What Are Hackathons, And How Do They Work?

how do hackathons work

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Hackathons are taking the world by storm and are being used to generate ideas for everything from vaccine booking systems to tools for helping kids to read.

These workshops are a fantastic way to quickly crowdsource ideas for solving specific challenges and foster employee engagement, collaboration, and research skills. If you’ve never been to a hackathon before, it may seem daunting. This blog will walk you through what to expect and explains how hackathons work.

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What is a Hackathon?

While hackathons are often associated with software or app development, this doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, they don’t have to have any link to technology whatsoever!

A hackathon is a workshop where groups of people are brought together – often in teams of 2-5 individuals – to solve problems or create innovations. The aim is generally to create a proof of concept within a set time limit.

Sometimes hackathons are created as competitive events, but other organizers prefer to keep the focus on collaboration and shared learning.

For employers, they are a way of bringing individuals with a range of experiences together to find different methods of solving a specific challenge.

For employees or participants, they are a fantastic chance to network, develop skills and have fun solving a problem. To find out more about running one of these events, check out our blog on how to organize a hackathon.

What Happens at a Hackathon?

Here’s how hackathons work…

Before the hackathon officially starts there will normally be time for you to arrive, grab a coffee and do a spot of networking. This is a good chance to get to know your fellow participants in a more relaxed atmosphere before everything kicks off!

Next, organizers will tend to hold an introduction presentation, which will (surprise, surprise) introduce the problem that they’re looking to solve and what they’re hoping the result of the event will be. If it’s a competition-style hackathon, they will probably introduce the judges and reiterate the rules at this point.

To make sure everyone starts off on the same page, many hackathon organizers will run workshops following the introduction. These will enable you and your fellow participants to dive deeper into the requirements and the challenge itself.

Next, it’s time to get to work! Your team will start to analyze the problem and start to work out ideas for solving it. Then, you start designing and prototyping your chosen solution and continue testing (or discussing, if it’s not coding-focussed) until your creation is ready for pitching.

Longer events will often have a pause mid-way through where teams can present their progress so far. This is also a common feature of online hackathons, as it keeps the feeling of being part of an event, rather than working as an isolated team.

At the end of the event, your team will pitch your incredible problem-solving solution. If it’s a competition hackathon, judges will then announce the prize-winners.

Finally, there is often a closing event of some form, with the chance to do a final bit of networking before you all head home.

Hackathons for Beginners

Are you about to head to your first hackathon? Here are some top tips to get the most from the event:

  • Have a goal in mind – are you there to network? To learn? To win? Make it challenging, but achievable. You’ll only have limited time during the event, and this will help you manage it wisely.
  • Prepare in advance – read any materials you’ve been asked to look at and, if you need to bring a project with you, get a clear idea of what you’d like to do.
  • Connect with your fellow participants – often organizers will set up a Facebook group or Slack/Discord channel ahead of the event. This can be a great place to network and find a team if you don’t know anyone else who’s going.
  • WiFi at Hackathons can be slow and overloaded, so download the latest versions of any software you need ahead of time!
  • Get enough sleep the night beforehand – late-night partying and day-long hackathons don’t mix well.

Are Hackathons Only for Developers?

While the term “hackathon” has become synonymous with coding, you don’t necessarily have to know your JavaScript from your CSS to join in.

For one thing, not all hackathons revolve around coding, so if that isn’t your scene, have a search around for one that has more of a focus on building business cases. Not too sure what a business case is? Not to worry, we’ve put together an article exploring the question “what is a business case?

Alternatively, work out what kind of experience you could bring to the table instead. Are you a project manager, who can help your team stay on track? Are you a presentation whizz who can sell the idea to the business? Or, do you have experience in the industry or sector that the problem is related to?

When you come to find a team, be sure to mention these points to potential teammates when you introduce yourself. That way you’ll make it clear straight away how you can help them solve the issue at hand.

Join the world’s most innovative brands using our end-to-end innovation management tools.

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edison365 and Hackathons

Now you know how hackathons work, maybe you’d like to run your own? Innovation management software is the perfect visual tool for collecting ideas and collaborating across remote teams. You can find out how Cisco has been using edison365ideas for hackathons in our case study and discover top tips for creating an innovation process that sticks.

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