How to make a hackathon best suit your needs?

Jan 22, 2017

A brief history of hackathons

The first known formal hackathon took place in June 1999. A group of programmers from around the world gathered in a house in Calgary, Canada,  worked persistently for a week and created integration of IPv6 (improved communication protocol) and IPsec (Internet protocol security) with the operating system OpenBSD (freely available UNIX-like system).

Over the years, Open BSD organization has successfully organized more events of this kind and put emphasis on their rather loose character – people who were interested arrived at a specific time and worked for a fixed number of hours  on a project that interested them the most. People who wanted to talk to others were free to do that and those who wanted to work in peace were just sitting beside in the same room with their computers and working. For the first organizers of hackfests, they were mostly about writing code over and over again so that the target changes could be achieved as soon as possible. Only chosen programmers were invited to such events. There was no room for people who were just learning and the most desirable participants were those with already established skills. These hackathons were usually funded from donations made to the OpenBSD Foundation, although many programmers paid for their stay out of their own pocket. The organizers tried to locate events near academic centers or in cheaper neighborhoods. OpenBSD successfully organizes hackathons to this day.

Another pioneer in organizing hackathons was the already non-existent Sun Microsystems (which used to be one of the most important manufacturers of computer hardware and software) which in a short period of time organized its own event within the JavaOne conference (Sun Microsystems is the company that invented Java). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, organizing hackathons has become increasingly common and entered permanent calendar of events organized by companies around the world.

Different approaches to organizing hackathons

Depending on what the company of institution organizing a hackfest is expecting, the event can take many forms, involve different people and have different goals. The general principle is always the same – at a certain time and place (if a hackathon is stationary) specialists from different areas of new technologies come together in teams to work together on solving a problem or creating something new. Hackathon can be an internal event and it means that its participants are employees from different departments of a company. It can be also an external event and then the participants are people from outside the company. The aims of hackathons include also successful recruiting of new employees, networking, attracting investors and partners or simply establishing contacts.

Internal hackathon

One of the companies famous for organizing regular hackathons is the Australian Atlassian which provides advanced technology for programmers, project managers and IT companies. The hackathons organized by them are well known and focused on a few core values:

  • work on whatever you want – find what interests you, develop that dream function, smash your nemesis bug (bug – an error in the code)
  • assemble your crew – this is a chance to combine ideas and skills of people from different departments
  • you’ve got 24 hours – go!

Atlassian’s hackathons, called ShipIt Days, are internal and are greatly appreciated by the staff. What's more, some even say that they work there for these events only. But it is not only fun, free food and an opportunity to work late (yes, some people really like it). A number of ideas that have been actually carried out and implemented were generated during hackathons. A good example is Jira Service Desk – a platform for communication between the client and the IT company, which became an element of the Atlassian's permanent offer. Another example is replacing light bulbs in one of the rooms with more energy efficient ones.

External hackathons

Hasbro, one of the oldest toy companies in America and second largest in the world, held a hackathon called Hasbro-A-Thon and focused on issues related to toys and games.

The company invited 150 programmers who formed groups of five people and worked for two days on new solutions. The result was development of 45 different products. It was a great example of organizing an external hackathon – the company opened to new ideas, but also increased its involvement in the programming environment, gained a lot of inspiration and recruited new employees at the same time. Long before the event, the company had begun some promotion and information activities aimed at, apart from attracting interest of potential participants, preparing the organizers for the good conduct of the event, sharing knowledge and obtaining feedback.

Tomasz Florczak, representative of service that brings together programmers and organizers of hackathons, said that purpose of the company organizing the event is not that significant. The most important goal is to have reasonable (and achievable) expectations, find good jurors, ensure adequate space, offer unusual prizes (high cash prize is not always a good idea) and put participants first, not sponsors or media representatives.