Create the Framework for a Successful Hackathon

How to plan a hackathon that will leave your team with potential solutions to real digital challenges.

Once a year, NASA holds one of the biggest international annual hackathons on the planet. The Space Apps Challenge: Earth’s Biggest Hackathon, which takes place both virtually and at localized events, takes advantage of the enthusiasm from a large community. By the end of the 2016 event, NASA’s hackathon had 1,287 projects with six global winners, a new CO2 monitor patch and earpiece, a data glove composed of a network of wireless devices, and a way to inspire future generations of space enthusiasts.

By the end of the 2016 event, NASA’s hackathon had 1,287 projects with six global winners

The event is an opportunity for NASA to see potential solutions for real challenges in space. In fact, hackathons can be an effective way for companies of all sizes and in all industries to tackle a particular challenge or innovate for the future — even if it’s not a plane designed to explore Mars. The goal of a hackathon could be to discover a better, emerging technology or figure out how a company’s resources can be used to support a community effort.

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While the success of the event will depend on what happens over the 48 hours of the actual hackathon, prep work done beforehand is crucial.

“Hackathons also have the potential to influence corporate culture and be used in external marketing efforts to position the company as a savvy digital workplace” said Mike Gotta, research vice president. “However, without a strategic approach, hackathons can easily fail, confuse employees and embarrass sponsors, making it difficult to gain management and workforce support to try again.”

The planning is just as important to the success of the event as the actual day. Step one of a successful hackathon is to scope the event.

Create strategic alignment

It’s important to ensure alignment with the strategic objectives of senior leaders, including HR. Not only will that help the hackathon with a direct business need measurable by metrics, but it also ensures that time, money and resources are properly allocated. In the case of Space Apps, the hackathon supports one of NASA’s Open Innovation Initiatives. This is also a good way to create strategic alignment within the IT organization. For example, a mobile apps hackathon can also explore how the BYO experience can become more business-centric. Once the focus is agreed on, and the support established, gather a team that is passionate about the idea. It’s okay to also include some people assigned by management to get a good mix.

Create the theme

The key for creating a theme is to ensure it’s not just a way to get through a backlog of IT issues, but that it’s also not just a social event. For Space Apps, the theme is a way for NASA to tap into a large and active community with specific challenges such as an app that enables children to locate the moon.

Some hackathons have a directed purpose: “We are here to do XXX by YYY.” The best hackathons are purposeful but support a flexible set of outcomes. One of those outcomes might be failure, and that is a totally acceptable result. Generally, themes will fall under four categories:

  • Challenge-based: These hackathons solve business issues involving customers, products and services.
  • Mission-based: These hackathons revolve around social causes and how the company can give back to the community.
  • Home-improvement-based: These hackathons focus on improving business-unit processes, applications or data issues.
  • Trailblazing- based: These hackathons look at emerging technology and disruptive experiences.

Identify logistical requirements

Logistics can often make or break a hackathon. The first item is the location and timing of the event. For Space Apps, the website lists all the local hosts, and the event is held over Wi-Fi. Hosts should look into this four to nine months before the event. Aside from being large enough, ensure the venue is available to use on a specific day. For example, if the hackathon is hosted from Friday to Sunday, make sure overnight parking is an option on weekends. If it’s an overnight event, ensure there is adequate sleeping space. Finally, all venues should be accessible to anyone with disabilities or other limitations. Aside from physical space, make sure the technology infrastructure works. This means adequate Wi-Fi capacity, storage options, adequate power and power strips, whiteboards, and any audio or video equipment. And don’t forget to devise a security and emergency plan if there will be a large crowd.  

Address event needs

After the logistics are settled, it’s time to set up a framework (or multiple frameworks). One area to focus on is evaluation criteria. This will help guide participants with goals and context for potential pathways. Ensure the judging process (including qualifications, thresholds and scoring) is transparent. Space Apps uses the website to offer applicants information on the eligibility and categories, and explains how the People’s Choice category works.

It is often assumed that only IT professionals will be interested, but hackathons are a good time to learn about skills across the organization.

Lay out the agenda and timeline, and look across the organization for interested parties. It is often assumed that only IT professionals will be interested, but hackathons are a good time to learn about skills across the organization. For example, Space Apps is open to engineers, coders, makers, artists, and storytellers, and NASA supplies all the data sets.

This is also a good time to secure commitments from any speakers, decide what the presentations will look like, and determine the judging and awards process. Other areas to look at include deciding what tools the company will supply to participants and establishing the terms and conditions and code of conduct for the event.

Hackathons can be the perfect opportunity to gather a diverse community with different talents and work toward a solution. Ensuring that the planning of the event includes a detailed exploration of all aspects will produce a more successful event.

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Client Research
Gartner clients can learn more about hackathons in the full research The Hackathon Guide for Digital Workplace Leaders.

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