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Running a Hackathon

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Interested in planning your own Hackathon? Here Sam Gibson, Managing Director of Enjovia and former Business Development Manager at the Alacrity Foundation, reveals his top tips for success.


Running a Hackathon

Over the years at the Alacrity Foundation we have run a variety of hackathons with varying degrees of success. We have learnt through experience that there are a few key requirements to making a hackathon successful. 

Before I jump into that, some of you reading this may not be familiar with what a hackathon even is. A hackathon is a type of event which started in the tech industry as a way to get employees out of their day to day routine and allow them to creatively problem solve. They typically last a day or a weekend. 

Hackathons bring together strangers to work in teams to solve real problems with some technology. In the past this has usually meant a bunch of techies locking themselves in a room for 24 hours fuelled by energy drinks and pizza to create some cool technology prototypes. Since then hackathons have evolved and I would agree that the new definition of a hackathon should be a structured event that fosters creative problem solving. 

Under this definition we would call the recent Be The Spark event in Cardiff a hackathon. All sectors of Wales coming together and trying to solve Welsh problems with fresh ideas and creativity. A hackathon doesn’t need to be technology based and some of our most interesting hackathons at Alacrity have been cross discipline teams of developers, designers and business people. This year in April a hackathon was run in Boston to bring together members of the community to tackle issues of urban life. The Urban tensions hackathon covered topics from an increase in evictions to more cars using bike lanes. 

Typically when running a hackathon you want to keep the teams small and agile with 3-5 people a team, this ensures that ideas move quick but also that every member is involved and active. 

For us at Alacrity there are 5 key elements to a good hackathon:

1. A clear purpose

If you have ever sat in an open ended brainstorming discussion you will know how painful putting half a dozen people in a room together to discuss ideas can be. Like a good brainstorming session a hackathon needs a core direction and needs its participants to be informed. A great event our graduates have taken part in before is the NHS hack day. 

The NHS hack day event is clear from the start – this event is about bringing together NHS healthcare professionals, techies, Dr’s, Nurses and anyone with an interest in making ‘IT less bad’ to create new solutions for the NHS. 

This strong mission gives potential attendees lots of time to think about what they can do. In previous NHS hack days many health care professionals came with ideas they had thought about for years that would make their day to day work easier and cheaper. 

2. Have clear rules and structure

All hackathons should have a structure and rules attached, these rules should also contain potential judging criteria if the hackathon is going to be competitive. 

Rules can include: mission of the hackathon, structure of the day, time limits or constraints, size and composition of teams, limits on what can be used i.e. software and where sources / data can be used. 

Every team should be led or have guidance from an industry or subject expert. A hackathon for educational tech would likely struggle blindly without teacher or lecturer involvement. 
Location and time are important, most hackathons are held on the weekend to maximise the opportunity for everyone to get involved. 

A location should have room for breakout spaces, proper seating, Wi-Fi, and materials for brainstorming whether that’s whiteboards, paper or a projector and of course a bathroom. 

3. Realistic Goals

Some hackathons can produce amazing results, a MIT medical group created a hackathon with the goal of stopping infant mortality in Uganda. This hackathon resulted in the creation of the Augmented Infant Resuscitator which has the potential to save millions of lives. Most hackathons will achieve about half of what they expect to do, you only have a day after all! 

The goals should be attainable first and foremost. We have found setting expectation for a basic prototype or the creation of a bare bones business plan or project brief works well. These work best when presented by the team at the end of the day. When business plans, designs, mock ups and presentations are involved anyone can be involved. 

4. Food and Fun

If you’re locking a group of people up in a room all day who are working and thinking hard they are going to need some fuel and it’s your responsibility to provide it. We usually put on a BBQ or order in some pizza while providing an unlimited supply of hot drinks to keep everyone going. It won’t be a shock to anyone that free food brings in a bigger crowd! 

A good hackathon should be an engaging and fun process, it’s an opportunity to break out of the normal routine and work with new people on new projects. It’s the kind of thing we often wish we could do as we are going through our day to day work. We recently saw the buzz this can generate at the first be the spark event in Cardiff. The cross reference of corporates, risk capitalists, government, entrepreneurs and academics all had lively, thoughtful and interesting debates with new faces. 

At Alacrity we break up the day with quick 5 minute challenges, this isn’t always appropriate but it is fun. One of our favourite challenges is making people code with a blindfold on, we all gather round and gleefully watch the attempts. 

5. Positive Energy

A great hackathon isn’t one which teams are at war, but one that helps build a community, welcomes newcomers and provides a learning experience for everyone involved. As mentioned before it is hard to solve the world’s problems in a day, but you can certainly take the first step in the right direction. We mainly use hackathons at Alacrity as a way to re-energise our graduates. 

Hackathons provide a chance to practise skills, build teams, solve real-world problems, shake up some comfort zones and have a fun day together. 

So, what are you waiting for? Start planning your very own hackathon now! 

You won’t regret it!

About Alacrity 

The Alacrity Foundation is a unique 12-month programme that provides graduates with practical business training, software skills and mentoring so that they can develop as entrepreneurs and launch their own UK based technology companies.

Combined with Alacrity’s global ecosystem, The Alacrity Foundation in the UK is unique, with it being the only educational charity with its sister offices in China, Canada, France, Mexico, India, Indonesia, Turkey and Singapore. The UK’s charitable mission is to mentor and train graduates to create the next generation of hi-tech companies based in Wales. Our 12-month programme provides the skills and knowledge required to run a profitable technology start-up.

About the Author

Sam Gibson, until very recently was Business Development Manager for the Alacrity Foundation. He worked closely with partners and assisted the teams with commercialisation and marketing. Before joining Alacrity, he held sales roles in a number of companies within the finance industry. 

Recently Sam left the Alacrity unit to be Managing Director of Enjovia who themselves went through the Alacrity programme. Enjovia is an e-commerce platform that facilitates and supports the sale of gift experiences, tickets and merchandise for hospitality, leisure and retail sectors.