How do you create a great learning hackathon?

In my last post I explained how we undertook a hackathon to help communicate the power of agile software development and DevOps practices. From concept to execution, the hackathon took a dedicated team six weeks to prepare. Here are some of the key ingredients that helped make this event such a success.

corporate hackathon

  1. A Grand Plan

There are several reasons you might want to get a bunch of programmers together to do a hackathon for learning purposes. There were two distinct learning objectives for our hackathon: one for the hackers and one for the event participants. The key thing is to be clear on why you are doing it. In our case we wanted to change the status quo and make agile development and DevOps practices real for the business leaders attending the event. By directly involving them in the process, we were able to demonstrate how quickly the new approach could generate functional solutions for the business.

  1. Committed Executive Sponsor

The commitment of our hackathon sponsor to the event, his excitement and his willingness to take measured risks drove every aspect of the event. The sponsor and his team also contributed to the learning process: they were there throughout, providing input, feedback and coaching. They also presented the awards at the end.

  1. Event Planning Team

You need a dedicated team that is focused on making this work – especially if you are running the hackathon within another event. In our case, there was the larger event planning team who managed the overall event and also a team of four professional event planners who managed every aspect of the hackathon. This second team was key to the successful execution of this complicated event. There was also one overall project manager who orchestrated everything.

  1. Onsite Marketing and Communications Support

Make sure your marketing and communications team know exactly what you are planning on doing. Our comms team undertook communication of the hackathon, both inside and outside the Group and we received wide coverage through my company’s internal communications channel (over 2600 article views), plus mentions on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.

  1. Great Teams of Hackers

The chosen hackers need to have a certain level of knowledge in order to take part in the hackathon. You also need to be clear about what it is you want them to learn through doing this activity. In our hackathon, the hackers had to already have significant expertise in developing applications using agile practices. They also had to be fluent in DevOps practices.

learning hackathon

  1. Allowing the Hackers to Express their own Creativity

It is important that you allow the hackers the opportunity to express their own creativity within the brief you set. You also need to provide them with feedback and support throughout because it is, essentially, a learning event.

  1. Involve your Users

Hackathons are supposed to be social events. For our hackathon, this meant engaging with the 350 business leader attendees who were the intended target audience of the hackers’ activities. To do this, the executive sponsors of the larger event introduced the idea of the hackathon to the participants in the keynote address for the event. The business leaders were also actively incentivized to get involved.

  1. Solid Infrastructure

You need to ensure your infrastructure is up to date so that no technical issues get in the way of the hacker teams doing their work. We ensured that a great deal of preparation went into planning and testing the infrastructure, to avoid any possible technical problems.

  1. Onsite Technical Support

To support the hacker teams’ basic needs we had the IT Operations and network support teams for the facility on alert and ready to step in during the entire event. We also had a team of three technical architects on site to provide inspiration and coaching, and to help the hacker teams with any questions that came up during the event.

  1. A Great Space

For a successful creative experience like a hackathon, you need a space that fits your purpose. It should inspire the creativity needed to drive your event. If you’re doing a hackathon to support a social cause, the setting should be appropriate for that cause. In the case of our event where we were trying to influence global thought leaders, it made the most sense to catch them at one of their biggest yearly learning events.

Hackathons for learning are a fun and collaborative way to engage the community and a talented group of developers. Hopefully, I have introduced you to a few of the key ingredients for an excellent learning hackathon. It all starts with a big idea and a clear vision of what you want the people involved with the event to learn. And don’t forget to enjoy the ride; arranging a hackathon is a very rewarding experience because it brings out creativity and passion in everyone involved.

Have you organised your own hackathon for learning? If yes, which of these tips would you consider the most important? Perhaps you have your own thoughts to add? Please leave a comment below.

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