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This article was published on December 16, 2021

We’ve hosted more than 6,000 hackathons — here’s what we learned

5 fundamental tips to hosting a successful hackathon

We’ve hosted more than 6,000 hackathons — here’s what we learned
Ellis Norman
Story by

Ellis Norman

VP Enterprise Sales & Partnerships, HackerEarth

Ellis is an expert at building processes that scale and teams that succeed. He is a trainer, motivator, and advocate with success from start Ellis is an expert at building processes that scale and teams that succeed. He is a trainer, motivator, and advocate with success from startups to Fortune 500.

Picture a hackathon. Likely you’re imagining images similar to those that come up when you search “hackathon” on Google Images: rows and rows of developers seated at tables in a hotel conference room, head down (ample sodas and snacks at hand), racing to write as much code as possible over 72 hours.

Less than a decade ago, this idea of hackathons was accurate, but in 2021 much about these events has changed.

Hackathons have significantly evolved since the inaugural one in 1999. Today, they are tools used by companies globally to develop innovative new products and discover hidden tech talent — both for companies doing lateral hiring or recruiting from universities.

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If your organization is thinking of hosting a hackathon, consider the following best practices that my team and I have acquired running over 6,000 hackathons:

1. Two-phase Hackathons are better than one

Hackathons that include separate ideation and development phases consistently deliver more innovative solutions than those that have a single, combined phase. The first portion of the event is dedicated to ideation and submission. Once approved, the selected entries are invited to move forward with development over the second phase.

At HackerEarth, we usually recommend allotting one month per phase, to give participants as much time as possible without slowing innovation.

Extending the length of your hackathon drives an increase in developer participation. A flexible, self-paced model welcomes involvement from participants juggling multiple priorities.

Further, two-phased hackathons see better engagement over time. Unlike a weekend conference, your hackathon won’t see participation spikes, but entrants will tune in to get updates, collaborate, and see results, thus driving traffic to your page over time.

Simply put, innovative solutions are rarely developed in 72 hours. Opting for a two-phase hackathon could ultimately bring more talent and innovation to your organization.

2. Consider your post-covid goals

Pre-covid, much of the excitement around hackathons was related to networking with other industry professionals, holding a forum to discuss emerging tech trends, and spending a few days immersed in software development.

The shift to virtual hackathon platforms, however, has put a stronger spotlight on innovation and upskilling.

Organizations hope to identify both ground-breaking software solutions and stand-out talent to integrate into their teams amid a shortage of qualified developers. Participants are attending to showcase their skills and ultimately be recognized for their disruptive technologies.

3. Prizes should start at $10,000

The standard compensation for first-place innovations is widely accepted to start at $10,000. With the top prize reaching $1 million or more, it’s expected that even smaller companies strive to reach the ten thousand dollar mark.

Because hackathons can run for months at a time, candidates commit many hours outside of their daily responsibilities to participate. It’s fair to compensate them for both their time and first-class innovation.

Top-dollar prizes attract top-dollar talent, so to ensure you are attracting the innovation your organization needs, prioritize allocating resources to prize money.

If your organization is running a hackathon on a budget, explore corporate partnerships to strengthen the value of your event.

4. Go global

When you’re planning your hackathon, be cautious not to limit your talent pool to the state or country you’re in. Expanding your reach to include participants from all over the world creates greater opportunities for collaboration and discovery.

By integrating a global community, you invite diverse perspectives, schools of thought, and approaches to change. Design your hackathon to be accessible from a host of different countries to bring new perspectives to your competition.

5. Accommodate for a virtual/hybrid future

Because of the flexibility that virtual events offer, hackathons may never be offered exclusively in-person again. Virtual hackathons accommodate a longer timeline and global talent pool, while still connecting corporations with skilled developers. The need for physical space to make a hackathon successful has dissolved.

If you desire to create a live coding experience for your hackathon attendees, plan to host a hybrid-model event. But keep in mind, in-person and virtual attendee experiences should be as similar as possible or you risk losing engagement and participant retention.

The best hackathons foster innovation by creating a community of like-minded developers who are passionate about the challenge at hand. For your next event, consider how you will reach beyond the traditional idea of a hackathon to welcome collaboration and produce disruptive results.

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