What is a Hackathon and How Does It Work? Complete Guide

Allowing experts to work together in a fun yet competitive environment is the key to developing top-notch solutions.  

Over the past 20 years, hundreds of organizations have been using hackathons to improve their bottom line. With the power of competition and a limited timeframe pushing them forward, young (and not-so-young) specialists have been coming up with high-quality solutions that drove innovations and kickstarted careers.

What is a hackathon, anyway? Let's take a closer look.

What is a hackathon?

A hackathon is an event that brings together experts and creates a collaborative environment for solving a certain problem. While the majority of hackathons revolve around computer programming and IT, many other industries follow suit. Today, it's possible to find HR hackathons, economics hackathons, music hackathons, and the like.

The word hackathon is a combination of "hack" and "marathon." So, essentially it's a marathon for hackers.  But, in this case, hackers are exploratory computer programmers.

The first hackathon dates back to June 1999 when OpenBSD brought together ten software developers who worked on cryptographic software.

Modern hackathons appeal to sponsors, partners, and recruiters. Besides working on a solution, hackathon participants join workshops, make presentations, interact with sponsors, communicate with recruiters, and much more.

Let's define hackathon in simple terms.

Hackathon definition

A hackathon is an event set up by a company or an organization that wants to get a high-quality solution through collaboration between experts. Hackathon format is often competitive.

For example, an organization wants to design a brand new operating system. It hosts a hackathon that brings together 10 startups or teams of developers.  Each team provides a solution. The jury chooses the best product and hands out a prize.  After the event, the organization may choose to sign a contract with the winning team. 

It's not just the winner, who gets a shot at landing a contract. Many tech companies monitor hackathon activities and buy products or choose new team members on the spot.

Why are hackathons so popular?

The success of the hackathon format stems from creative freedom. Instead of using a specific methodology or following company rules, tech experts are free from typical development constraints.

While there is a time limit, hackathon organizers usually don't impose a strict framework. Such an environment is highly productive.  

In addition to problem-solving, hackathon participants get an opportunity to learn, share their ideas, do effective networking, and enjoy a relaxing and welcoming atmosphere. Meanwhile, organizers gain access to top talent and a chance to find an innovative solution to their problems.

How do hackathons work?

How does a hackathon work? Hackathons are usually theme-based. An organizer chooses a theme that aligns with its business goals and appeals to the right teams, sponsors, and partners. After that, they:

  • Set up judging criteria and pick a hackathon jury.
  • Decide on the prizes.
  • Pick the right venue (it's also possible to organize a virtual hackathon).
  • Arrange food and drinks if the hackathon event is offline.
  • Set up equipment for offline events and arrange the necessary software (like Slack, Zoom, Crowdcast, etc.) or a platform for the online version.

To bring as many participants to the hackathon as possible, the organizing party can market the upcoming event with press releases, social media posts, email campaigns, and paid ads. The host can also contact incubators, accelerators as well as teaching and administrative staff at universities.   

For participants, both online and offline hackathon structure is usually straightforward. Even when newcomers don't have a clear idea of what happens at a hackathon, they get used to the format quickly.

In short, hackathons work by bringing talent together to work on a mutual problem. The organizer arranges a helpful, relaxing, and productive environment for effective collaboration and competition. Meanwhile, participants take advantage of the format to find solutions, learn, network, and discover better career opportunities.

What do you do at a hackathon?

The main goal of a hackathon is to find an effective solution to a problem. Accordingly, developers, designers, engineers or whoever else participates in the event work toward discovering that solution.

Meanwhile, organizers and sponsors look for collaboration opportunities, attend to organizational aspects of the event, and do networking.

How long do hackathons last?

Hackathons usually last 24 to 72 hours. When teams declare their participation, they usually have a week to prepare. During this time, they decide which team member is responsible for what part of the project.

However, many hackathon participants are individual specialists. New teams form during the first hours of the event, so roles need to be set on the spot.

Types of hackathons

While the main elements of hackathons are similar, these events come in many shapes and sizes. The most common types of hackathons are:

Internal hackathons

An internal hackathon is a hackathon organized by the company for its employees. The goal of such a hackathon is brainstorming, team building, inspiring intrapreneurship, increasing employee engagement, and streamlining awareness.

A hackathon can help an organization understand its talent better while gaining an opportunity to scale. Employees enjoy the freedom of the creative environment and start thinking outside the box.

External hackathons

For an external hackathon, an organization works with both internal and external experts. These hackathons allow companies to find new talent, speed up product development, harvest new ideas, and much more.

External hackathons are usually bigger and more expensive than internal events. However, the outcomes tend to carry significant value.

Coding hackathons

Just like the very first OpenBSD hackathon, coding competitions involve coding experts getting together and creating working software during a set period of time. Such hackathons can last longer than the average 24 – 72 hours and result in one or several finished products.

Industry hackathons

Not all hackathons are arranged by IT companies. Organizations across many industries run different types of hackathons. The most popular examples of industry-specific hackathons are Music Hack Day and Science Hack Day.  

Offline, online, and hybrid hackathons

Hackathons can be arranged in three formats:

Offline hackathon 

An offline hackathon is the traditional format. The event takes place in a venue where all participants interact with each other and organizers personally. 

Online hackathons 

An online (or virtual) hackathon is an excellent way to work with talented experts around the globe. The entire event is arranged online. It can be done through a special platform or by using different collaboration and communication tools like Asana, Slack, Zoom, Skype, etc.

Internal online hackathons are great for companies that have remote employees in different cities, states, and countries. External online hackathons remove geographical and financial (e.g. travel cost) limitations.

Hybrid hackathons 

Hybrid hackathons are a combination of online and offline events. Participants can choose the most suitable way to join this type of hackathon. If they don't have an opportunity to participate in the event physically, they can do it online.

Hybrid hackathons cater to larger audiences, allowing organizations to leverage the benefits of both virtual and in-person events.

Learn how to optimize your hackathon outcome.

Common hackathon structure 

The typical hackathon structure includes:

  • Introductions (meet-and-greet).
  • Overview of the event (organizers explain hackathon rules and regulations and expectations).
  • Project pitches (participants can pitch ideas and form teams).
  • Hacking (collaboration on the project in a team format).
  • Presenting a finished product or unfinished work (this happens more often due to time constraints).
  • The jury decides who the winners are and hands out prizes.

At the end of the event, the organizer usually arranges a closing program that helps participants find networking opportunities and relax after a long and productive event.

Once the hackathon is over, the company follows up with participants, asking for feedback. This information can be valuable for arranging hackathons in the future. Following up also allows organizers and participants to keep in touch for further collaboration opportunities.

Common Hackathon rules and regulations

To ensure a productive environment, each company designs its own set of hackathon rules and regulations that include the code of conduct. The most common points they touch upon include:

  • The number of team members.
  • A welcoming environment for all minorities.
  • The good spirit of the competition.
  • Tools that teams can use.
  • Time limits.
  • The ability to resubmit projects to other hackathons and using previous work on the current hackathon.
  • Reporting procedures for violating the code of conduct.

It's also highly important to develop clear judging criteria. Some criteria can be:

  • Business value — does the solution have the potential to earn money?
  • Impact — can the solution make an impact on the industry, drive innovation, streamline development, etc.?
  • Realistic — how realistic is the product? Will it be easy to execute?
  • Design — is the product user-friendly and easy to understand?
  • Completion — did the team present a completed project, or is it unfinished?

An example would look like this:

"The project will be judged based on the following criteria:

  • Business value — 20%
  • Design — 30%
  • Impact — 30%
  • Completion — 20%"

Clear judging criteria make it easy for participants and the panel of judges to keep the focus on the right elements of the project.

Hackathon benefits for companies and participants

The rising popularity of hackathons is caused by an impressive variety of benefits for both organizers and participants.

For companies:

  • Healthy collaborative approach — breakthroughs are rarely made by a single mind. They are a team effort. By arranging hackathons, companies inspire a collaborative approach, allowing employees and external talent to come up with something truly useful.
  • Diversification — an external hackfest (kw from Clearscope) (especially when conducted online) creates a highly diverse pool of participants, bringing brand-new opinions into the picture. In many cases, cultural and demographic diversity is the key to generating innovative ideas.
  • New products — new product development is always complex and costly for companies. Hackathons inspire experts to source new technologies and create innovative products within a short period of time.
  • Recruitment opportunities — during a hackathon, companies can watch young talent at work and find new members for their teams.
  • Branding — hackathons are a brand awareness opportunity for hosts. These events often create a lot of buzz, keeping the brand on top of the target audience's minds.

For participants:

  • Opportunity to learn something new — working with other experts on the same software projects turns a hackathon into a significant learning experience.
  • Career opportunities — since many companies and sponsors attend hackathons, participants can land a new contract. For internal hackathons, excellent performance can push a participant up the career ladder. For new coders, participating in a hackathon can be a great career opportunity. High school and college students get a chance to start their careers early.
  • Challenge — a hackathon can bring specialists out of their comfort zone and push them to meet people and make new professional discoveries. Collaborating under pressure can help participants examine their abilities from a new angle.
  • Breakthroughs — while not all hackathons result in real breakthroughs, they create an excellent environment for them. Each new hackathon gives participants a chance to become part of something special.

Besides being highly beneficial for companies and participants, hackathons are fun and fulfilling. They are an excellent way for experts and managers to spend time together and work toward a common goal in a brand-new environment.  

4 Hackathon examples

Companies of all sizes take advantage of hackathons to reap a variety of benefits. Here are a few popular examples:

1. Facebook -  Internal Hackathon

The social media giant arranged internal hackathons regularly. Since the company launched, it hosted 50 hackathons that have become a part of the company culture. The benefits for the company include improved team collaboration and innovative solutions.

2. Music Hack Day – Industry Hackathon

Music Hack Day is a hackathon that inspires solutions for the music industry. The very first event attracted 200 developers who had only one day to create new web apps using the APIs of participating companies. Today, these hackathons take place all over the world.

3. HackMIT – External Hackathon

This leading MIT hackathon is aimed at providing team building, collaboration, and career opportunities for college students worldwide. Many renowned companies check out HackMIT when hunting for new talent

4. TechCrunch Disrupt – Online Coding Hackathon

This 3 day event is arranged online to give coders an opportunity to showcase their skills. TechCrunch's codefest is an excellent option for coders of all skill levels to make new connections, try working under pressure, and discover new career opportunities.

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What is a Hackathon? Final points

Hackathons are highly popular across many industries. They drive innovations, generate ideas, create networking opportunities, and open new horizons. These events come with many benefits for all participating parties, including sponsors, partners, and hosts.

If you are looking for a way to improve internal team collaboration, drive innovation, develop new products, source new talent, and improve your company's bottom line, a successful hackathon can get the job done.