John Lunn has participated in hundreds of hackathons in his time and is also the global director of BattleHack, one of the biggest hacking events on the map. This makes him a pretty good authority on what works and what doesn’t. Earlier in the week, we asked John to share his expertise on what makes a great hackathon. Here are his top tips.
Hackathons should be run by techies, for techies (this means keeping PR to the sidelines)
“The people that come to hackathons are developers which means it should be organized by developers. PR and HR teams should not be running hackathons. The last thing a developer wants to do is go to a hackathon and have someone trying to recruit them or pitch software for 24 hours.
“You’ve got to remember that these guys are all giving up their weekends. They don’t want to sit through a PowerPoint presentation about some product or other. This is probably the biggest mistake that a lot of hack events make.”
Be upfront about ownership (avoid last-minute NDAs)
“When running a hackathon, you need to be clear about who owns what well in advance of the actual event. I’ve been to a few hackathons where you’re given an NDA or contract on the way in that pretty much says “anything you create during the hackathon belongs to the organisers”.
“This can make the participants feel like you’re just trying to get cheap R&D off them which will obviously leave a sour taste in their mouth. So make sure those terms and conditions are very, very clear before people turn up.”
Keep intro talks brief and interactive (No PowerPoint!)
“Most hackathons have an opening up ceremony where you kind of kick the event off. You should use this opportunity to show the hackers what you want them to do and the code you want them to play with. If you have partners coming on, get them to do live code demos on stage.
“At BattleHack, everyone who presents needs to come onstage with an API and demonstrate how to use it. We also keep each live demo short, at around five or six minutes. Remember: people didn’t give up their weekend to watch a boring lecture so keep the demonstrations brief and fresh.”
Choose a suitable hacking venue and keep superfluous flair to a minimum
“It’s good to make your hackathon stand out, but if you get carried away it can annoy people. You obviously don’t want to have speakers pumping out music for 24 hours or live DJs and bands. Basically, people don’t want to be distracted — they just want to get their heads down and begin coding.
“Also ensure that the venue and facilities are up to snuff. One of the first hackathons I went to was in an old building in London. It began raining and the water started coming through the roof onto the tables and the people hacking! So we were all sitting under umbrellas trying to hack while simultaneously trying to stop our laptops from getting wet. And then of course, the power went.”
Don’t skimp on food!
“Make sure you have enough food and that it’s good! In many cases, people are going to be awake for 24 hours writing code, so they need food for their brains and stomachs. Often you’ll go to a hackathon and the food is really quite bad. The traditional staple is cold pizza and warm beer, but is doesn’t have to be that way.
“Try to schedule at least two separate dinners. At BattleHack, we have a main evening meal and then another meal around midnight where we bring in even more food. We also have breakfast, lunch, afternoon snacks; you name it. We always try to choose local food supplies and serve traditional cuisine that represents the region.
“It’s also a good idea to have a snack bar set up so people can help themselves to food whenever they get hungry. Again, these people are giving up their weekends and would otherwise be at home eating well, so why should they be forced to eat crap at a hackathon?
“Also, we recently discovered that chocolate pizza goes down really well. The hackers wen’t completely wild for it!”
Also don’t skimp on caffeine!
“Make sure you stock up on plenty of coffee, Red Bull, Coke and other caffeine drinks. The last thing you want to do is run out of coffee beans in the middle of the night. That makes for very grumpy hackers! You should also bring in beer and wine for hackers who want to drink alcohol.”
Raise the stakes with decent prizes
“Some hackathons are set up for the love of the experience, but we’ve deliberately set up BattleHack to be like the football World Cup of hackathons. We make it particularly competitive as what we’re looking for is the world’s best hack teams. For example, the winner at Sydney will be flown to California for the grand final where they’ll compete against 14 other cities from around the world.
“So we definitely go out of our way to make it competitive and give away great prizes such as PlayStation 4 consoles and $100,000 in cash at the World Finals. If your budget is more modest, you can get partners to offer prizes to encourage people to use their APIs. After all, they can’t expect people to use their API just because it’s there – a prize gives hackers an added incentive.”
Limited tickets are still available for BattleHack Sydney which runs between July 26 and July 27. Click here for more information.