Employee Engagement

How to Organize an Internal Hackathon

How to organize an internal hackathon

Table of Contents

Hackathons are a fun way to crowdsource ideas and solve specific problems. While they’re often associated with software development and the wider tech industry, many companies use hackathons to solve other challenges too.

Like any event, organizing a successful hackathon takes time and patience. What is it we want to achieve with our hackathons? What format and duration will we set? These are all questions to think about before you organize an internal hackathon.

Luckily, we’re here to help! In this article, we’re diving into how to organize a hackathon in 2024. We’ll walk you through the makeup of a successful hackathon, the various types of hackathon, common questions, and more.

As businesses ramp up their innovation efforts, now is the time to embrace hackathons and instill a culture of ideation before it’s too late! So, let’s look at one of the biggest questions of them all, what is a hackathon?

What is a Hackathon?

A hackathon is an event for teams and individuals to collaborate on innovative solutions to specific problems. A hackathon can be an intensive process focused on rapid ideation and experimentation and typically lasts anywhere from 24 hours to an entire weekend.

These events help people come together to move fast and fail forward. The purpose of a hackathon is to create a proof of concept or working plan and may include a competition element, with prizes at the end for the best ideas or presentations.

While they have a reputation for focusing on programming, the concept can be applied to virtually any field. That’s what makes hackathons so important!

Hackathon Definition Summary

  • A hackathon can last from a few hours to a few days.
  • A hackathon can involve individuals or teams.
  • Hackathons aim to prove an idea or concept could work.
  • Some hackathons can be competitive, and prizes can be won.
  • Hackathons aren’t limited to the technology space.

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Why are Hackathons important?

Hackathons are vital to collaborative innovation and problem-solving. They make rapid ideation and prototyping possible while giving people the space to share bold ideas that solve real-world problems.

What’s more, these events also help organizations build a community within their workforce, by bringing like-minded people together without the constraint of the typical working environment.

Other reasons why hackathons are important:

  • Inspire Entrepreneurship: bring entrepreneurship (or even intrapreneurship) to the forefront of your business by hosting a hackathon.
  • Skill Enhancement: Hackathons provide an environment where people can refine their problem-solving, ideation, and collaboration skills.
  • Drives Employee Engagement: fuel better employee engagement by presenting a challenge and an open environment for people to think and thrive.

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 benefits and reasons to consider running one of these events.

Types of Hackathon

There are roughly three types of hackathons:

  • Internal hackathons (or corporate hackathons) – a hackathon run by an organization for its internal teams. These are often organized to develop new products or solve problems creatively. We’ll be focussing on these in this blog.
  • Competition – often run by a community group, such as a team of coders, and set up as a networking event and healthy competition.
  • Sponsored hackathons – hackathons hosted by an organization for external participants, normally run for promotional purposes, to recruit new talent, or to problem-solve.

How to organize an internal hackathon

Why Organize an Internal Hackathon?

Hackathons can be a fantastic means of generating lots of ideas for solving a specific challenge, whether that’s designing a new app or improving sustainability.

Organizing an internal hackathon for your business’ employees enables them to explore their creativity and work in collaboration with their colleagues. This not only strengthens teams but improves engagement and gives a sense of achievement to those taking part. They also offer a chance for individuals to think outside the box and work on a project that isn’t linked to their individual KPIs and day-to-day work.

For organizations who want to show their commitment to creativity and innovation, running a hackathon clearly shows that ideas are central to their culture.

The Structure of a Hackathon

A typical hackathon has a structure like this:

  • Coffee and networking
  • Introduction presentations, including the challenge(s) and rules
  • Workshops and seminars
  • Hackathon starts
  • Mid-way break and update on progress so far
  • Second half of the hackathon
  • Judging
  • Prizegiving
  • Closing event

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How to Organize a Successful Hackathon

Key Points to Identify

Before you get stuck into planning your hackathon, you need to identify:

  • Key stakeholders (including your legal team – it’s important to get their advice on how to handle intellectual property created during the event)
  • Your audience (e.g. all your employees, programmers, and partner organizations)
  • Your theme – an element that ties your event together
  • The desired outcome of the hackathon.

Your theme will underly the entire event – from the prizes you give to the closing event (and, of course, the challenge or challenges you set). So, if you’re hoping to create an app that helps local residents locate their nearest doctor, then it’s safe to say your theme is “healthcare”.

It’s a good idea to literally write out the goal of your hackathon. Is it to improve team-working? Or are you hoping to find the solution to an upcoming challenge?

Once you have your theme and outcome, run them by your stakeholders to get their input.

The Structure of Your Day

Hackathons can run over time periods lasting from hours to days! Some organizers like to keep breaks informal, with food and drinks on hand for participants, others may choose to add in more formal stops. If your hackathon is scheduled to run for 24 hours or more, you may choose to organize sleeping areas where your participants can catch forty winks.

Plan out the event in advance, remembering to include a few presentations and/or workshops at the start to get participants acquainted with your challenge (the structure above should give you a starting point). This is a particularly helpful idea if many individuals are new to the concept or at an early stage in their career. You could also appoint several mentors who are knowledgeable about your issue or theme, who can be on-hand to talk to those taking part during the hackathon.

It’s very easy for a hackathon to end up feeling somewhat unstructured. So, find ways to keep communication going throughout to ensure that your participants are getting the most from it. This could be via Teams or email or using hashtags on social media.

Planning Your Teams

We recommend keeping teams small to enable everyone’s voices to be heard – say, around 6 people. You can allow people to come in fully formed teams, but it’s a good idea to include networking time before the hackathon starts (or access to a social media group or Discord channel beforehand) so that those without a team have a chance to find one. Also, be aware of how much time it will take all participants to present and be careful to ensure you limit overall numbers to allow time for this.

If you’re running an internal hackathon within your business, you should also remember to make the event flexible so that as many people can get involved as possible. For example, you could run it during work hours over a couple of days, so that people with childcare commitments don’t have to choose between taking part or catching the school run.

Communication

Communicate the structure of your event and the house rules – such as whether individuals are allowed to plan in advance – ahead of the time so that your participants are in the know.

Similarly, if you’re running your hackathon as a competition, you should clearly define your judging criteria. You’ll also need to establish your panel, which should include at least one expert on your chosen topic or task. So, if you’re running a software-based hackathon, you’ll need at least one programmer on the judging team. Don’t forget to base any prizes you offer around your theme and make them relevant to your audience, so if you’re running a hackathon to come up with ideas for reducing waste, avoid offering prizes made of disposable plastic.

Last, but not least…

Most importantly, don’t forget this is meant to be fun! Plan an entertaining event for everyone to take part in following the hackathon and have snacks and drinks on hand to keep participants fuelled while they take part.

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Organizing an online hackathon

Hackathons don’t have to take place in one packed-out room. Online hackathons are particularly useful for teams spread out over multiple countries.

  • Make sure you have technical support in place, you don’t want the event to become frustrating for participants because the technology isn’t working properly.
  • Organize the meetings and presentations well in advance, using your existing collaboration tools (such as Microsoft Teams or innovation management software)
  • Make sure your teams contain people with different levels of expertise so that newer or more junior members have the chance to learn from their colleagues’ experiences.
  • If you’re running the hackathon as a competition, make sure you have a clear set of rules that are easily accessible for all participants. These should include information such as judging criteria, time limits, and forbidden technologies.
  • To give a sense of community, organize catch-ups during the day where teams can talk as a group about their progress so far.

Following the Hackathon

Once your hackathon has finished, you can contact participants to thank them for taking part, including photos of the event and a round-up of the winners. Plus, the date of the next event for them to add to their diaries!

If you’re hoping to make hackathons a regular occurrence, then it’s also a good idea to survey those who attended to get their feedback (the good and the bad!) about how the event went. This will enable you to make improvements for the next year.

Remember to let your participants know about how their ideas have progressed and if any have gone on to become fully-fledged projects. Knowing that they have made a difference is a huge motivator, so this is especially important if your hackathon was an internal event for your business!

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How to Organize an Internal Hackathon

Hackathons take time and planning to get right but have the potential to help you source ideas to your problems, recruit new talent and engage your existing employees.

In summary, here’s how to organize an internal hackathon:

  • Organize talks and/or seminars at the start of the day, to get everyone on the same page
  • Keep the number of participants and size of teams at a manageable level
  • Define your judging criteria and rules well ahead of time
  • If you’re running an online event, communication is key
  • Let everyone who took part know about the outcomes of the hackathon
  • Remember to keep it fun!

FAQs for How to Organize an Internal Hackathon

What is an internal hackathon?

An internal hackathon (also known as a corporate hackathon) is a hackathon run by an organization for its internal teams. These are often organized to develop new products or solve specific problems – such as how to become more sustainable.

How do I organize my hackathons online?

Communication is very important when organizing a hackathon online, so book your meetings and presentations far in advance. If you’re running the hackathon as a competition, make sure you have a clear set of rules that are easily accessible for all participants, so everyone knows what they need to do. These should include information such as judging criteria, time limits, and forbidden technologies.

Online events can make teams feel isolated, so to give a sense of community, organize catch-ups during the day where teams can talk as a group about their progress so far.

As your event will be reliant on technology, it’s also essential to ensure you have technical support in place and that the platforms you are using are reliable.

How do you plan and organize a hackathon?

Before you start planning your hackathon, you need to identify:

  • Key stakeholders (including your legal team – it’s important to get their advice on how to handle intellectual property created during the event)
  • Your audience (e.g. all your employees, programmers, partner organizations)
  • Your theme – an element that ties your event together
  • The desired outcome of the hackathon.

It’s a good idea to literally write out the goal of your hackathon. Is it to improve team-working? Or are you hoping to find the solution to an upcoming challenge?

Plan out the event in advance, remembering to include a few presentations and/or workshops at the start to get participants acquainted with your challenge (the structure above should give you a starting point). This is a particularly helpful idea if many individuals are new to the concept or at an early stage in their career. You could also appoint several mentors who are knowledgeable about your issue or theme, who can be on-hand to talk to those taking part during the hackathon.

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