative." Hackathons are about your company culture of participating with developers, and listening to other companies who offer APIs that developers can remix in new and interesting ways. If your culture tends toward braggadocio, err toward humility and dialogue.

#4: Co-organize with kindred companies
Why is your company throwing a hackathon if you don't have an API or developer resources? Without naming names, we've seen a rash of "premium brands" racing to attach themselves to developer events. (See tip #3) First, have an API that makes it easy get started with interesting data. Then, partner with other companies who also invest in tech talent to represent their company at hack days. These evangelists also need to be excited about actively mentoring developers on your resources to help them build faster and move forward. Work on attracting great partners and complementary data. Solo is hard unless you are Google or Foursquare.

#5: Plentiful Powerstrips and Pipe
Have you been to an event with 150 developers trying to get online and can't? We have. Don't be that hack event. Make sure your Wi-Fi SSID/password is easy to access (just say no to the 20-digit hexadecimal guest password for this event). Have boosters and repeaters that help the advertised upstream and downstream speed be the reality -- everywhere in the room. Run stress tests. Don't take your pipe for granted with this crowd.

#6: Have as few rules as possible - but enforce the ones you do
We've witnessed teams in front of judges try and pass off a polished application that took weeks to build as something they just spun up in 8 hours.  We've sat through two hours of 15-minute sponsor API pitches before hackers were allowed to begin coding. We've looked on in horror as teams blow past the announced 3-minute demo limit and no one stops them from droning on for 10-minutes. Hacker event etiquette and norms are pretty well established by now. Try and have as few rules as possible, but be prepared to vigorously enforce ones that ensure a level playing field and a good time for the group.

#7: The Most Common Hackathon Faux Pas We See
Don't allow teams to repurpose an existing app, add a feature, then flog their badly disguised company pitch as a hack. See tip #6.

#8: More Science Fair, Less Business Plan Competition
The pitch itself should succinct, engaging, even funny -- but it must involve a prototype. There are those who sell and those who create. Make something.

#9: Create a Hacker Haven
Caffeine, snacks, comfy chairs, headphones, background music to camouflage the keyboard clackety-clack. Celebrate the technical talent who has gathered at your event, and honor their hours of work they are putting in at your event. This gathering of highly sought-after knowledge to work with your data and tools is a gift. It's also an open secret that most attempts at virtual hackathons fail from lack of participation. In an era of continuous partial attention (thank you, Linda Stone) and connected devices, the most powerful magnetic force is the magic that happens being there in person.

#10: Your Hackathon is not a Frat Party
Give respect, get respect. And don't start serving beer until an hour before submissions are due. #apijamfail

Photo via Philly Transit Hack

Be sure to read the next Events article: Programming the Quantified Self: APIs to Track Health