What Is a Hackathon?

Hackathon Image

As a company focused on helping companies improve workplace performance, we’ve got a lot of interest in techniques intended to help solve problems, be more creative, and innovate more. For example, check out our articles on learning organizations, design thinking, facilitating change, learning teams, and innovation.

And that’s why we asked our good Dr. Stella Lee to have a discussion with us about hackathons (you may remember Dr. Lee from our earlier discussion on disruptive technologies in L&D).

Thanks to Dr. Lee for telling us what a hackathon is, sharing with us some reasons to hold a hackathon, and giving us specific tips on how to hold a hackathon based on her own personal experiences doing so (pus she shared some great resources for learning more!).

You can listen to our recorded discussion immediately below or, if you’d prefer, we’ve typed up the transcript below that.

An Introduction to Hackathons

Convergence Training: Hey, everybody, and welcome. It’s Jeff Dalto of Convergence Training and Vector Solutions, back with another web/pod/audio-cast in our little series, and we have a returning visitor day.

I’m very excited. Today we have Dr. Stella Lee. Stella is the owner of a learning consulting firm called Paradox Learning, which is based in Vancouver–beautiful, I should say–Vancouver, BC in Canada. We’ve had Stella back before talking about disruptive technologies in L&D, and I’m hoping to have her again next year on learning analytics.

Stella, how are you today?

Dr. Stella Lee: Hi, Jeff. Thank you for having me. It’s I’m doing well. You?

Convergence Training:

Doing well, thanks. And we are excited because Stella is here to talk about hackathons today. And, Stella, can you tell us a little bit about what a hackathon is? And maybe some of the history, how they originated, and maybe some of their common themes?

Dr. Stella Lee: Yeah. I like to keep things more broad. So very broadly speaking, it’s just a creative way of solving problems. And the name came from the merging of two words, hack and marathon. So, hint, hackathon.

Typically, it lasts for a weekend, but it could be a day, it could be even longer than a weekend. It’s kind of like a competition. But the mindset is not to create a competition-heavy atmosphere. And it’s more about having fun, having a team of like-minded people to do a design sprint under some time pressure. So that’s kind of the whole spirit and the meaning of hackathon.

And funny enough, you asked about the origin, as far as I understand, it actually came from my hometown, Calgary, in the late 80s, early 90s. It was a few software engineers that came together and decided to collaborate collaboratively and solve problems.

Convergence Training: Collaboratively can be a hard word to say.

Dr. Stella Lee: That’s right. And also, I think just to work with people that you might not normally encounter. That’s another key component of hackathon, is that you get to meet and talk to people that have different but complementary skill sets so you can work on solving problems together.

Why Would an  Organization Perform a Hackathon?

Convergence Training: Great, kind of break those silos.

So you and I were just talking before we hit record, and you mentioned hackathons can happen in any number of contexts. And you can match mentioned a couple in a second. I know there was just one in my hometown, Hacking Portland, to figure out city governance issues.

But maybe you could tell us why a company or department might have a hackathon. What would be the point at that level?

Dr. Stella Lee: Well, there are many, many reasons, I think.

As an educator, I’m always putting education first. It’s always a great way to learn new skills, right?

And as you know, when you work for a company, especially when it’s a big organization, like breaking down silos, but also you know, when you work for organizations, you tend to become very specialized in what you’re good at doing. And sometimes you need a little push to get out of your comfort zones and experiment with new technologies or new approaches. It’s great to make you think outside of your day to day processes, and to look at things from a fresh perspective.

And also we talk about collaboration is a key word. You know, you might see people in your organizations day to day but maybe you say hello to them by the coffee pots, but never thought about solving problems with them. Never brainstorm ideas. Oh, maybe you bring some ideas with that, but never take that brainstorming into a prototype.

So this is to give you a compressed time frame to work together and not just come up with ideas, but actually build something and actually figure out a way to present your ideas, present your prototypes in front of an audience.

So that, to me, it’s very good reason for companies do this hackathons.


Ways to Benefit from a Hackathon

Convergence Training: Cool. And I can already see a little bit of a blueprint about where we’re going with brainstorming and prototypes. But you know, sometimes hackathons, and even a little bit in your description there, might sound something that’s exclusive to tech companies or something.

Is that true, or what kind of companies could actually benefit from a hackathon?

Dr. Stella Lee: I would say any kind. It’s sure that you tend to hear a lot more tech companies and startups that are hosting hackathons.

But I think now, it’s so commonplace that it’s being adopted as just normal business practices by lots of organizations. Like universities host a lot of hackathons now. Locally, including both local universities, University of British Columbia here, as well as Simon Fraser University, both have hosted a variety of hackathons. I am currently advising an immigrant employment council, it’s a nonprofit organization helping new Canadians to get work, and they are hosting a series of hackathons for new Canadians.

So that’s, you know, from NGOs to startups to big firms to you know, midsize businesses. I think it cuts across different industries as well.

Convergence Training: Cool. Good answer. Good for you for doing a good work with the nonprofit and I guess I should mention, it’s voting day in Canada. So good for you for voting today as well.

Dr. Stella Lee: I know very exciting time for us.

Who to Include in Your Hackathon

Convergence Training: No doubt, no doubt.

So if you’re sitting down and you want to plan a hackathon, I guess it’d be helpful to know who and what kind of things should be included. What would you say for that–who and what should be included during the planning?

Dr. Stella Lee: Obviously, you can’t do it by yourself, you need a team. So figure out who your core project team is.

I’ve done one with just a buddy of mine, and then we start recruiting our friends. I don’t recommend doing it with your buddy. Just make sure you have a core team, it’s a lot of work. But luckily, we both know a lot of people, we have a lot of community partners. So think about your core team and recruit as many volunteers as you can. Especially doing the hackathon is always many, many things to do. If any of you have hosted any events before, you know that you can never have too many volunteers.

Sometimes even have one person as a greeter, another deal with the name tags and, and so I think volunteers very important.

Your sponsors, think about who can give you money. If it’s internal, you still have to pitch your idea to whoever is sponsoring the hackathon. So think about who will be sponsoring that. Of course that involves money. So you want to figure out your budget ahead of time.

And then we like to have mentors and coaches to come throughout the hackathon. So also identify people that can mentor your teams and have different subject matter expertise.

I understand a lot o fhackathons are quite technically oriented, but I tend to have hackathons with a little bit of a broader scope. So the subject matter expertise could be UX designers. It could be business and marketing people to think about, you know, that component, that aspect of your idea. I tend to have people that actually teach you how to pitch your idea, how to present represent your idea visually, because normally you’ll have a pitch at the end to present it to a crowd. So be able to take your idea from start to finish and be able to visually represent; that is very important. So think about people you invite to coach your team, and the variety of expertise they have. And I also find it very important to get your judges early.

Figure out a venue, even if you’d running it internally, figure out the space you’re going to have it in really matters. Like, is it just one room? Do you want people to ever move around? Like how do people break up into groups? Is the space conducive for that kind of work? Think about space, are there enough plugs. That’s very important, especially when you’re sourcing venues. Does the wifi have a strong signal? You know, those things matter.

The first thing I like to secure is your venue, because without that nothing’s going to happen. And then of course, your budgets. And another thing is how do you promote your event? Even internally, you’re running it within your company. There are internal communication channels that you need to push out to and your basic externalising of all your social media channels. Think about who are your target audience and why would they go and how did you hear about events. Here in Vancouver, we have a fairly tight community, lots of meetup organizers know each other. So reach out to your community partners. A lot of times they also able to donate some swag and prizes. So that’s always good to know ahead of time. So these are the general things to think about.

I’m sure I have spreadsheet after spreadsheet of these, these organizer tasks that I have to follow. I think the key is plan early, and make sure that you stay on top of it. You know, there’s 1,000 moving pieces. So stay on top of things and get lots of people to help you.

Convergence Training: Cool, good answer and some stuff I didn’t really even think about like venue and electrical outlets and the Wi Fi connection.

Dr. Stella Lee: And I like to test those ahead of time, just to make sure they’re OK.

How Many to Include in a Hackathon

Convergence Training: Yeah.

In addition to the staff, if you will, what about the attendees? Is there is there a rule for who and what kind of people you want to attend. Is it the more the merrier, do you want to keep it limited to fewer? What do you want to do with that? Actual customers?

Dr. Stella Lee: Yeah, if its internal then it’s just you know, your employees. And an internal hackathon’s great because your employees understand the problems of your products or the gaps of the service, so they already have that knowledge. Other hackathons that are open to all, like TechCrunch has these massive hackathons that are free for all.

I think it depends on your goals. So obviously, if you’re trying to solve a company-specific, product-related problem, then you want to think about who can contribute with a variety of skill sets. I like to have people that, and in general in terms of forming teams within the hackathon, I also encourage teams to have variety of skill sets within each team. So somebody has technical skills, and depending on the problem you’re solving, it might be just a programmer, it might be a data scientist on top of a programmer. And then I also encourage people that have design skills, UX is very important when you’re designing a product or service. The human factor should be on the forefront. And I also encourage them to have a business person, like a business analyst, somebody that understands you have this great product, how do you monetize it? How would you go know? How to get people to use it? Like what people buy it, what people use it, what’s your business model? How is it aligning with the organization? How does it align with the bigger problem or the society at large?

So think about your goal of your hackathon and select people accordingly.

Convergence Training: All right, great. And then I guess we’ve maybe touched on this a little bit, I’ll just bring it up again and see if we’ve got anything more to say or if you feel like you’ve covered it well enough. But, you know, some hackathons are just for a unit, like a company or department and in those, that’s all you invite. Other times, you invite a bigger collection of people. I know that some companies have hackathons, and they invite their customers, they might even invite people who work in totally different industries. And any thoughts about that?

Dr. Stella Lee: Um, yeah, I think there are hackathons in which it makes sense to invite your customers. I think that foster really good relationships.

You know, I keep hammering this point home: managing expectations. You manage your people’s expectations. If you invite your customers, make sure that they are being mixed in with your internal people. Are they competing as a separate grouping? What do you want them to do?

And also, how do you measure success? People always want to know: what’s your judging criteria? People always want to know how to do you? Even though it’s not ultimately about winning. But you know, it’s like my students, they want to know, how do I get an A for this course? Right? That’s just human nature. So I think managing expectation is important.

The hackathon recently I advised on what the immigrant employment council of BC, they have this hackathon because it’s linked to a funding requirement. The mandate is to help new Canadians with IT skills. So we have to pre-screen all the applicants because it’s heavily subsidized, right? Like we hardly charge them anything and we put the events together based on the grant that we received. So we have to pre-vet applicants, we asked them to send in the resumes, a cover letter, and a link to some sort of example of work.

So there are hackathons that are maybe restricted to funding issues, or you’re restricted because you’re looking for a particular problem that you’re solving. So you might want to pre-screen your applicants, or you might want to be very clear of your criteria about who can come.

But I think people kind of expect that not everything is for everyone. So as long as you make sure that people coming are aligned with your goals, I think that’s okay.


Combatting Stereotypes and Making Hackathons More Inclusive

Convergence Training: All right, great. So, I know one thing you want to talk about is there’s a bit of a stereotype about hackathons and hackathoners, is that it’s often in tech and it’s often young men. How true is that stereotype? And regardless, what can we do to make hackathons more inclusive?

Dr. Stella Lee: Yeah, and, and I would add to that, too, they’re often young, young, white or Asian, male, and often able-bodied, and you, you know, have a certain socio economic class as well.

Convergence Training: OK, you know the stereotype better than I did.

Dr. Stella Lee: Unfortunately, I think that that is true still.

So I’m going to show you a reference, and I’m hoping that we can add it as a link. I was very impressed, and I subsequently implemented a lot of the ideas based on an article written by Gloria Lynn. She’s a journalist, I think, based in New York, and the title, and I can be happy to email this to you, Jeff, but I’m going to read it out to you. It’s called Masculinity and Machinery: An Analysis of Care Practices, Social Climate, and Marginalization at Hackathons, and she said,

“An inclusive hackathon space needs to begin with conversations from diverse organizers, mentors, judges, participants, and anyone else interested in participating in this space. The organizing should represent as many diverse identities as possible. While this is by no means a simple a task to complete, it is necessary to foster a more welcoming atmosphere for participants.”

So I think the way I look at it, and she mentioned it in the article as well, is not just diversity in terms of who’s coming, like in terms of participants, but also in your staff, your volunteers, your mentors, your speakers and your judges. So think about that. And it’s I’m not just saying the color of your skin, the judges should also represent the business, the design, the technical, the community, so coming from different backgrounds, different knowledge, also diversity of gender, diversity of age. I’ve had hackathon participants that are in the late 50s and early 60s, and they were and voiced concerns about “Oh, I don’t know if I could fit in,” and, you know, they end up having a great time because we worked really hard to make sure that that isn’t an issue. If anything else I said, “Are you kidding me? People are dying to leverage your experience and your insights in the industry!” But you have to make sure that is intentional. By diversity, also, we want to think about your space mobility is, you know, it’s an issue, like not everybody can move around freely.

I also like the whole notion of mind-body balance. Hackers tend to sit in front of a computer for a very long period of time. So I make sure, and Gloria Lynn mentioned, wouldn’t it be great if we can have yoga in hackathons? So I actually invited my friend who is a yoga instructor, and he comes and he would do a 15 to 20 minute yoga stretch for our events, and he even has a little plank competition, see if you can hold longer and people love it.

And also you want to think about food, which is another issue. I think at a lot of hackathons, the stigma is people drink Red Bulls and eat pizza. And this is Vancouver, people are very, very particular about the food, there are so many foodies here, so I always make sure that the food is nutritious, there’s a variety of food, and to find out if people have dietary restrictions, gluten-free or vegetarian, so we cater to that as well. I know this is a bit of a pain, but all the event organizers know about that here. It’s also something, you know, getting back knowing your market audience and your target audience cater to them accordingly.

Structuring and Sequencing Your Hackathon

Convergence Training: Yeah, yeah, I’m sure that is a little bit easier in some cities than others but still, it’s a good point.

So when you lead a hackathon, do you have a general structure? You’ve already talked about quite a few parts of this–the brainstorming, and the prototyping, and judging. Can you tell us about the general structure of the ones you’ve led, and maybe the sequence of activities within that structure?

Dr. Stella Lee: Um, yeah, and I understand that every hackathon is different, but obviously the ones I ran or advised on, I always encourage people to start with a theme. Like why are we running this, what is the theme, what are we focusing on?

Usually, a good practice is to choose a very specific challenge. A challenge that is a real world challenge, usually a business challenge. So that would attract people because they can envision, you know, “Okay, I understand what this problem is. And I do have some ideas on how to go about solving it.”

And so, start with a theme, and to set expectations–because let’s be honest, these problems tend to be complex. Nobody can solve them all within a weekend or within a few days. So incorporate that into your judging criteria, just think that maybe 25% is all they can manage to get at. So adjust outcome accordingly, in terms of the actual day or the weekend.

Normally, I like to start with some introduction of the code of conduct, like after registration and welcoming people. The code of conduct is to set a tone about how we work together for the next few days. You know, in general, just respect each other and all that stuff.

And then I like to have a keynote speaker, to sort of get people excited, to get them thinking about the broader issue, and have an idea of why they’re here. So I think it’s important to set the tone and get excited, so I always, always get a keynote. Now, a lot of people come to hackathon and they want to just get to work, so not a really long keynote, just something short. But you know, get people excited and then you dive into the hackathons agenda, what to expect.

And most importantly, judging criteria, as I mentioned, because people always want to know about that.

After that is team formation. It is very important that you emphasize…some people come with their buddies, and they want to just work with their buddies, which is okay. But I like to encourage a little bit of mixing up of teams. If you come with your buddies, you want to, you know, bring in somebody new or try to talk to other people. So team formation would be the next thing.

And for my hackathons, I like to have what we call micro-learning sessions. So these are about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on how long the entire hackathons are, and I tend to pepper them throughout the duration of the hackathon weekend. They have topics that people are immediately able to apply to what they’re working on. An example of that is an idea validation session, so you can learn how to validate your ideas. How do you go after your target audience and test these ideas? So that’s one micro-learning session. Also, a good friend of mine is a speaking coach. So she comes and talks about how to pitch. How do you talk in front of an audience? How do you how do you present an idea in five minutes or less under pressure, right?

I think a lot of people focus on working on their product and prototype, and when it comes to presenting, they don’t even put enough thought into it. And and rightly so, most of us are not natural public speakers, so we can use some help.

So micro-learning sessions. People tend to love that because they felt like it brings a lot of good value. In what they doing and they can apply immediately.

And then of course, we talked about a yoga session and it’s just great, I tend to put that in kind of middle of the day when you get a bit tired.

And then we get mentors and coaches that come throughout the weekend or throughout the day, to work with different groups. They tend to focus around depending on the expertise. And then when it gets to the end is pitching the final presentation. So in between, obviously, you give the teams lots of time to wander off on their own, do the things. So towards the end is the team pitching their ideas in front of a panel of judges and, and then the judges debate, and then you get the presentation of their awards. And that’s pretty much the format.

Convergence Training: Great. That’s a logical format. Nice sequence.

I’m a big fan, obviously, of the little micro learning courses where you’re teaching people how to hack on a hackathon, and you can see how that’s immediately useful. But I’m sure a lot of those topics which are covered in those micro learning courses are also things you can apply later at work in different contexts as well.

Dr. Stella Lee: Yeah, it’s getting so popular. People will start asking me to record them like..

Convergence Training: Oh, good for you.

Dr. Stella Lee: …so next time, we’re going to have to find a way to capture some of these learning moments because people are saying things like “We couldn’t come to the hackathon, but we’re really interested in learning about things.”


Some Famous Stories about Benefiting from Hackathons

Convergence Training: Do you personally know of any companies, or perhaps even indirectly, any innovative companies that have known to benefit from doing hackathons like this?

Dr. Stella Lee: I think all companies benefits from it. The famous example is Facebook, and I think Facebook’s LIKE BUTTON came out of a hackathon. Oh, yeah, and I think that Messenger did as well.

I think the statistics say that about 30% of the projects that demo at hackathons tend to be incorporated. I’m talking about internal hackathons with companies. There are roughly 30% of the ideas pitched at hackathons that get incorporated directly into products.

Convergence Training: Wow, that’s amazing.

Dr. Stella Lee: So I don’t normally follow through with companies after the events to kind of survey which ones get incorporated now, but my understanding is for public hackathons, all the companies would come for the demo sessions, and they recruit people directly.

So I that’s another benefit. Our hackathon, with the immigrant employment council of BC, we purposefully partner companies to work with the participants. So their mission is direct recruitment, from the hackathon. So in a way, they are looking to get talent from the participants. So that’s another way of benefiting from that.

Companies also benefit from being sponsors and community partners because they are eager to put their needs out there. So there’s a few ways of benefiting from hackathons.

Following Through for Implementation from Hackathons

Convergence Training: Yeah, I had, of course, thought about product innovation or service innovation, but I hadn’t thought about the others…recruitment and what you’re talking about. That’s interesting.

So you said about 30% of these hackathons lead to something that gets implemented. You also said, “Hey, that’s not something I keep close tabs on.” But an off the top of your head, do you have any tips about how to take a good idea from a hackathon, and actually make sure that it happens and gets incorporated or implemented?

Dr. Stella Lee: Yeah. Actually, it’s funny you ask that, because I’m mentoring a team that formed during the hackathon I hosted in April, and they placed second in my hackathon, and they were so excited, and the team members get on so well, that they continue. Even now, actually tomorrow, I’m meeting with them and I’ve been meeting up with them monthly, they asked me if I will be a mentor to follow up, to hold them accountable, to continue their development of the product.

So the key is, obviously, to keep that momentum going. For my hackathon, I’ve done a follow-up event. And I invited some other people to come. So I actually have a bit of a like a demo-fest after the hackathon for a bigger community group to see. So I think that tends to keep the momentum going on.

If you’re doing an internal hackathon and you want to make sure that your ideas are generated and get implemented, your budget just is very important and it’s important to get the buy-in and support from the top down. And you know, obviously money is an important factor in making sure your project ideas don’t die.

The other important factor to keep things going, for either internal or external hackathons, is to have mentors and other supports and incentives available to continue to support that. There are many startup festivals that have something like a pitch event. So encourage people to—like, if they develop their ideas, their products, their prototypes, up to that point, encourage them to go to your pitch festivals. But usually, if you have a good mentor, date, they help you, they would they would push you, they would say “Hey, I think you’re ready, you should start thinking about working with an accelerator, maybe start getting some funding, maybe you should test this product. Maybe you should do it doing like a pilot launch.”

So having mentoring, access to mentoring is critical and sustaining your post-hackathon product development.

Where to Learn More about Hackathons

Convergence Training: All right, good tips. Last question for you, then, after the nice intro to hackathons.

Any recommendations you might have for people who want to learn more about hackathons and learn how to hold themselves? Any resources or anything like that?

Dr. Stella Lee: Oh, yeah, I think there are tons out there. The ones I like, one is just called Hackathon Guide. So I already told you about the article by Gloria Lin. So I think that’s good for keeping diversity and inclusion in mind. But Hackathon Guide, it should give you everything you need.

Of course, nowadays, there are so many resources available. Lots of people do hackathons and post insights and are sharing their experiences out there. But I think Hackathon Guide includes everything.

The other one that has to do with internal hackathons is called the Ultimate Guide to Corporate Hackathons. And it’s by a company called Your Ideas Are Terrible. I think they put a pretty good one out, and I think they do focus on helping corporations. I think that is the core business one (for internal hackathons).

So those are my two resources that I would recommend. Of course, I would love to hear from you and other people, if you find good resources, we can always add to their list.

Convergence Training: Yeah, so anybody out there listening, feel free to put a comment. I’ll transcribe this as an article, feel free to put comments in the comments section. And I’ll put this on social media, too, so feel free to tag me and Stella with your own ideas. We look forward to that.

And for everybody out there a quick reminder, this was Dr. Stella Lee. She’s the owner of Paradox Learning in lovely Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada. And Stella, thank you a million for coming on and telling us a little bit about hackathons.

Dr. Stella Lee: Oh, always fun talking to you, Jeff, thank you for having me.

Convergence Training: I enjoy it too. And for people out there, Stella recently sent me a 400 or 500 page PDF on learning analytics. I’m hoping once I’ve digested it to get her to come back and do another one of these on learning analytics next calendar year, so look out for that.

Thanks to everybody out there.  Hope you enjoyed it and we’ll talk to you soon.

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 25 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, has completed a General Industry Safety and Health Specialist Certificate from the University of Washington/Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center and an Instructional Design certification from the Association of Talent Development (ATD), and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI/ASSP Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training. Jeff frequently writes for magazines related to safety, safety training, and training and frequently speaks at conferences on the same issues, including the Washington Governor's Safety and Health Conference, the Oregon Governor's Occupational Safety and Health Conference, the Wisconsin Safety Conference, the MSHA Training Resources Applied to Mining (TRAM) Conference, and others.

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