Hackathon – Sara’s Rules of Thumb

Hackathons are short day or days-long events in which hackers prototype a technical solution to a business problem and then pitch and demo that solution to an audience. I’ve been a coach and organizer for three Hackathons and I’ve learned a few rules of thumb that make Hackathons more fun and valuable for the participants.


1) Make the device + sensors combination awesome

The target audience for the Hackathons we run are hardware hackers as well as IoT hackers, and if you get the right device – say the newest release of Arduino plus an a la carte selection of 50 sensors – their eyes light up and the creative juices start flowing. Pick the wrong device and you get to hang out with them on the couch wondering how to help them figure out what to do.

2) Code shoulder-to-shoulder with the hackers

Don’t show up and put your feet up on the table and say, “well I’m here so I’ve done my job!” No, get down and get dirty in the code, help out with code snippets and make things *work*. They’re here to turn an idea into reality and the best outcome is if the help of the coaches is available to make everyone successful. Let the best idea be implemented the best way it can and whaddya know cool things will happen.

3) Pick the right judges

Judges hold the power of the purse over the heads of the hackers. Prize money goes where the judges deem it worthy to go. For that reason you want judges who represent a few different perspectives – a business guy, a software gal, a hardware person, an investor – so the hackers have the best chance to impress at least one of them with their demo. Judges can give value to hackers simply by offering plenty of feedback, so make sure to select for experience and expertise in their area.

4) Help them with their demo

Putting a solution together is only part of the challenge of participating in a Hackathon, the other part is presenting it in an exciting and professional way. While working with hackers on the technical implementation, don’t forget to ask them if they have a slide or two on their project that explains its business value. Ask if they have a business-oriented team member and if they don’t, find them one.

Hackathons are fun and sometimes extreme events with coding going all through the day into the night and the morning. The experience alone makes it worth participating in one and who knows, you might be surprised at what you can put together!