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Blog 3 Rules for Hosting a Successful Hackathon

Hackathons are a staple of tech startup culture, but the execution of hackathons vary greatly. Is your hackathon a competition for awards? Is it themed around a particular business need or “anything goes”? After the hackathon is over, how do you measure its success?

For those that haven’t experienced a hackathon, they are events held by companies and communities where individuals team up to work on coding/development focused projects. To reach their lofty goals, teams will often have to cut corners when developing to get to a demo-able solution in the time frame (hence the “hacking”). At the end of the hacking portion, teams will present their work in front of the full audience. Judges will then deliberate and award prizes, many of which tie back to the hackathon theme or the company’s broader goals.

Last month, Narrative Science held our 5th annual hackathon. Despite it being the first fully-remote hacking competition, it was a remarkable success by all counts. With seven teams competing for quarantine-friendly virtual travel experiences and other fun prizes, the company tuned in on Zoom to witness the presentations. 

Throughout this five year tradition, we’ve gone through many styles of hackathons. We’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Here are some tips to help your next hackathon be a slam dunk. 

Present a vision, leave room for creativity

Before we kicked off our three-day hackathon, the entire product and engineering teams assembled virtually for a quarterly all-hands meeting. Generally, these involve business/product updates, outside speakers, and team-building activities. This one was no different except that it focused on one thing: our vision for the future. 

To help us step outside of the day-to-day minutiae, we had a cross-functional group present a commercial made in-house for our product Lexio as it might exist in three years. This presentation was the culmination of many ideation sessions and conversations conducted over several months across the company.

Why put so much effort into building a hypothetical storyboard for features that are still years out? Why not set the hackathon theme around one of those far-off features and let the teams run with it? 

We chose to set the stage and build forward-thinking excitement rather than putting unnecessary restrictions in place. Tell the team to solve for one specific feature, and that’s all you’ll get; get them excited about a vision, and with a little trust, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what they create.

Establishing a customer-centric culture

There has been a lot written about the importance of being customer-centric, but shifting a company culture can take time. Hopefully, you’re already tying development efforts to user-centric product principles, have strong core values integrated into the hiring process, and actively encourage engineers to join customer/prospect calls. In the context of planning a hackathon, though, it can often be difficult to orient ideas towards users’ pain points. 

One hands-on activity we did during the kickoff to help keep the user in mind was to write aspirational customer reviews for our product as it exists six months from now. We used the breakout rooms feature of Zoom to split into small groups where we collaborated on these fictional quotes by considering the user persona and expressing the value they see in these upcoming features. When the groups shared their favorite quotes with the larger audience, many expressed getting goosebumps at how inspiring and well-articulated they were. 

Let your people be people.

At Narrative Science, we get excited when we see others excited and actively work to build spaces for people to share their stories. Hackathons are a great way to foster a creative spirit at your company and build a culture of innovation. Beyond that, though, it’s an opportunity to let your people be people – to give voices an avenue to express themselves and show their talents.

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