How to Host a Hackathon at Work

by Daniel Hannig - September 7, 2020

Have you noticed how much has changed in the past couple of months? I mean, apart from “Sorry, bad connection, can you please repeat that?” being the most used business phrase of 2020, work-life in general seems to have evolved from its previous, office-bound self, into a more digital and trusting institution. Before that backdrop, our developers have been rethinking their way of work and are seeing the post lockdown phase as an opportunity to try something new: A collaborative model revolving around mainly remote work with a biweekly hackathon as its anchor.

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What is a Hackathon

So what actually is a hackathon? You might have heard the term here and there, guessed correctly what it is about in general, but never really checked up on the definition; a hackathon is a sprint-like event, typically lasting several days, during which tech enthusiasts work on software-related challenges. It’s mostly computer programmers that take part, but also domain experts, graphic designers, interface designers and project managers. The main goal of a hackathon is to develop a functioning software pertaining to a specific topic in a fixed time period, generally under 48 hours. As an example, many hackathons are being organized worldwide in order to combat COVID-19. Under #hackthepandemic, tech wizards are getting together remotely to find solutions that Corona has caused. In Germany, the #WirVsVirus hackathon brought 27,000 people “together” who remotely launched and finished 1,500 projects in two days. Some of these projects, especially the ones relating to information services, are already active while others, like apps or technical solutions, still need to be evaluated for their practical suitability.

Our Hackathon Format

Our hackathon was a little different. First of all, we felt that hosting 27k programmers would be a little over the top for our goal of developing one feature. Secondly, we hosted it at our office under very strict regulations. Not having seen each other since the lockdown started, our developers were looking forward to meeting in person, catching up and crunching code. Here’s how they made a day out of it…

Location

Especially now during the pandemic, location is everything. If you are not hosting remotely, be sure to pick a location with a lot of open space and the right safety measures. If you are planning to host in an office that is similar to ours – open space for about 30 to 50 employees – check out this blog article for safety measures that you can implement.

Have a Clearly Defined Goal

As opposed to a “regular” hackathon, where there is one overarching goal and the results can take many shapes and forms, a work hackathon should have a clearly defined goal; the more specific, the better. This can take form in the development of a new feature, improving your app in x respect, or fixing x amount of bugs before the deadline (or before everyone passes out at their desks from exhaustion).

“Five in the morning sounds good” – Kathi

Our hackathon was basically a sprint with a super targeted scope that required a lot of prep work. After breakfast in the meeting room, our product owner Fabian updated everyone on the game plan in order to establish the concrete goal for this particular hackathon. Prior to the hackathon, the team had already created a design document, which featured the decisions and conception of their game plan. After the general framework was in place, the teams were chosen and it was decided by Kathi that the hackathon was to finish at 5 AM. Normally I would say nobody would have expected this as an option, but the fact that half the team had already come to the office in hoodies and sweatpants makes me think that they already knew what they were getting into when they got dressed in the morning.

Focus on Staying Focused

In a comfortable and familiar atmosphere, like when you’re with your colleagues, especially if you haven’t seen them for a while, it can be difficult to stay focused on work and not drift off. Here are some ways to make sure everyone stays focused.

  • Set specific time slots for socializing, e.g. an extended breakfast where you can loosely talk about the plans for the day. That way, people have the opportunity to ask their teammates how they’ve been doing and what they’ve been up to while at the same time easing into work mode.
  • Make sure the teams are big enough to get stuff done but small enough to not get too distracted (2-3 people). Also make sure that there are only dynamic teams, meaning that the team members switch from time to time so that everyone can learn more from one another.
  • Again, have a clearly set goal that every team works towards and make sure that no team starts working without a clear objective in mind. No clear objective will lead to a higher possibility of getting distracted.
  • Get started as early as you can and while everyone still has energy. Hackathons take up a lot of time and the longer it goes, the more unproductive you become. Also, think about the people taking part. Some of the participants may live further away, have a family they want to go home to, or might generally just not be the type that likes to stay up late.
  • Use as many materials (digital and non-digital) as possible to help visualize your project and to serve as a constant reminder on where the focus should lie. As an example, whiteboards turn out to be the perfect non-digital medium to work together on and keep a safe distance of 1.5 metres.

Hackathon Challenges and Learnings

The main disadvantage of any hackathon is that they tend to be long and tiresome, meaning that some refinement may be needed afterward. On top of that, the fact that our team hadn’t seen each other for a while made it harder, in the beginning, to instantly find the flow that is normally already there when you work in the same office every day.

In retrospect, however, everyone was very pleased with the results. Especially working in teams of 2 – 3 people proved to be efficient and productive, because the increase in communication resulted in fewer mistakes and problems. This became increasingly important the later it got in the evening and is definitely something they will continue doing when faced with complex problems.

If this work routine – home office with biweekly hackathons – will now become the new normal remains to be seen. What can be said for now is that everyone enjoyed the experience and that a lot was learnt during this project, not least that barbeques in windy weather are a bad idea.

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