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30.11.2022 Company culture

How to run a hackathon at your company to attract tech talent

How to run a hackathon at your company to attract tech talent

A hackathon is a great way to drive innovation, come up with new ideas, and tackle challenging projects. No wonder this collaboration format has become increasingly popular over the past years.

But not every hackathon works in the same way, nor serves the same purpose.

For example, you can organise a hackathon just for your employees to more quickly release a new feature to your product. Another approach is to invite talented people from outside your business to join the challenge, which can actually be leveraged as a tech recruitment tactic.

Keep reading to find out what a hackathon is, which types of hackathons you can try, and how to run a hackathon at your company to recruit tech talent.

What is a hackathon?

The term hackathon is a combination of two words: “hack” and “marathon”. A hackathon is a competitive event (like a marathon) held over a predetermined, limited time span. During the event, people collaborate to build a minimum viable product (MVP), come up with a proof of concept, or brainstorm and present innovative new ideas.

In the most common format, several groups of talented tech professionals will battle each other to build a new product or solve a business problem. For example, when we held a hackathon here at JOIN, we had four teams competing with each other to see which team could build the best feature over the course of three days.

Types of hackathons

There are multiple ways to structure a hackathon, each with its own characteristics and purpose. Let’s quickly run through some different types of hackathons.

Online (virtual) hackathon

Since the work done during a hackathon generally happens online, hackathons don’t have to happen in person or on-site. That’s why a popular hackathon format is to hold a hackathon entirely online.

A great benefit of a virtual hackathon is that anyone can join, no matter where they are based.

“Offline” (on-site) hackathon

In some cases, you might prefer having the hackathon on-site instead. You can make it into a fun in-office event, including extra activities such as celebration drinks afterwards or team lunches.

Having all the members of a hackathon team in the same room can also help with smoother collaboration.

Internal hackathon

An internal hackathon is an event in which only employees from your organisation are invited to join. As the participants are all very familiar with your company and product, the projects they will work on can be very company specific.

That’s why this type of hackathon generally focuses on unique business issues or developing new product features.

External hackathon

The external hackathon allows people from outside the company to participate as well. This can be somehow controlled or limited, such as inviting a select group of local tech talent to join. Another option is to allow anyone who’s interested in signing up.

This type of hackathon can be great for employer branding, brand exposure, and talent attraction purposes. You can find a list of further potential benefits below.

Other common differences between hackathons

As there is no set format for a hackathon, the way a company organises this event is up to them. The four types mentioned above are the most common ones, but there are a variety of other ways in which hackathons can be structured differently.

Here are a few examples of other common differences:

  • One-day or multiple-day events
  • Difference in required skills (while most hackathons are focused on development and technical projects, the concept can be used for any type of project)
  • People working in teams or individually
  • Focus on idea and theory (proposing a concept) versus actually building a working feature or minimum viable product (MVP)

How organising a hackathon event can benefit your business

As you can see, there are many ways in which you can structure a hackathon event for your business. And every type can provide benefits to your company. Let’s look at some of the most common hackathon benefits.

  • For internal teams of employees, a hackathon can help foster stronger team relationships, thus helping with team building and, ultimately, employee retention.
  • Depending on the setup of your hackathon and the participating teams, the event can also help promote cross-functional collaboration between people from different teams and backgrounds.
  • Hackathons drive business innovation and encourage out-of-the-box thinking as participants actively and intensively work and discuss in teams to come up with creative solutions to problems.
  • Due to the fast-paced, hands-on nature of hackathons, teams are able to tackle projects that otherwise would have taken them weeks (if not months) to complete.
  • Collective brainstorming and ideation during the hackathon often lead to many ideas and concepts for future projects. This helps you build a company or team roadmap more easily.
  • With external hackathons, your business can leverage the skills and experience of external people that your team might be lacking.
  • A hackathon can be a great way to source and attract new tech talent by allowing external talent to participate. Furthermore, it can be a way to improve your employer branding as a great place to work that invests in employee learning and development.

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How to run a hackathon in your business in 8 steps

By now, you might already have an idea of what type of hackathon you want to organise with your company. Find out below what else to consider when organising your first hackathon event.

1. Laying the foundation: Theme, goal, and challenge

Do you want your hackathon to focus on a theme, such as product innovation or doing something for the social good, or are you open to any type of idea? In most cases, a hackathon has a specific theme and purpose that’s defined beforehand.

For example, a company might be in need of a new revenue stream fast. They can organise a hackathon around this theme, challenging participants to come up with an innovative idea for a new money-making feature or concept.

Aside from the type of challenge, a theme can also focus on a specific group of people to participate. For example, Google’s “Build your future” program hosted the virtual Girl Hackathon that was specifically aimed at women students in computer science and allied courses across India.

The theme you pick will further depend on the goal you set for your event. To continue with our example above, the goal for your hackathon could be: “Have a new, revenue-driving, minimum viable product live by the end of the hackathon”.

If you are using the hackathon as a tool to recruit tech talent, an example goal could be: “Have at least three new candidates apply for one of our tech job openings as a direct result of the hackathon”.

2. Decide on the type of hackathon

The theme you pick will help you decide on the type of hackathon that’s most suitable for your business and goal.

Will it be offline or online (or perhaps a hybrid blend)? Are only employees invited, or is everyone interested welcome to apply?

Go back to the list of hackathon types above if needed and decide on the format you want to use for your event.

3. Scope of the hackathon

Closely related to the previous point is the scope of your event. We’ve already touched a bit on the participants to invite (internal or external, participants from a certain demographic group), but it’s also important to think of numbers. How many participants can be in a team? And how many teams will you allow joining?

The answers to these questions will in large part depend on the type of hackathon you’re organising. For example, if you’re hosting a virtual hackathon, you might be able to allow a dozen teams to participate. But if it’s in-house, chances are you don’t have enough office space for teams to work and collaborate together on site.

Also note that you should take into account how long it takes your judges to properly review a team’s project. Often, more than five teams can already become too much to handle. That’s also why many hackathons start with an application and admission part that precedes the actual hackathon itself. More on this below at point five.

Other parts to consider in terms of scope include the duration of the hackathon. Will it be 24 hours, or will you make a full week out of it? Which length you choose will depend on your unique event, but always make sure your scope is feasible and manageable.

4. Save the date

Especially when doing a large-scale external hackathon, you want to ensure you pick the right time for it. For example, you probably want to avoid public holidays or Summer break. Similarly, if there’s an important industry event, like a renowned conference, it’s probably best to not plan your company hackathon on the same dates.

Picking your date(s) carefully helps you maximise your hackathon’s reach and potential.

5. Outline the process

Now you’ve covered the basics, it’s time to start outlining the actual process. The more detailed your process, the better the chance your hackathon will be a success, and you’ll achieve your goals.

The good news is that once you create this process, you can easily replicate it for future hackathons.

Some questions to answer in your process include:

  • Do teams need to pitch their project idea beforehand?
  • Is there a preselection of teams before the actual hackathon starts?
  • Are there any milestone deliverables, or will teams present all their work and findings at the end of the hackathon?
  • How will the winner of the hackathon be determined?
  • What happens if the jury members can’t decide on a winner?
  • How will you communicate the event to the wider company or industry?
  • Will there be any further communication during the hackathon?
  • Do you have any backup plans in case things don’t go according to plan (such as in the event of a power outage for one of the teams)?

6. Identify and inform all relevant stakeholders

Who will be the stakeholders depends on the type of hackathon you’re hosting. For example, if you invite external people to participate, you need to be aware of any legal implications this might result in. Who owns the specific feature or tool once created?

In general, the company hosting the hackathon will own the rights to anything created during the hackathon. But you need to ensure this is outlined in advance in your terms and conditions.

Other common stakeholders include the jury members (who will be judging the output of the teams and picking the winner) and sponsors (such as an industry expert who defines and presents the challenge).

Sponsors can also help you cover a part of the costs for the event, which can be particularly helpful when organising a larger external event. For example, a sponsor can provide the prize for the winning team. Which leads us to point seven.

7. Decide on the extras

One of the great parts about hackathons is that they are incredibly versatile and adaptable. So aside from creating buzz around your hackathon (see the next point below), chances are you also want to add a lot of “extra features” to your event to really make it an event to remember.

And just like with any other company event, the possibilities are near endless, so we can’t list everything here. But to give you some inspiration, consider the following add-ons to spice up your event. Note that most of these ideas work best for on-site hackathons:

  • Give a (sponsored) prize to the winning team
  • Include a consolation prize for the runner-up (or for the team with the best name or the best positive energy)
  • Organise a break room where hackathon participants can come to relax and rest if needed
  • Provide teams with branded merchandise (like matching t-shirts) with their team name printed on it
  • Order takeaway or get a caterer to provide food and snacks for participants and spectators
  • Provide (board)games to add some fun and distraction
  • Further care for participants’ physical and mental health by offering free massages, yoga, or meditation sessions

8. Promote your event

Last but not least, you want to create some buzz around your hackathon event. Even when it’s only for internal employees, you still want participants and other employees alike to share the excitement and have fun.

And when hosting an external hackathon event, promotion is key to attracting enough participants and getting your event out there. This is particularly important for raising event (and brand) awareness.

If the goal of your hackathon is to attract and recruit tech talent, solid promotion is essential. Use your company’s social media accounts and any other channels you can use to get the word out there. Asking employees to share it externally can be great for promotion, as well as promoting your event in industry publications or forums.

Attract tech talent with a hackathon event

Now you know more about hackathon events (and how to set them up), it’s time to organise your own company hackathon.

Not only can organising your own hackathon be a lot of fun and a great type of team building event, but when done right, it can help you find and attract top tech talent. Want to know more about how to hire tech talent? Then check out these articles:

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