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5 Tips for running a great hackathon

... other than prepare your teams with snacks!

Firstly, what the heck is a hackathon? Hackathons emerged out of tech companies, where members of the teams are given a couple of days to ‘compete’ with each other to build, create and deliver a product or develop an innovative idea. The events typically end with a judging round with winners announced.

At RMIT Online we introduced hackathons as an opportunity to promote collaboration across the teams, as well as have a bit of fun. Hackathons are a great way to help surface incredible ideas that might otherwise remain buried in our teams.

We’ve run a couple of hackathons in the last 7 months over the span of 2 days, where team members get to stop their day jobs and focus exclusively on their hackathon projects.

Here are my 5 tips for making a hackathon great:

  • Have a theme: We set a theme for our hackathons and gave bonus points to the teams sticking close to it. This helped people zoom in on ideas quicker and we tracked them on a Trello board to keep it visible.
  • Some rules are good: Be clear about how the event should run, and set some basic rules which you communicate early, like team size and judging criteria.
  • Make the final judging an event: We borrowed heavily from REA Group’s hackathon finale, and hosted a marketplace. REA Group, who partners with RMIT Online on a number of courses, have been running hack days for the past 3 years, with 3 hack days a year. Each team set up a stall and the audience move from team to team over the course of an hour. We then gave audience members votes to determine the ‘people’s choice’ winner.
  • Make it Fun: Keeping it fun, but competitive keeps the energy high. We awarded spot prizes during the 2 days for everything and anything - best team name, most energetic team, best team space etc. Last hackathon, we had a sweet trolley which we wheeled around the office to dispense sugary (and fresh fruity) goodness.
  • Celebrate collaboration and innovation: Hackathons are opportunities for people across the business to get involved. We explicitly awarded bonus points and spot prizes for cross-business make up of the teams. This encourages people to work with colleagues they wouldn’t usually.

Overall, we had a great hackathon, where teams demonstrated their passion for our learners (how we refer to our customers). We had a team produce a ‘jingle’ for RMIT Online, some great tools for ensuring quality in our online courses and an initiative to improve our green credentials amongst them.

Hackathons work really well if you are clear about the goals and set aside the time for your people to ‘play’. Two days can go really fast, so making sure teams have space to both ideate and actually deliver something is important. Some organisations allow a whole week! The presentations at the end, where the whole organisation joins in, should be fun - we made it a party! 

As an organisation that values innovation amongst our teams, hackathons are a great way to practice what we preach. It also enables us to create stronger relationships across teams by getting people out of their everyday chairs – and teams - for a few days each year. The ideas themselves are purely bonus, but we already see some of the amazing projects becoming part of our everyday work.

This article was originally published on 28 August 2019