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6 tips for running a remote hackathon

January 14, 2021
Linzi Nield
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Running a hackathon, or internal hackweek, can be a highly effective way to enhance the products that you build. Just think about it — your employees are flexing their engineering muscles to improve your products in unconventional ways, all while you engage your team and break down internal barriers in the process. It’s about as win-win as it gets.

Remote hackathons in particular have the power to shake up your business for the better. While it may seem daunting, running a remote hackathon not only draws fresh perspectives from your distributed teams, but can also break up the monotony of stay-at-home guidelines and build camaraderie in a time when isolation reigns supreme. 

We at Terminal have run remote hackathons for these exact reasons. But don’t take our word for it. Adopting this strategy for your own business is much simpler than it seems at first glance. Here are six tips for running a remote hackathon of your own.

1. Choose a compelling, focused topic

Psychology experts and top entrepreneurs agree that creativity tends to flourish when you work within tighter constraints. That’s why a compelling, focused topic is a great place to start when planning a hackathon. It provides structure and gets the gears turning in the minds of your employees, and you’ll be sure to have higher engagement because of it. 

“Getting the scope right for your hackathon is crucial,” says Oscar Terrazas, Community Partnerships Manager at Terminal. “Balancing breadth and focus is your best bet for inspiring strong hackathon projects. And remember, ‘balance’ is the operative word here. You want to give teams a solid jumping-off point, but you don’t want to stifle their creativity either.” 

In our experience, successful companies will cycle between product-oriented hackathons and ‘bigger picture’ events that focus on projects outside of the company’s immediate scope. It keeps employees engaged and really pushes them to think big.

“Hackathons that focus on longer-term, important issues also drive recruitment,” Terrazas adds. “These types of events are a selling point to passionate candidates who can see that your company truly values making an impact.”

2. Invite external help

No hackathon is an island. The most successful hackathons tend to be true community-building events that go beyond a single company or panel of judges, drawing in diverse perspectives along the way. Accordingly, we recommend a little help from your friends.

“I always urge companies to invite external people as coaches, mentors, or judges,” says Karine Roy, Head of Learning & Development at Terminal. “They enrich projects and help participants think outside the box. You can look for thought leaders in the tech and innovation ecosystem, ask suppliers or clients, or bring on a board member as a judge.” 

Involving people from outside your company has the added benefit of expanding your reach when it’s time to write blog posts about your experiences. Why rely on your own networks when you can have your partners promote your learnings alongside you?

3. Be intentional about communication

Remote hackathons, like all remote projects, require very clear communication among everyone involved. To ensure your hackathon goes smoothly, it’s best to set up a robust communication framework beforehand so that you can liaise seamlessly with participants, and participants can do the same with each other. 

We always recommend a kickoff meeting on Zoom that focuses on a simple set of guidelines for communicating with each other. These guidelines should be tailored to employees who are new to the hackathon experience — remember, marketing, sales, and customer success teams should participate in hackathons too! — and even experienced participants will find value in these kinds of best practices.

“The best hackathons, in my experience, use clever tactics to get people to connect with each other,” Roy says. “Icebreakers, discussion forums, and kickoff meetings, always seem to set things off in the right direction. When relationships form, teams and ideas follow.”

“And of course, you should always clearly outline the hackathon’s rules,” Roy adds. “When it comes to judging criteria and other regulations, my mantra is: ‘Answer every question before they’re even asked.’”

4. Keep up the energy

Remote hackathons can be just as exciting as their in-person counterparts, but they do require some extra planning to translate the energy of more conventional events. Being intentional about how you set up your hackathon will help keep up the energy.

“I always recruit a past champion or two to cheer on the crowd — if they’re not participating themselves, of course,” says Roy. “I also always have pre-recorded interviews with several key industry leaders who talk about the early challenges of building their own products. These kinds of stories build excitement whether people are in the same room or fully remote.”

Hackathons are also famous for being late-night affairs, so embracing the fact can help build excitement as well. 

“I love using Discord in a geeky way,” says Terrazas. “I usually have a channel with a live DJ playing music late into the night. It reinforces the feeling that everyone is staying up late together, which builds camaraderie among all participants.”

5. Get the logistics right

Logistics can make or break a remote hackathon. That’s why it’s vital to preach industry best practices for remote work to ensure a smooth hackathon for everyone. Things like asynchronous communication, clear expectation setting, and delegation are pillars for all remote work, and hackathons are no exception.

“You’ll absolutely need to encourage async communication and project management tools in addition to source code repositories,” Roy says. “Slack, MS teams, Basecamp, Asana, Trello, and Github are all must-haves. I always push teams to set expectations, roles, and ground rules early on and emphasize how important they are in turning out successful projects.”

Solid logistical planning also helps teams use differences in time zones to their advantage. With the right level of delegating and asynchronous communication, teams can work around the clock even more than they already would.

Terrazas agrees: “My best hackathon experiences always include Discord since it allows you to assign roles, and the rooms can be set up for video conferencing around the clock, making it very easy for everyone to interact in a meaningful way.”

6. Have fun

Running a hackathon will be stressful at times, but it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, it’s about having fun.

“Hackathons are a way for smart, driven people to feel their brains at work,” Terrazas says. “For passionate people, there’s nothing more satisfying than getting into that headspace. You feel like you’re making real change for the company because, well, you are. Being in the zone — it’s just fun.”

Simple things like adopting a relaxed, playful tone when communicating with teams will go a long way in setting the mood for the event overall. Storytelling, too, can put people more at ease and establish a collaborative environment.

“When a person hears a story, the brain releases oxytocin, a chemical that promotes prosocial, empathetic behavior,” Roy explains. “Your brain automatically finds similarities between the story and your own experiences. This makes building relationships much easier, and a result, the event overall becomes much more fun.”

Hackathons work

Whatever your motivation for running a hackathon, the bottom line is, hackathons work. A well-executed hackathon builds solidarity among your team and encourages motivated individuals to turn potentially product-transforming ideas into something real.

So as you build out your roadmap, remember that by adding a remote hackathon to your calendar, you may be finding your business’ next great idea in the process. After all, product development is all about finding new ways to realize your mission and vision, so why not give your team free rein to do so?

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