Welcome to Part 2 of our series on corporate hackathons. In Part 1 we defined corporate hackathons, described the benefits and set a few expectations. 😉
In Part 2 we’ll tackle planning.
What could go wrong?
Actually, a lot. A colleague of ours attended a hackathon hosted in the basement of a building – no wifi or cell coverage. The participants left after the first hour. Yikes. Try explaining that to the sponsors…
While this is an extreme example, most corporate hackathons have preventable problems. Poor attendance. Teams without the right skills. Irrelevant projects. Late starts. Not enough of coffee (gasp!). Network failures.
But the biggest preventable problem starts at the beginning.
How to guarantee your hackathon will fail
“If you simply plan on seeing what happens you will always succeed at seeing what happens because something is guaranteed to happen.”
Eric Ries, The Lean Startup
Eric’s quote applies to any new project and hackathons are no exception. Unfortunately, most hackathons are failures because the organizers don’t have a metric for success. Too often we see corporate hackathons without a business goal – inevitably “something happens”. Just not what anyone envisioned.
Before you do ANYTHING else … have a goal
Before asking colleagues to give up their valuable time to attend your event, ask yourself why you want to have a hackathon. What is your goal?
- To associate your brand with innovation?
- Attract talent to fill key technical roles?
- Get fresh eyes on a real business challenge?
- Get your ecosystem using a new API?
Our advice is to pick 1 reason and optimize your hackathon for it. Everything else is gravy.
Quantify your goal with a success metric
We understand – you’re hesitant to set specific goals because you don’t have enough information. You don’t want to be held accountable for something out of your control.
But having a specific goal gives everyone the necessary focus to work towards the same ends. We suggest making the goal a team sport so everyone buys into it.
Examples: Our goal is to …
… introduce hiring managers to 3 qualified candidates
… get 2 new products built on the API …
… get a positive story in the business section in our local paper
Get leadership to buy into the goal so everyone has the same expectation.
The basics: planning and resources
Once you’ve got a goal and a success metric you’re on the right track. Next step is to have a high-level plan of the type of event you want to run. We’ll use these decisions for building our budget in the next post.
A 24-hour event starting around lunch time on day 1 and ending on day 2 is a common schedule that works. Depending on the nature of the theme or challenge, participants may need more time than that. Remember – time constraints are a gift. Never go beyond 72 hours. Rarely go beyond 48.
We suggest planning for a minimum of 50 and a maximum of 130 participants organized into 15-30 teams of 3-5 people (on average).
These numbers allow for every team to demo their projects to the judges.
If you go bigger, you’ll need to use a science-fair style approach for judging, perhaps splitting the judges into two groups.
If you go smaller, you’ll lose too much diversity of skills and thought and the results will be likely be less interesting and usable.
If your hackathon incorporates a new technology, specific skill or programming language, or a proprietary dataset, have a few experts in the room that can assist teams. Ask coaches for at least ½ day of commitment. And remember – coaches eat and drink coffee too, so budget for them.
We prefer 3 or 5 judges. An odd number is best to eliminate ties.
We typically arrange for 2 internal executive-level judges – preferably the owner(s) of the stated business problem – and one judge from the community – preferably an expert in a relevant technology or industry.
The ideal space has open tables, a few private meeting rooms and a place for a presenter. Teams need move tables and chairs to accommodate presentations and collaborations. A venue which can host a large workshop is usually a good choice. Obviously … casual is the best setting for a hackathon.
Here’s your venue checklist:
- Must have one big open space for at least 120 people (100 participants + coaches, judges and organizers)
- Ideally lots of natural light. Lots of windows if possible.
- Stellar WiFi – at least 100 Mbps down / 5 Mbps up
- Lots of power outlets for people to plug in their laptops. Buy or borrow power strips and extension cords if the venue can’t provide.
- Audio/Visual = 1 projector, screen and an audio system with 1-3 microphones.
- 130 chairs and 30 tables. You can rent these for around <$400 if the venue cannot provide.
- Easy to understand, ideally free parking for participants
- Whiteboards, if possible. If not, bring in a few or some 3M Flip Charts.
- Late night access.
- Cleaning crew and security included.
The most important thing for the quality of the event if the venue’s vibe. Look for an industrial, open space. It puts people in a different frame of mind, which is important. Coworking spaces work great.
We don’t suggest having cash prizes for awards unless your primary is PR. Instead, consider categories of prizes that align with the collaborative spirit of the event. For example:
- Most technically challenging (prize = 3D printer, raspberry pi kits, a Microsoft HoloLens)
- Best design (prize = MacBook Pro)
- Most useful solution (prize =gift cards to Mouser.com)
- Most creative use of data (prize = drones, GoPro cameras)
A broad set of categories like this allows anyone to win.
Running out of food is the second biggest hackathon sin next to bad Wifi. Order 10% more food and coffee than you think you need.
If it’s a hardware hackathon, you’ll need to bring in relevant hardware supplies and equipment. At CoolerHack, we brought in coolers, extra cooler shelving, 3D printers, soldering gun stations and raspberry pi kits. We took orders from teams for things like wire and sensors and made two runs to a MicroCenter.
Good teams plan. For that, they’ll need whiteboards, 3M flip charts, markers and post-it notes.
Storytelling after the event is critical for both internal purposes and PR.
At a minimum, hire a freelance photographer to take some professional shots of teams in action.
NDAs, IP & licensing
How to ensure nobody shows up to your hackathon
Some hackathons ask participants to sign NDAs or relinquish all IP rights. This is a wonderful idea if you want to ensure serious people don’t show up.
You want top talent at your hackathon. Great developers, designers and data scientists are bombarded with events competing for their time – including other hackathons. Asking participants to sign an NDA or relinquish IP rights can crush a hackathon’s community spirit and hurt your company’s image.
Simply don’t disclose anything you don’t want shared with the world. Have your hackathon in a venue where participants can’t access labs or desks.
IP rights? Let’s get real. True innovation takes hard work – a team of 3 people won’t create valuable intellectual property in 24 hours. Most of what is created included any code written will likely be tossed out if the concept is continued.
Consider an arrangement where participants keep what they build and you have the first right of refusal to enter into a licensing or procurement agreement.
Have flexible, post-event services contracts
More valuable than licensing agreements are plans for continuing to work with a promising team. Consider allocating a small budget and preparing a standard short-term software services agreement. The agreement would specify the general scope of work and have typical terms of confidentiality, indemnification, IP ownership, etc.
This flexibility makes it easy for both sides to consider an arrangement and decline if it isn’t interesting.
Code of conduct
As you may have witnessed during the 2016 presidential election people have widely different definitions of “acceptable” public conduct. Can a team use nudity on its landing page? Why not?
Have a clear code of conduct for participants and you will be in a position to settle any disputes.
A good example is Eric Ries’s Lean Startup conference code of conduct. For example, Participants should not use sexualized images or activities…
You can also generate and customize your own with the Hack Code of Conduct.
These are the basic issues you need to confront when planning a hackathon. Once you get general agreement on them you’re ready to put together your budget. We’ll cover budget details in Part 3.
Get the corporate hackathon quickstart kit
We’re creating a quickstart kit based on what we’ve learned running hackathons at the world’s most innovative companies. You can sign up for the free guide here and get notified when it is ready.
Need help sooner? Just contact us. We’ll help you plan your corporate hackathon and turn it into a world-class event.
Photo credit: Eric Huybrechts
Also published on Medium.