Jan 27, 2023

Top tips for running a successful hackathon

Jay Carder

Jay Carder

Top tips for running a successful hackathon

Engineers at Credera are provided with an allowance of “Engineering time” - an allocation of time dedicated to learning and developing software engineering skills. Many of our engineers use this time to focus on internal projects, participate in training courses, or engage in internal events such as hackathons. This blog will cover our top tips for running a successful hackathon event and the opportunities they provide.

Hackathons defined

Hackathons are a practical and fun event for software engineers to get hands-on with writing code, all whilst practicing their craft and collaborating with peers.  Despite its name, the goal of a hackathon is not to break into other computers. Instead, participants have a set amount of time to build a proof-of-concept application that demonstrates their interpretations of an event theme or defined product requirements. At the end of the event, teams deliver a presentation and even a live demonstration of their application.  For their efforts, teams can be awarded prizes; any stand-out projects may see their development continue after the event and formed into new products or features.  Listen next: Podcast: What different paths can you take to get into engineering?

The benefits of participating in a hackathon

Some key benefits of launching a hackathon event include:

  • The greenfield nature of the event means it’s a great excuse to try out a new programming language or framework

  • The opportunity to collaborate with peers outside of their day-to-day work, enabling knowledge to be shared and networks to be built

  • The development of critical soft-skills, including working as an effective team and communicating to non-technical audiences 

Ultimately, hackathons provide a platform for software engineers to exercise the foundations of their job: writing code to pursue the sense of accomplishment that comes with building something new.

Tips for running rewarding hackathons

Set a strong theme

Rather than setting a strict problem statement and listing detailed requirements for the event, we provide participants with a general theme. This creates more chances for attendees to be innovative with their ideas and to use whichever technologies they’re interested in learning more about.

Setting a theme that strikes a balance between providing guardrails as well as being open to interpretation and creativity is key. For our first hackathon, we received feedback that its “Build something for a Credera engineer” theme was too broad, with teams lacking inspiration. Taking this on board, we’ve had better success with themes that target a more specific business division or user base, such as “Build an application to assist the Credera recruitment team”.

Give participants time to prepare

Participants adhere to a strict schedule during the event; therefore, pre-planning can be crucial to ensure as much time as possible is spent writing code rather than completing admin tasks.

To facilitate this, we circulate our hackathon date and theme around one month before the event. At this time, providing example projects to fit the theme is also a great way to provoke inspiration. This early notice provides participants with the time to find teammates and establish ideas, saving them from having to do this on the day. Moreover, they can start to request the API keys and access rights required to complete their projects before the coding starts.

We have learnt not to agonise over finding the perfect date for a hackathon; it’s better to run regular events rather than continuously delaying to find a time that suits everyone.

Encourage an engaging, light, and supportive atmosphere

We remind participants that our hackathons are not about building perfectly working software, but rather fostering a learning environment where it’s okay to try new approaches and embrace failure.

We invite colleagues from all areas of the business to participate with presentations at the end of the event. This offers a great opportunity for engineers to showcase their talents and achievements to a widespread audience.

Finally, providing some good-humoured prizes and award categories can set a good tone for the event whilst encouraging some healthy competition.

A festive hackathon

Our latest hackathon was held in December of last year. For this event, we gave teams two days to build applications for the theme “Develop a Christmas present for the operations teams”, and festive team names were highly encouraged. Five teams devised and developed some remarkable projects, including:

•    A web application to match engineer availability with interviewing slots

•    A QR-code based check-in system for company events

•    A system for requesting external feedback from clients

Some teams even took the initiative to reach out to colleagues within our Operations team to find stakeholders and gather requirements for their projects.

After two days of coding, there was an hour-long presentation followed by an awards ceremony. Participants offered insightful feedback and live demonstrations of their work in succinct, 5–10-minute presentations. It was interesting to hear how their ambitions changed as they learned more about what they would and wouldn’t be able to achieve in the given time.

Credera festive hackathon

There were three award categories for the event: “Most Innovative”, “People’s Choice”, and “Best Christmas Present to the Operations team”. The winner for each of these categories was selected by the event audience using Slido – a great way to keep virtual spectators engaged. To help spread some Christmas cheer, prizes for the event included a reindeer antler party game, a plushie sea otter, a personalised Christmas jumper, and some festive  gift cards.

Credera hackathon

Closing thoughts

Running hackathons has offered our engineers an additional platform for discovery and collaboration, providing them with practical skills they can take into future work. We have enjoyed seeing the excellent projects our engineers built at these events and look to run regular hackathons moving forward.

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