What is a hackathon?

A hackathon, also known as a codefest, is a social coding event that brings computer programmers and other interested people together to improve upon or build a new software program.

The word hackathon is a portmanteau of the words hacker, which means clever programmer, and marathon, an event marked by endurance. The concept of the hackathon, also called a hack day or hack fest, was born out of the open source community. The first event labeled a hackathon was the OpenBSD Hackathon in Calgary, Canada, on June 4, 1999.

Today, engineering departments, especially those at web-based companies, adopt the practice to introduce intrapreneurship into the enterprise. Hackathons are sometimes undertaken to achieve a specific goal, but often they are a chance for businesses to pursue employee-driven, out-of-the-box ideas in a low-risk environment. Employees are given the freedom and support to collaborate with colleagues in other departments within a given timeframe, and without the pressure of having to produce a viable product.

Participants in modern hackathons not only concentrate on creating products and ideas, but also engage with sponsors, go to workshops, give presentations and speak with recruiters.

Types of hackathons

Teams of developers, innovators, data scientists and software engineers are generally assembled during a hackathon to build product prototypes in a short amount of time. However, the goals and themes of hackathons might differ.

The following are the common types of hackathons:

Internal hackathons. Internal hackathons are organized by medium to large-sized companies with multiple offices and departments around the globe. These in-person hackathons bring different teams together so they can work toward a similar goal. Tech giants like Facebook and even appliance companies like Whirlpool conduct yearly hackathon events to promote product innovation and creativity among their employees.

External hackathons. These events engage a bigger and broader audience as organizations work with both internal and external participants. External hackathons are great for recruiting new talent, developing creative ideas and speeding up product development. ‍

Online hackathons. Online or virtual hackathons are an efficient resource for recruiting and collaborating with talented individuals around the world. This type of hackathon is conducted online using collaboration tools such as Zoom, Asana, Slack or Skype. Online hackathons can be both internal and external. Internal ones are best for businesses with geographically dispersed remote employees, while external hackathons are good for companies on limited budgets who want to market their brands on a broader scale.

Application-specific hackathons. These hackathons are organized as a platform for creating applications such as mobile apps, application programming interfaces (APIs), operating system variations, and web and video game upgrading and are branded as niche hackathons.

Industry-specific hackathons. While most hackathons are organized by IT companies, other industries may also participate in arranging hackathons. For example, Music Hack Day and Science Hack Day are examples of industry-specific hackathons.

Altruistic hackathons. These hackathons are geared toward charities and the nonprofit sector. Participants work to find solutions for problems such as public transport systems, education and disaster response.

Corporate hackathons. Corporate hackathons organized by companies such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft are developed to encourage employees to participate in new product development.

Language hackathons. Language or programming hackathons are dedicated to creating specific programming language or framework applications such as C++ or. NET.

Hackathons for specific demographics. Some hackathons are only open to a specific demographic group, such as students or women, while others are offered to coders with specific proficiency levels and experience. For example, major league hacking (MLH) is a student hackathon league that empowers the next generation of developers.

Photo of women coding at a hackathon.
Coders work at the Girl Develop It Hackentine's Day event.

General hackathon structure

For a hackathon to be successful, organizations must think about its agenda and structure beforehand.

A typical hackathon structure includes the following:

  • Introduction. Most hackathon events start with a brief introduction of the event and its underlying theme.
  • Rules overview. Following the introductions, the company organizing the hackathon explains the rules and regulations and codes of conduct to the participants.
  • Product pitches. The attendees pitch their core product concepts and form teams based on their hobbies, talents and special interests.
  • Collaboration on project ideas. Once the teams are established, the participants start collaborating and working on their projects.
  • Presentation of a finished or unfinished product. After the project ideas have come to life, the team members present their final, and occasionally unfinished, products to the other participants.
  • Judging and distribution of prizes. A panel of judges usually hands out prizes to the winning team or projects.
  • Networking opportunities. At the end of the hackathon, there is a closing program that allows participants to pursue networking opportunities and recruit talent.

How to organize a hackathon

Organizing a hackathon is a multi-step process that includes marketing the event, driving registrations and creating prototypes. Typically, it can take anywhere from 30 to 40 days to organize a successful hackathon.

The following steps are typically involved when organizing a hackathon:

  1. Establish the goals. Choosing the hackathon's goals and objectives is the first step in arranging one. The target audience should be considered while establishing the hackathon goals for a themed hackathon.
  2. Select the participants. The company setting up the hackathon should decide who to engage in the hackathon and how to engage them. Companies might choose an internal or external hackathon depending on the event's objectives.
  3. Look for a venue. Details of the venue -- whether free, paid or virtual -- should be planned out at this stage.
  4. Search for sponsors. The organizers should now look for sponsors, as they can help with funding the event. The use of tier-based sponsorship opportunities is a great approach to draw in a variety of vendors and sponsors.
  5. Set up the rules. Having a clear set of rules for the hackathon is another crucial step. The participants should be aware of the mission, the time allotted and the sources they can refer to when creating their products.
  6. Create a positive ambiance. It's also important that organizers create a positive and collaborative ambiance at the hackathon venue. The gatherings should encourage informal brainstorming ideas for new products, service and projects.
  7. Distribute prizes. At the end of a hackathon, a panel of judges usually hands out prizes to the winning team or projects.

Pros and cons of hackathons

  • Hackathons bring people with technical backgrounds together for problem-solving and developing new ideas. Hackathons can help participants hone their IT skills, meet people and work with others in their field. Corporate hackathons encourage employees to innovate, foster team building and provide opportunities to collaborate across departments.
  • New and innovative products that would otherwise be costly and complex can be created within a short period during hackathons.
  • Since the work and abilities of the participants can be seen during these events, hackathons are a great way to identify mentors and hire fresh talent.
  • Hackathons can potentially create more stress for employees. The ideas typically generated through a hackathon can prove complicated as well, because there is often no formal way to sift through or evaluate them.
  • Hackathons also involve time, cost and other resources to produce, with no guaranteed return on investment.

Famous products and apps born at hackathons

Hackathons are an excellent medium to generate ideas for new tech products and services. In fact, many popular startups and products were born during hackathon events, some of which include the following:

Facebook features. Many of Facebook's popular features were developed during hackathon projects. The social media company's like button, Facebook Chat, video and even Timeline were all conceived at hackathons.

GroupMe. Another noteworthy example of a hackathon success is GroupMe, a group messaging app first conceived at the TechCrunch Disrupt 2010 hackathon. Shortly after its development, GroupMe was acquired by Skype for more than $40 million.

Twitter. Twitter, the world-famous microblogging and social networking service is also a byproduct of a hackathon. It was born during the Odeo hackathon, when the owners of a podcasting business were looking to generate new business ideas. The hackathon gave birth to an idea for a fun online microblogging service that would let people see what their friends were doing through a short and simple "tweet."

Zapier. This startup emerged during a hackathon. The company offers automation tools that improve workflows by integrating with other apps. Zapier founders shared a passion for creating web apps and presented their demo app in a hackathon, which won the competition and Zapier was born.

Talkdesk. This cloud-based call center has transformed the call center industry. The idea for this company was born out of a Twilio hackathon in 2011. The company provides a call center tool that helps businesses improve customer satisfaction.

A successful hackathon event is promoted and organized well ahead of time. Here are some tips and ideas on how to organize an effective hackathon.

This was last updated in March 2023

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