Does your organization participate in hackathon? Perhaps a better question to start with is, do you know what a hackathon is? The truth is, hackathon can look quite different depending on the company at which it’s being held. At Bonusly, hackathon is a week-long event where all employees from every department are invited to focus on projects or ideas that are often outside the domain of day-to-day work. Folks often work on projects in cross-functional teams, allowing people to meet and work with others across the company. After Hackathon Week is complete, the organization enjoys the creative outputs of the hackathon projects and team members enjoy deeper cross-departmental connections and increased engagement in their work. Hackathon Week is a time to disrupt the status quo and improve skills of innovation and creative problem-solving. 🎉
At Bonusly, amazing innovations like these Bonusly GIFs, Sounds of Gratitude, and custom emojis were all hackathon projects. It’s easy to look at the awesome results of a hackathon and decide it’s time your organization launches one of its own. To that we’d say, yes you should, but there are some planning, logistics, and learnings we’d like to impart. 🗣
Planning a Hackathon
Assemble your Hackathon Guild
So, you’re ready to plan a hackathon. Where do you start? The first thing we’d recommend is forming a cross-departmental hackathon guild to handle the planning, communication, and coordination of the big week. Cross-departmental participation is important for a few reasons:
- First, it allows folks from different departments to work together to create something awesome which is the whole belief behind hackathon!
- It encourages cross-departmental buy-in as each team delegate can bring information and excitement back to their teams.
Give the team plenty of time and context
Now that you have assembled your Hackathon Guild, we’ve arrived at the second most important component of a great hackathon: timing. Giving the organization ample time to ideate, plan, and block off calendars is paramount to a successful hackathon. We recommend sending out the save the date for hackathon at least 8 weeks in advance. Then develop a weekly communication plan to send reminders and inspiration leading up to the event.
Schedule your hackathon ceremonies
There are three essential hackathon ceremonies at Bonusly. 🗓
- The hackathon brainstorms: Leading up to Hackathon Week, Bonusly hosts two brainstorms open to any team member to develop ideal hackathon projects and work through any roadblocks before Hackathon Week. This is something we’ve recently introduced at Bonusly that we’ve now adopted as an essential part of hackathons moving forward.
- The hackathon kickoff: The hackathon kickoff should be scheduled for the first Monday of the week of Hackathon Week. During this hour-long meeting (or longer depending on the size of your company) each hackathon project group should be given about 2-3 minutes to present their idea. The presentations should be short and sweet and should encourage other team members to join projects that they’re interested in.
- Hackathon demo: The hackathon demo occurs on the Monday after the week of hackathon, exactly a week after your kickoff. During this hour and a half meeting, Hackathon participants will have 4-5 minutes to show off what they worked on during hackathon. The more visuals, the better! Don’t forget to send out meeting recordings for those who couldn’t attend.
In addition to these company-wide meetings, each hackathon project will be responsible for setting up kickoff meetings and working sessions for their respective projects.
Who to get involved
There are a few key groups in the organization that can help you promote hackathon to the whole team. Get these groups on board early, especially if you’re requesting something of them.
Managers are your secret ingredient for a successful hackathon, so get them in the mix early. 🥣 Managers can help reinforce the importance of hackathon for your team and work creatively to maximize your team’s participation. You can help managers by:
- Asking them to gather interest from their teams early and mark their direct reports’ calendars the week of the hackathon to ensure that participation is visible to others and scheduling meetings is easier.
- Ask them early to minimize the number of outside tasks their teams take on during the week.
Let's see what a few Bonusly managers have to say about participating in hackathon:
"As a manager, it was really fun to see some of my team dive into Hackathon projects! It's always nice to shake things up and work with new teammates and projects outside of our typical work scope. Encouraging people to work on projects they don't normally do, and with people, they typically don't work with, has been a great way to proactively address burnout and build stronger team connections across departments." - Laura Saracho, Content Marketing Manager
"My role during hackathon was getting the team excited and motivated to participate, encouraging them to share ideas and come together to present during hackathon. A hackathon can sometimes be centered around product teams only, and Bonusly gets the whole organization involved to share ideas, and product helps develop those. We had some amazing success stories come out of hackathons that have improved our customers' day to day, all because Customer Success Managers participated." - Michael Morecino, Manager of Customer Success
People Ops team
Your People Ops or HR team can help you by minimizing the number of candidate interviews the team will be pulled into. Again, the earlier you make this request of them the better!
If you’re ready to put together a hackathon, you’ll need leadership buy-in. We’d recommend you assemble your Hackathon Guild and put together an executive proposal that outlines your plan for hackathon and the expected outcomes.
Tips before we go
We hope you’re now equipped (and excited) about the prospect of a Hackathon at your organization. Before you go forth and plan, we’ll leave you with these few final tips:
- Broadcast hackathon information early and frequently. Send messages through multiple channels (chat tools, email, meeting announcements), so that team leaders can work to plan around the week.
- There’s more than one way to participate in hackathon! To many, leading a project of their own can be intimidating and might dissuade participation. To boost participation, highlight all the different approaches folks can take outside of leading their own project:
- Hackathon is a great week to devote to uninterrupted professional development.
- Team members can join existing projects and contribute instead of creating and leading their own projects.
- Once hackathon is finished, ask the company to weigh in with feedback on hackathon so you can improve next time. This is a great spot to include voting for top hackathon projects if you’d like to hand out awards.
- Provide a roster of support folks who are not participating in hackathon that are willing to hop on a Zoom meeting and get projects un-stuck. Communicate this roster from the start so hackathon participants can reach out to these helpers independently if they get stuck.
- Schedule hackathons up to a year in advance to give participants ample time to plan their time. It’s typical to have one hackathon per quarter, but you can adjust cadence to meet the needs of your organization.
We hope you take this blog and run with a hackathon at your organization. Hackathons are powerful tools to boost engagement and a sense of purpose by allowing folks to work on passion projects, not to mention they’re just plain fun! If you’re interested in more ways to boost employee engagement, you can connect with one of our employee recognition experts.