A hackathon, or “hack day,” is a great addition to company culture. The event is a merging of minds—coworkers form groups and work together to build a functional product or find a creative solution to a problem. But hack days don't have to be limited to product development, or exclusive to coding or design. You can make the day your own to unleash your employees’ talents.
After consulting our own hack day leaders, we compiled our best tips for what you should do before, during, and after the event to ensure your next hackathon is a success.
Set some #goals
Like any successful project, your hackathon should begin with a goal. Ask yourself, why am I throwing a hackathon, and how will it benefit my company?
Hackathons encourage company-wide collaboration, so your goal might be to introduce your employees to new people and new ways of thinking. On your hack day, an engineer might have the opportunity to work with a designer, or a marketer could work with an accountant. They’ll not only learn new skills, but also get to know each other on a personal level and leave with a better sense of how to work together across teams.
You could also think of your hack day as a more productive brainstorm session. Freed from their everyday work routines, employees will be entirely devoted to surfacing new and bold ideas for your business. The best part is that anyone can participate, regardless of their job title.
Give them some direction (or none at all)
If you’d prefer to narrow your focus for the day, define a theme or pose a question to guide your participants. You could ask your employees to work on office design projects, funding strategies, and so on. Get specific with ideas like, how can we grow our social media following?
If you don’t have a theme in mind, that’s fine too! Let your employees work on whatever interests them the most. Whether you choose to give them direction or the freedom to explore, you’ll be surprised by what they can come up with!
Mark your calendar
Timing is crucial as it applies to both setting a date and running your event effectively. When deciding on when you want to hold your hackathon, consider all teams and company deadlines. Avoid dates where the sales team might be distracted by monthly quotes, or the finance team is closing last month's numbers.
Once you’ve picked a date where everyone can get involved, think about how long your employees will need to develop their ideas, as well as how much time the company is willing to spend away from ordinary business. A hack “day” is typically an all day event, but find out what’s acceptable for your individual office and plan accordingly.
Lean on others
It’s important that your company executives and managers openly support your hackathon. Let them know why you want to host this and what your goals of the day will be. Give them an opportunity to voice any reservations, then address them! If you get leadership buy-in, everyone will feel comfortable setting aside their work (or letting their direct reports set aside their work) to participate.
Now that you have a goal, a theme, a timeline, and a support system, the real planning can begin! Form a small committee and set a few planning meetings about 2-3 months in advance. It’s helpful to make a list of everything you need, then tackle each item. Some talking points can include:
- Promoting your hackathon. How will you announce it? How will you get people to participate?
- Establishing formal guidelines. What ideas are you looking for? How will you create teams?
- Judging employee hacks. How many judges do you need? Will you award prizes?
Get everyone hooked
You can’t have a hackathon without hackers. Having your leadership team promote the event will help, along with friendly office reminders. Send emails and calendar invites to save the date, hang posters around the office, or get creative with hype videos. Tease your hackathon to get employees excited, and encourage them to start jotting down ideas.
If participation isn’t mandatory, incentivize employees with branded hackathon swag (for the participants only). Design a hack day logo and use it to create t-shirts, stickers, and other fun items. If ordering apparel, don’t forget to be size inclusive. If ordering anything custom, do so well in advance so that you don’t run into timing issues.
Once you’ve reeled your employees in, make it easy for them to sign up. Share a spreadsheet with your office and give everyone a week to add their names and ideas. At the end of that week, allow employees to assign themselves to the existing ideas that interest them and form teams. This is a good time to set those guidelines you discussed in your planning meetings. For example, “Teams must be 2-5 people from at least two departments.”
Stay on schedule
Have your schedule planned in advance, but share the relevant details with participants the morning of the event. You want to give them time to freely execute their ideas, some break/meal time in between, and enough room at the end of the day for demos, deliberation, and awards. Your full hack day schedule might look something like this:
9:00-9:30am Hack Day kickoff. Find your groups!
9:30am-12:30pm Time to hack
12:30pm-1:00pm Lunch break
1:00pm-4:00pm Finish hacking
4:00pm-5:00pm Award ceremony
5:00-6:00pm Celebratory happy hour (Optional)
Think about how many teams will need to present, then tell them exactly how much time they’ll be given. Teams can produce mock-ups, slide decks, web pages, or give demos of digital prototypes—whatever best showcases their ideas. Whether they have 2 minutes or 12 minutes to do this, don’t hesitate to cut off that mic like a good Oscar host would.
Order food for thought
Fuel your hack day participants with a catered breakfast and/or lunch. Something quick, easy, and budget friendly is best (like pizza)! Ask attendees about any special dietary needs before the event, and don’t skimp on the coffee.
Mic check, 1, 2
You’ll likely be using some combination of tech (TVs, mics, laptops) when employees pitch their projects. Work with your IT team to set up the presentation space, or have them supervise so that everything runs smoothly.
Announce that the winner is…
When the time is up, gather everyone together for an award ceremony where you celebrate the winning hacks and give them their prizes!
Have your judges seated together in front of the space where they can introduce themselves. We recommend choosing people who are well respected and come from different areas of the company. You can also get the whole office involved and have people vote via Slack with Polly.
Reiterate to everyone what the award categories are, how they will be judged, and who your presenters are. Then sit back and enjoy the show!
Send pics or it didn’t happen
Your hackathon has ended, and it was a huge success! Share a recap with the office to reflect on the teams’ innovations, and encourage everyone to keep the projects in mind as the company changes and grows.
If you plan on making this a regular event (we suggest every 6-12 months), don’t forget to ask for feedback. What went well? What could have been done differently? Your company will be producing its best work before you know it.
Curious to see what hackathons are all about? Join us at our first Office Hackathon for workplace professionals on October 10th, where you’ll develop and present real solutions for your workplace.