The Cloud

How to Run a Great Hackathon (and Why You Should Do It)

Working at Metal Toad is all about innovation.

Working at Metal Toad is all about innovation. It’s why I was drawn to this place—a place that celebrates the unusual, gets excited about new ideas, and constantly seeks out the latest emerging tech.

The constantly changing landscape of technology presents a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem: we need experience with the latest innovations, and to get that experience, we need to build something with the new technology—but what client would hire us to build something without experience?  A couple of years ago, we decided to solve that problem by trying our first-ever Metal Toad hackathon.

The benefits of hackathons

A hackathon is an opportunity to stretch ourselves beyond our usual work and peek over the horizon into the future. The first one at Metal Toad was so successful that we instituted bi-annual hackathons to give our Toads a chance to develop new skills, take risks in a safe environment, experiment with emerging technologies, and expand their innovation toolbox for solving client problems.

Our hackathons allow us to gain experience in new technologies and use that expertise to support our clients. But benefits don’t stop there; we also gain:

  • stronger team relationships and increased collaboration skills
  • enhanced employee engagement and retention
  • an opportunity for cross-team collaboration, including bringing people form non-engineering backgrounds into the process
  • an elevation to our reputation as cutting-edge engineers
  • projects that often turn into really cool, releasable pieces of software

How to run a great hackathon

A hackathon at Metal Toad lasts two days but requires thoughtful attention before and after the fact to get the most benefits. Here are my top tips for successfully running such an event.

Before the hackathon

  • Set your goals. You’re going to invest a lot of employee time into this event, so it’s important to create goals and align them with your company’s goals. At Metal Toad, we review our strategic roadmap and create aligned hackathon goals several months before the event.

  • Define your theme. Your goals will lead you to a specific theme for the hackathon. This might be a broad topic area, a specific technology, or even a narrowly defined problem—whatever it is, the project parameters should be clearly defined and strategically aligned. For instance, we themed a hackathon around IoT in the cloud to support our strategic focus on that specific technology to support our growing client needs in that area.

  • Gather mentors. In the months before your hackathon, identify experts in your event’s theme and ask them to provide guidance to participants as they brainstorm project ideas and form teams. We identify a few Toads with deep experience, and they set up weekly office hours to mentor their fellow Toads. In the future, we may even bring in outside mentors to broaden our horizons further.

  • Recruit judges. We do competitive hackathons at Metal Toad, which means judges are a must. The goal of the competition is to add a little friendly fun, as well as to give Toads valuable feedback on their work. So we reach out to people on our advisory board or members of our local tech community to judge the competition.

  • Encourage participation. People get excited at the prospect of a hackathon, but various things can cause them to hesitate on signing up: a challenging theme, a heavy workload, uncertainty about what project they might do. I’ve found that the best way to encourage participation is to ensure management is fully bought into the value of the event, and communicates that clearly. At Metal Toad, managers make a point to speak one-on-one with Toads to assure their workloads will be covered and unblock anything preventing them from participating if they want to.

  • Communicate with your clients. We have a team in place to monitor client projects and respond to urgent needs during the event, and we make it a point to keep our clients informed about the hackathon schedule so they know what to expect. Our clients are always very excited about the hackathons—they often asked to attend the presentation dinner to see what we’ve created—and see the value they get from having a technology partner committed to ongoing innovation and learning. Communicate your plans to your clients, and you may be surprised at how supportive they are!  

  • Flesh out the details. Because the hackathon is an intensive 48-hour period, I find it helps to have a detailed hour-by-hour event schedule, a short and precise list of rules, a scoring rubric, and a clear budget process for any needed materials, catering, or prizes. This way, every team knows exactly what’s happening and can focus on their projects.

During the hackathon

  • Circulate among your teams. I like to check in with each team a few times throughout each day of the event to offer assistance or unblock issues. Designate someone to remain available and responsive so all the teams have a resource for support. If you have mentors onsite, it’s ideal if they can also be available to help teams problem-solve on their projects.

  • Respond to changing needs. Your teams will need different things throughout the event. Early on, they might need support in the tech they’re learning or advice on the feasibility of an idea. Later in the evening, they might need snacks and coffee. As the event draws near conclusion, they might need help getting their presentations and demos set up.

  • Leverage your operations team. The tireless work of our ops team is crucial to the success of every hackathon. From handling catering to freeing up meeting rooms to chasing down missing cables, they keep things running smoothly so the teams can gallop toward the finish line.

After the event

  • Celebrate! Every hackathon ends with a presentation dinner, at which the teams present their projects to the judges and the rest of the company. The judges decide on a winner, and we take a moment to appreciate and celebrate everyone’s hard work.

  • Create artifacts. Something I learned early on is how easy it is to forget all about the hackathon once the excitement of the event is over. So we ask each team to spend some time reflecting on their experience and creating an artifact—a blog post, a video, a deck—that captures their learnings and what they got out of the experience. In addition to helping the Toads integrate what they learned, it also spreads the knowledge to our colleagues and inspires more innovation.

  • Schedule a retrospective. An Agile philosophy underpins all our work at Metal Toad, and the retros that are part of that approach have a lot of benefits—participants process their experiences together, highlight what worked well, uncover snags, and make suggestions for future improvements. We take this approach to our client projects and look forward to implementing it for hackathons.

  • Plan your next hackathon! A single hackathon is a great way to spend two days, but the cumulative effect of regular, ongoing innovation sessions can’t be underestimated. Our cadence at Metal Toad is twice a year, which has felt like just the right amount thus far.

If you’ve been considering a hackathon at your own company, I hope you’ll see how beneficial and fun such an event can be. I think they’re a crucial tool not only for tech agencies but for any organization that has creative or knowledge work as a core part of the business. Whether you’re breaking into a new vertical, inventing new techniques for digital marketing, or cracking a creative puzzle, two days of focused invention unlocks a huge amount of energy, ideas, and collaboration for your team. And taking time out to play with new ideas, embark on something risky, get a little weird—that’s what innovation is all about.

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