How to Run a Hackathon: Tips and Tricks for Success

Chris McFadden
Dec. 28, 2016 by Chris McFadden

run a hackathon winter hackathon tips and tricks

Have you ever thought about organizing a hackathon at your company? If you have, we’ve put together some tips to help inspire you to run a hackathon of your own. Trust me – it is easier to organize than you might think, a lot of fun for everyone involved, and definitely worthwhile!

A SparkPost Tradition

Since 2013 I have had the honor and pleasure of organizing our company-wide hackathons which we hold twice a year. Our most recent one was earlier this month. These hackathons provide a fantastic opportunity for engineers to take a break from the normal day to day priorities of shipping new features and otherwise supporting our cloud service. In turn, they are able to experiment with new technology, explore a creative way of solving an interesting problem, or prototype the next killer feature. It’s a good morale booster and team building exercise, and we find it also helps with our recruitment efforts.

run a hackathon group picture

Hackathon Format

Our SparkPost hackathon is a two day event — we run from Thursday morning through demos and awards on Friday afternoon. We usually have about fifteen teams that add their group to the sign-up sheet. Each team has 3 or 4 staff members, though there are those lone wolf entries that can be quite brilliant, and exceptions for teams of 5 are possible. All members of the CTO organization are encouraged to participate – including technical staff associated with our various brands including Message Systems, Port25, and SparkPost – and it is left up the staff members to form their own teams. While the primary site is in our office in Columbia, MD, we have several teams that are partially or wholly remote which seems to work well. In some rare cases we will get an prerecorded entry if someone can’t stick around for the demos.

There are no restrictions on technology used in the entries–it’s all fair game. Examples of what teams have done:

  • write something from scratch
  • build on our existing code base
  • incorporate open source or a trial version of commercial software or service
  • use a new or familiar language

We use an honor system where no pre-work or coding is allowed! Research and brainstorming is OK to do in advance.

The hackathon format itself is quite simple. We have made some adjustments over the years but have settled on this basic schedule:

  • First thing in the morning we distribute hackathon t-shirts designed by our creative genius Lynn.
  • Teams can get started immediately afterwards.
  • Around 12PM we cater lunch for the office.
  • Work continues through the afternoon as late as the teams want and picks up again the next morning.
  • At 12:00 PM on the second day, everyone stops coding and can get lunch which is also catered.
  • Starting at 1pm, each team has 10 minutes, and no more, to present their work to the audience (including any Q&A).
  • After presentations, the judges deliberate for 30 minutes and then the awards presentations take place.
  • We usually wrap up by 4pm and invariably some staff head out for an early happy hour, while others go back to their desks to wrap up that last thing before the weekend.

Hackathon Demos and Judging

Presentations should include a live demo, but may include other communication methods such as a slide-deck, and often include some good humor. With 15 teams it’s important to be strict with timekeeping. A panel of three judges will pick the winners in 5 separate categories:

  • Product: A new or improved product or feature, including end-user tools and add-ons.
  • Tools: An internal tool or infrastructure experiment that can improve how we design, build, test, ship, or support our products.
  • Partner Integrations: A value added integration of our products/services with a third party
  • Fun with Data: making more of the data we have in our cloud environments
  • We Deliver: innovations in abuse detection, compliance, and deliverability

Though the categories are deliberately broad, we get the most entries under Product and Tools. We’ve experimented with themes like “mobile” in the past, but decided to let the hackathon remain as open ended as possible. While each team can suggest one or more categories, the judges are also free to re-categorize entries to make the distribution a little more even. This was the very first time that I was a judge and it was a lot of fun. The other two judges were veterans including Josh Aberant, our head of Marketing, and Laura Rose, who leads our awesome Technical Account Manager team. In the past we have had other great judges including the CEO, CTO, head of Product, head of Sales, and other leaders from throughout the company.

And the Winner Is…

All category winners receive a commemorative mug or water bottle. One of the 5 category winners is also selected as an overall “Best in Show” winner. Besides bragging rights, the “Best in Show” winning team gets the perpetual trophy cup which has their names engraved on it. The judges may pick a “Runner Up” or “Honorable Mention” for any project that didn’t win the category. The Best in Show winner this time was “J3” which included Jacob Kleidman, Jason Sorensen, and Jordan Nornhold (pictured below). This innovative team also won the Product category by building an multivariate “A/B” test API which dynamically sent emails to a sample set of recipients using two different templates and then – based on the engagement results of the samples – would pick the winning template to use for sending to the remaining recipients.

run a hackahon winning team

As for what happens post-hackathon, it’s left to the judge’s discretion if any of the winning ideas are considered for inclusion in any product. They will coordinate any follow up with Product as appropriate. There’s usually a fair amount of effort to convert an innovated hackathon product idea into a production feature. Often tool ideas find their way into use. All winning projects will get a 2 minute video feature at our upcoming all hands company meeting.

Run a Hackathon: Start Your Own Tradition

Our employee hackathons are a great tradition here at SparkPost. Our hackathons cultivate innovation and we have successfully applied learnings to how we build and support a better product. I hope you find this inspiring enough for you to start a hackathon at your company. Feel free to reach out on Twitter if you have questions or want advice on how to run a hackathon. And, as always we are looking for bright people to join our team. If solving problems with super smart people using awesome tech appeals to you – check out our open positions!

Chris McFadden, VP Engineering

2 Comments

  • Nice write up and really helpful. Kindly help with these questions. What can you suggest to be the structure for a post-hackathon? What activities can be carried out to follow up winners at an hackathon? Thanks.

    Reply
  • After the hackathon we evaluate which projects are worth continuing. With internal tools it can be up to individual teams to decide if they want to continue the project. Similar with technology such as AngularJS, DynamoDB, and CloudSearch that we experimented with in hackathons – we decided to incorporate into our tech stack. If it is a customer facing feature we will evaluate if it should go on the product roadmap. Some examples of features to come out of hackathons are webhooks and multi-factor authentication. We chose to finish the winning entry of our last hackathon, an A/B test API endpoint, and release under SparkPost Labs – read more about it here: https://www.sparkpost.com/blog/sparkpost-labs-ab-test-api/

    Reply

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