What are Hackathons and How Do They Work in 2024?

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. But many people still ask the question What are hackathons?.  

what are hackathons

What are Hackathons? 

A hackathon is an event for teams and individuals to collaborate, innovate, and find solutions to specific problems. It can be an intensive process of rapid ideation and experimentation, and typically lasts from twenty-four hours to an entire weekend.

The purpose of a hackathon is to create proof of concept (POC) or a working plan. A way to identify an opportunity and its feasibility. While hackathons are synonymous with the tech industry, they aren’t limited to programmers, software developers and so on.

In fact, there are many different types of hackathons that apply to many different industries and fields. Sometimes hackathons have a competitive edge, while others focus on collaboration and shared learning.

Ultimately, these workshops are a fantastic way to crowdsource ideas, solve specific challenges, foster employee engagement, and enhance cross-department collaboration. But what if you have never participated in a hackathon?

Don’t worry! That’s where this hackathon guide comes in handy. Throughout this article, we’ll cover some of the biggest questions and considerations about hackathons. Already aware of the basics? Jump in the deep end and learn how to run a hackathon!

Now let’s look at some of the reasons why hackathons are important, from inspiring entrepreneurship to driving higher employee engagement.

why are hackathons important

Why are Hackathons important?

Hackathons are important because they steer innovation, drive collaboration, and make problem-solving much easier. These high-energy events catalyze rapid innovation and creativity.

What also makes hackathons so important is their versatility. Regardless of your industry, hackathons can and do help businesses find ground-breaking ideas. They’re also a great means of meeting new people and networking.

In an internal hackathon, it’s cross-department collaboration that builds relationships amongst different employees with different skill sets. Outside of the workplace, hackathons offer a chance to meet professionals who share the same interests and ambitions as you. In simple terms, it’s a no-brainer as to why hackathons are important!

Other reasons why Hackathons are Important:

Below are just some of the other reasons why hackathons are important, and what they can do for both you and your business

  • Build a culture of experimentation
  • Increase knowledge sharing at scale
  • Stay ahead of industry competitors
  • Accelerate prototyping

As you can see, there is no singular answer as to why hackathons are important. Depending on the nature, purpose, and format, there are a range of reasons to consider running one of these events.

Identify what it is you want to achieve by hosting a hackathon. Only then can you determine the importance of a hackathon! Now let’s look at some hackathon benefits you need to know about.

hackathon benefits

6 Hackathon Benefits

From inspiring entrepreneurship to driving employee engagement and shifting company culture in a positive direction, we’re going to look at 6 hackathon benefits! Now that we’re aware of what hackathons are, it’s time to see what it is you’re missing out on!

Inspires Entrepreneurship

Hackathons inspire entrepreneurship across your organization. It brings a sense of intrapreneurship to the forefront of your business and asks the question “What can we do differently?” to achieve the goals we want in 2024?

For most organizations, entrepreneurship is reserved for those at the top. However, it is forward-thinking companies that leverage hackathons to foster entrepreneurship and eliminate the barriers to entry for everyone to be great!

The best businesses are those who are holistic about ideation; who welcome people at all seniorities and departments to share their thoughts and have their voice heard. Building that kind of culture takes time, and hackathons can reinforce those efforts.

Improves Employee Skills

Hackathons provide an environment where people can refine their problem-solving skills and get better at ideation and collaboration. That only scratches the surface, however. See, hackathons bring out the best in a lot of people.

It encourages them to look within, while also learning from those around them. Hackathons are all about how people come together and think, create, and solve. It’s a learning experience as much as it is practical and progressive.

In many workplaces, it is a lack of opportunities that causes employee unhappiness. That doesn’t have to be the case, though. With the chance to learn and develop, you can bet employees will stick around longer!

Drives Employee Engagement

Hackathons fuel better employee engagement by presenting a challenge and an open environment for people to think and thrive. It’s true… everyone wants to make a difference and contribute their ideas and opinions. People need a voice.

It’s organizations that suppress employee voices that struggle with poor employee engagement. And in a world where people will jump ship without a care in the world, retaining your best talent starts with engaging them in meaningful work.

To really drive engagement in your hackathons, you need to understand who should participate, what they are interested in and where their expertise lies. That way you can ensure your hackathon is an enjoyable, meaningful experience for your teams.

Positive Innovation Culture Shift

Hackathons make a promise to your workforce. They promise to be innovative, to be daring and try new things. Something that will rub off on your employees, and slowly but surely shift your culture for the better.

Most organizations are so paralyzed by what works in the here and now and refuse to think about the new ways of thinking and working. Despite the fact they could change their business or the entire industry!

Not your company, and not your people! This is one of the major hackathon benefits to consider. Your company culture overrides other efforts and results. Happier people create greater achievements, and having a voice is something to smile about!

Networking Opportunities

Another hackathon benefit is networking opportunities. Internal hackathons give employees the chance to build relationships and collaborate with other people. This is especially true if you open your hackathon to external participants.

Think about it! If you invite some of the best minds in your field, such as subject matter experts and experts, you’re sure to network with these individuals and build connections. What’s not to love about that?

The best way to network is to be approachable, collect contact details and continue ideation and innovation after the event has taken place. Speak with new connections about the experience and opportunities to collaborate again.

Solving Complex Challenges Fast

Hackathons are often designed to solve complex challenges. It is a way to rapidly innovate and prototype against the problems your business faces. That’s what makes hackathons so successful.

The problem you face is now in the hands (and minds) of dozens or hundreds of individuals. This speeds up the process of thinking up new ideas, eliminating those that do not work and focuses on those that do.

Complexity can sometimes paralyze teams into not exploring new opportunities and becoming stuck in a rut. The speed of problem-solving is dependent on the amount of people focused on your challenge. Find your people and fast-track complex problems.

What do you do at a Hackathon?

Hackathon participants focus on a variety of things. From introducing themselves to other participants and forming teams to pitching new ideas and collaborating on projects. Most hackathon participants will also be tasked with presenting their work to everyone else and discussing the process behind their ideas.

Depending on the nature of the hackathon, some participants will also receive their prize money or winner certificate and move along the project planning stage with their presented prototype or idea.

Below we explore the various stages of a hackathon in a little more detail. Here’s what you can be expected of you and the kind of things you will be involved in!

Grab a coffee and Connect With Others: 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 the hackathon begins!

Get Introduced to the Problem: 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 and prizes at this point.

Workshops are Held: 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.

The Hackathon Begins: 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.

Hackathon Closure: 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 with the chance to do a final bit of networking before you all head home.

How do you Prepare for a Hackathon?

To prepare for a hackathon, consider the theme of the event, the tools or hardware involved and whether your expertise matches the desired participant. Take a look at the step-by-step guide to how to prepare for a hackathon below…  

Grasp the Theme

Don’t go into things blindly. Understand the event’s subject and what is required of you to participate. For instance, if the hackathon theme is something you know nothing about, ask yourself “Will I be able to contribute and collaborate effectively?” 

Ready your tools

Most hackathons involve some form of equipment or hardware. Are you prepared with the right tools to get the job done? This may be professional software or technical devices. If you don’t have these tools to hand, find them as soon as possible. 

Pre-hackathon Preparation

Some hackathons offer pre-hackathon workshops. Take advantage of these and learn something new before beginning the event. That way, you can better yourself, but also your chances of winning! Especially if there are prizes up for grabs. 

Start Networking ASAP

Don’t wait for the hackathon to begin. Start networking and connecting with industry professionals and subject matter experts right away. Who knows, you may gather some insight into ideas and concepts that can help you innovate. 

Pitch Preparation

You might not have your ideas or projects to hand just yet, but it is worth refining your delivery. Think about the way you can present your ideas and how you can grab the attention of other participants and judges. 

pre hackathon questions

Pre-Hackathon Questions to Ask Yourself

Now let’s take a quick look at some questions you can ask yourself before you participate!

  1. What skills and qualities do I bring to the table?
  2. How can I best manage my time?
  3. Have I read the hackathon rules and guidelines?
  4. How can I form the best team?
  5. Do I have any initial ideas for?
  6. What resources and tools do I need?
  7. What is my plan for presenting my pitch?

are hackathons only for developers

Are Hackathons Only for Developers?

While the term “hackathon” is considered something reserved for coders and programmers, 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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Meet edison365

Now you know how these events 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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