Not too long ago we were at the BBM Hackathon in NYC and it was a pretty big success. Developers were hacking away and while the organizers, Crush Republic, did a great job, there’s always room for improvement. Over the years I’ve been to a few hackathons and while I’m by no means an expert on the topic, I’ve noticed a few key elements that have separated the good hackathons from the great ones. Here are 10 off the top of my dome.
1. Have compelling prizes
The “Grand Prize” for the BBM Hackathon was great and all, but there was no prize for the winner of the actual hackathon itself. When you get developers in a room scrambling to put together a demo, you want to reward the person with the best demo. It also emphasizes the need to have both a great idea and the ability to hunker down and code fast.
2. Set very specific rules
If you’re going to run any competition, it’s very important that the rules are very clear and specific. Winning a competition can also be about finding creative ways around the rules and if you leave too much room for interpretation, some participants may feel mislead. Make sure the rules are strict and everyone adheres to them. If someone finds a way around the rules, all the more power to them. Typical hackathon rules include:
Must use a x number of APIs.
Cannot bring code to the event.
3. Have experts on hand
The BBM Hackathon did a great job of having experts on hand to answer questions. There were experts walking around the room as well as announcement sessions where people were able to ask questions in front of a group. A great hackathon may go even further to have some experts back at HQ answering any questions via Live Chat. Anything to help developers get past roadblocks will make the demos better.
4. Have all the right tools ready
Some developers love work stations with two monitors and others like to use their own laptops. Have both available at the hackathon and allow them to choose or go between both. Also, hackathons require a lot of brainstorming so make sure there is ample scratch paper and pencils available.
5. Have as few interruptions as possible
This is one area where we felt the BBM Hackathon wasn’t that well planned. There were several times when the hackathon was interrupted either by announcements or moving developers between rooms at the Ace Hotel. A successful hackathon would have all the developers in a single room, with no need for anyone to move more than 20 feet to get food, water or advice. This makes the coding much faster and produces a better caliber of demos. It also goes without saying that there should be ample food and drink available so the hackathon isn’t interrupted with a lunch or dinner break.
6. Help developers prepare
The last thing you want the developers doing at a hackathon is sitting around downloading tools and simulators. Before the hackathon even begins, developers should have ample access to the APIs to learn about how they’re used and what’s needed to set up the dev environments. Some developers may not be familiar with BlackBerry development, so it’s important to set them up with everything before attending the event.
7. Internet connectivity is paramount
Obviously one of the most important, if not the most important tool at a hackathon is an internet connection. The BBM Hackathon gets a 4/10 for providing decent connectivity as we talked to a couple devs who had major problems connecting. Consider the fact that you may have 50 devs attending your event and each may have a laptop, smartphone and tablet connected to the WiFi network making for 150 or more connections. It’s very important to plan for network congestion and apps that could be putting a serious strain on the bandwidth.
8. Have different sitting environments
This goes with Tip #4 but is different in that you want to have the right sitting and work environment prepared. Work stations are important but some developers prefer to code on a bean bag chair or couch. The venue you choose should be versatile enough that a developer can move between a desk and a couch with little effort.
9. Get the right media in attendance
One of the best things about a hackathon is having so many bright minds and people committed to a platform in one room. By having the right media in attendance, developers can promote their apps, companies and share their opinions about a platform. Getting the right media in attendance can do a lot for the platform by helping developers and companies get the word out about what they’re doing and help them make more money. The right media would be bloggers interested in apps and software, and the wrong media would be old-media newspaper journalists walking around asking “what’s an API?”.
10. Help get the product to market
When the hackathon is complete, you know you have been successful by the number of demos and the quality of work that was presented. By the end of a hackathon you should have at least 10% of the developers presenting applications that could be immediately taken to market and sold. The constant message at the hackathon should be “build something great and we’ll help you make money.” Once the apps are finished, be prepared to have people back at HQ at the app store ready to review and approve the app as fast as possible. Give the developers who attend your hackathons approval priority and expedite the process. Word will travel about the benefits of attending and if you have 10% of developers making a few bucks within 24 hours of finishing the hackathon, rest assured your next hackathon will be an even bigger success.