What is a hackathon? Here’s all you need to know

Feb 20, 2018

Discussing workers near computer

Are you searching for alternative ways to grow your business, or promote your product? Maybe you’ve stumbled upon the term of “hackathons” but didn’t really pay attention to it. Was that the case? You have to make up for that, there’s no more time to lose. If you’ve just started asking yourself “What is a hackathon?” then you’re in just the right place. Relax, grab a cup of coffee and let us do all the work while you only let the information in. We’ll start with the most basic definition which will then be broken down into finer details. Let’s go!

What is a hackathon?

Hackathon is a coding marathon, an event lasting from few hours to few days, usually hosted on weekends. Despite the possible negative connotation with the word “hacking”, those events do not promote malicious or criminal behaviors, as “hacking” can also mean “playful, exploratory programming”. A challenge like that brings together specialists from related fields, like graphic designers, project managers, business analysts and others. It originated from events for programmers, but the formula quickly proved to be attractive to specialists from other fields as well, more on that later. The goal of such event differs depending on what the organizers aim for. Generally speaking, however, the main rule is to find a solution to a presented problem by means of teams competing to produce and present the best project that meets the predefined criteria. Authors of winning projects are awarded in cash, prizes or via other means, as well as a combination of any of those. You will need some inspiration for the theme of your hackathon, so the next section is just for you.

Ideas for a hackathon?

We’ve published an extensive piece titled “Discover our hackathon ideas, you can't miss those!” that we highly encourage you to dive into. In short the theme that you select for your hackathon will dramatically influence how successful it is so choose one wisely. There’s a plethora of ideas you can incorporate, is it going to be a hackathon for children? Maybe you want to tackle transportation? Possibilities are endless. The most important aspect of this choice is that you are comfortable with it, after all, it’s your event that you’re going to spend months in preparation for.

On-site or online?

That is an important distinction to make, and whichever you decide to go with will greatly influence the process of organization. An online hackathon, also called online programming challenge does not require you to have a physical location for the event as all the projects will be submitted via the internet, and then will be reviewed by the jury from the comfort of their office or bedroom. This also opens the contest up for anyone in the world, location is not a limiting factor here. Online hackathons will often last far longer than the on-site ones, which gives participants the comfort of improving and refining their projects.

An on-site hackathon requires the organizers to find a suitable location to host the event, as well as a place of accommodation for all the participants in some cases. As mentioned previously, such hackathon will usually be hosted during a weekend, mainly due to the need for contestants to physically attend it in addition to their day-to-day jobs. So when asking yourself “what is a hackathon event?” you will also think of the “where”.

Types of hackathons

Internal or external hackathon? The choice is yours, but those two serve different purposes so make sure you know your needs. An internal hackathon is organized within one company, and its participants are the employees of said company. Such event might be held recurrently or only once. The main benefit of organizing an internal challenge like that is boosting the creativity of the team thanks to alternative approach to problem solving in comparison to the day-to-day routine.

External (or open) hackathon on the other hand reaches out to all interested people irrespective of their place of employment. Having heaps of creative minds from outside of your company will bring a wave of fresh ideas. On top of that, an open hackathon is the perfect opportunity to for you find new talents, new people you might potentially hire, that crowd is full of great candidates! Already employed people will probably not respond to your job ads, but the possibility off grabbing that sweet, sweet prize surely will, and that’s when you can reach out to them.

Who are you going to invite?

As mentioned before hackathons have strayed from being an event for programmers only, but that is not to say software developers don’t attend those anymore either! Let’s now mention the most important crowds a hackathon can attract, an by extension, dictate what given events focus on.


This is the most obvious group that will attend a hackathon and their challenges will include anything ranging from building websites, hardware hacks, to mobile and desktop apps. An intensive period of coding is a great way to kickstart a project, promote a brand, or test out a new API.

HR specialists

Hold on, what is a hackathon without developers? The idea for this kind of hackathon is a bit different. You won’t usually see people coding during such event, at least that’s not the focus. These people will brainstorm ideas on matters like candidate experience process or effective candidate hunting. While it might not have much to do with “hacking” per se, the event is still centered around solving an issue, going towards a set goal, all in a matter of hours or days. A recruitment hackathon will emulate a realistic working environment for candidates to show off their skills while being observed by representatives of HR departments competing for a position.

Things you absolutely need

It’s time to sum all of that up, all the parts above served in nice bite-sized parts. This is the part you need to read carefully.

  1. Idea. What is a hackathon event without a good idea to kick things off? The theme of the event means everything, it sets the tone, guides participants to the end goal, and ultimately says “this is what my hackathon is about”.
  2. Is the hackathon going to be organized internally or will you open it for outsiders? It’s perfectly fine to run a hackathon inside the walls of your company, but you need to identify the specific requirements connected with such event. If, however, you decide to organize an open hackathon you will need to rent a venue, promote the event, as well as take care of other things mentioned in the next point.
  3. Identify your audience. You need to decide what group of people is meant to constitute your participants, but sponsors, and potentially mentors, are also very important to take into consideration.
  4. Prepare the award. It’s no secret people participate in hackathons to win something. Is it going to be cash? Maybe some sweet prize? How about a contract? Only those things will attract contestants.

So there you have it, no need to ask yourself “what are hackathons” anymore. Now you know all about the theme, type, target audience of your hackathon, as well as all the benefits that are there for you. Now it’s time to organize one for yourself. ChallengeRocket.com is here to help! If the task of holding such event by yourself seems a bit daunting it’s ok to reach out for aid. And if you feel like reading more about hackathons you can check out our e-book.