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Online-Hackathons – finding initial solutions together in the shortest time

Start an online hackathon for your company’s future problems: you’ll not only quickly get creative ideas and solutions, you’ll also get to know some brilliant minds. You wonder how you do it and what you need to do it? Keep reading; below you’ll find a schematic online hackathon guide.

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The #WirVsVirus online hackathon in the summer of 2020 was an impressive demonstration of the veracity of the quote: “Knowledge is the only resource that increases when it is shared”.  In just 48 hours, around 28,000 participants produced more than 1,500 solutions to various problems (challenges) surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Although this hackathon was civic in nature, your business will also see corporate benefits from this online event format. Start an online hackathon for your company’s future problems: you’ll not only quickly get creative ideas and solutions, you’ll also get to know some brilliant minds. You wonder how you do it and what you need to do it? Keep reading; below you’ll find a schematic online hackathon guide.

Knowledge is the only resource that increases when it is shared.

What are online hackathons?

Following the understanding that ideas and knowledge grow and flourish particularly well when they are shared together, online hackathons can be described using three features:

  • The first is characterized by the chosen media form: the need to actually be physically present is deliberately avoided as meetings occur online using the tools of your choice. More on this in a moment. Invite the world to you. It’s very unlikely you’ll find a larger group of interested – and capable – people in another way. Perfect for the current situation with COVID-19.
  • Second, online hackathons are group events. Developers and programmers take part, just like everyone else involved in developing software. You could even be inclined to say that the more diverse the participants, the better for the success of the online hackathon and the more comprehensive the results.
  • Thirdly: in contrast to traditional software projects, the objectives are deliberately left open. Finding and collaborating on initial solutions for software and hardware projects is the priority. This means that there aren’t any specifications and there is no brief. You also avoid standard technologies and are instead inspired by newer and less-well-known technologies. At a hackathon, everything depends on the participants’ inpu

This short description alone makes it clear what makes up an online hackathon and what the objectives for each are. In one sentence: bring together a diverse array of people in good faith and on a voluntary basis; set an objective, a challenge, a specific topic and a timeframe. Well, by and large that’s true. But there are still lots of questions of detail.

What the heck… Hackathon?

The portmanteau “hackathon” is a combination of “hack, to hack” and the third syllable of the word “marathon”. What do the two parts mean? “To hack” means to find a creative solution to a problem, usually a technical problem. “Thon” means: collaborating to come to that solution within a short timespan (24 or 48 hours), and usually outside of normal working hours (in the evenings or on a weekend).

If you’ve decided to hold an online hackathon, the first questions you should ask are about the groups of people involved. The following rough, initial subdivision makes sense. You need experts from the following fields for your hackathon:

  • Participants: the source of all the ideas and hacks – this group is comprised of users of the software, usability experts and designers, not just programmers and developers.
  • Jury: however short an online hackathon may be, the results need to be assessed at the end of the day. This requires people with expertise. Assembly a jury capable of assessing the results. It is worth using people you know outside the company if they are available. Of course, the jury is an optional component. It isn’t absolutely necessary.
  • Legal: involve your legal department early on. There will be legal questions regarding the results yielded. Especially if participants from outside the company write code. “Intellectual property” is the keyword here. It is an issue of copyright and reusing the code created. It is necessary to set clear conditions.
  • Organizers: put together a team to take care of all the administrative processes during the hackathon
  • Challenge owner: this group presents the problems. It is not uncommon to work on multiple, related challenges during an online hackathon.
  • Mentors: this group supports the participants throughout the hackathon. You can’t look over someone’s shoulder or offer a quick helping hand during an online hackathon. As a result, the mentors deal with any problems that may arise remotely, e.g. using the video conferencing tools, the chat solutions and the code management tools. Mentors maintain the “flow” of a remote hackathon and are always there when participants get stuck on something or hit a snag somewhere.

How do I get the right participants in advance?

Whatever you want to achieve with a hackathon, whether that’s MVPs (minimum viable products), Solutions around customer portals or other – plan your online hackathon along the distinction between internal and external. This way, you’ll ensure you can better reach your target groups. For cross-company online hackathons, fall back on the platforms of your choice. Depending on the type of the challenges in the remote hackathon, find a location where you’ll also find fans of the subject at hand. An example of a big, well-known portal on the subject of “online hackathons” would be devpost.com.  Of course, social networks (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) are also particularly helpful. Simply search and post with the appropriate hashtag (e.g. #hackathon). You should also find – and gain – multipliers: universities and other networks are a good place to start. The benefits of these multipliers are in the thematic demarcations of the respective networks and the option of reaching lots of interested people with just one post. Seize this opportunity. The number of participants can vary as required: from two to 1,000, and even more are possible.

As many paths lead to the same destination and you may prefer working “in secrecy”, you should start out with a purely internal hackathon. You’ll know the best channels of communication for announcing this idea. If you don’t, simply ask your corporate communications team. This team will provide you with the best channels – from the good old intranet to internal chat solutions and the like.

Are we reinventing the wheel with online hackathons?

In short, no: it is absolutely not the case that this form of event is completely new. Quite the opposite. Resourceful programmers and organizers had an early sense of the power of group dynamic processes within hackathons.

Old wine in new wineskins, the origin of the hackathon

The word “hackathon” was first mentioned in the late nineties: the first was in June 1999 in the OpenBSD environment (IPv6 and IPSEC stacks integration on the OS side) and then again about a week later in the context of Sun Microsystems (infrared interface for the Palm V [DE]) during the JavaOne conference. Positively surprised by the results of a developer conference with a high element of practicality, albeit still bound to physical presence, the hackathon became a permanent institution for the following years.

Elements of an online hackathon process

Hackathons have enjoyed growing popularity in recent times. Although the specific process of a hackathon changes depending on the thematic focus and challenges, recurring elements can still be identified:

  • Define challenges and target groups: no matter what the challenges of an online hackathon, the central point of a hackathon is to formulate the problem as clearly as possible. This prevents any misunderstandings. If available, this means possible target and participant groups can be narrowed down. Of course, this means the challenges can also be formulated in a way that is very open. It all depends on the objectives of the hackathon.
  • Outline of the hackathon – length, securing the results, price: as mentioned above, the duration of the hackathon is among the decisive factors for profitable results. 24 to 48 hours have proven to be popular lengths; others are possible. Furthermore, you should also communicate regarding securing results and agree on the selected tools (see tools needed). The same goes for the prizes on offer.
  • Determine tools needed: communication and the joint management of the challenges are essential during an online hackathon. Well-known tools for facilitating that include Slack, Zoom, Teams, Discord, Trello, etc. Collaboration tools like this vary in terms of functionality. It’s important to choose the right one. Two important points in this context: checking the selected tool is GDPR-compliant and finding out how many participants the tool can support (handle). The management of the source code generated during the hackathon is another central tool. There are version control systems – from distributed (e.g. Git) to centralized (e.g. svn).
  • Enjoy and support elements: provide variety during the hackathon and suitable support through mentors in the event of technical difficulties. Give the participants a surprise, e.g. by remotely ordering them a pizza – for free and straight to their door. Remotely transmitted performances by artists or expert lectures are also possible. There are no limits to your imagination.
  • Invitations, tickets, FAQs: before the initial invitations for the online hackathon go out, a central project website and an FAQ website need to be created. Put a summary of all the central information about the hackathon on the project website: who, when, where, using which online tools, end time, price, contact partners, etc. Answer as many of the key questions as possible on the FAQ site. This will save you time. It means your team will no longer have to individually answer questions – nothing should slow down the hackathon process. The initial invitations can be sent out after this. What is important at this point: you should send out a combination of the invitation email with a ticket system, whereby the ticket system manages the registrations in the provided categories. Expand the above-named categories to include users, newbies, graphics and design and other sensible divisions so that participants can also register for the hackathon according to their skills.
  • Introduction & kick-off: like almost every other event, remote hackathons start with opening and welcoming addresses by the organizer. These will introduce and explain the important parts of the event – the topic, purpose, procedure and conditions.
  • Pitch and team building: after the opening, there’s a time slot for the participants to exchange ideas. The participants come together in teams with initial approaches to solutions to tackle the challenges of the hackathon in an idea and project-based way.
  • Pitch training: offer the participating teams the opportunity to prepare a presentation of the results they have come up with. As time is tight at the end, most teams have issues presenting their results within two, three or six minutes.
  • Start of the hackathon: this is when things heat up – and when the actual work starts. Don’t forget: having fun is paramount. Depending on how the event is organized in terms of time, the participants now have between 24 and 48 hours to come up with results. It’s vital that the group of mentors is available to solve suddenly-occurring problems at any time. At the end of this stage of the hackathon, the groups come up with presentations to present their solutions to the jury.
  • Finale: this is when the top teams present their results. Even if the hackathon doesn’t have a prize, there should be a communal finale. This enhances the sense of camaraderie. You shouldn’t underestimate this opportunity to come into closer contact with teams that have attracted positive attention.
  • After the hackathon is like before the hackathon: the stage after the end of the event can certainly be put to good use by compiling a recap email about the event – summarizing the individual teams’ presentations of their results, including videos if available. The links from the email point to a lovingly-designed recap landing page for the hackathon. This allows you to acknowledge the event in an appropriate way. In this follow-up phase, it’s useful to provide a precise overview of the results; with experts from the specialist departments in question. Promising approaches and ideas, brilliant teams and minds can be viewed quickly.

Of course, you should also use the available time to draw your own lessons from the hackathon. Ideally, you should also have discussions with the participating teams – the jury, mentors, legal department, challenge owner, etc. – about what was suboptimal and what went particularly well. Once recorded, this will help you for your next remote hackathon.

Examples and hackathon ideas

The consistently positive results of online hackathons are convincing. If you’re just coming across the idea for the first time and you find this online hackathon guide useful, don’t delay. Events like this provide companies with a foundation for comprehensive ideas and the opportunity to get in touch with potential creative minds. If you’re on the lookout for a suitable development tool with which to enhance a planned hackathon with communication to third-party systems via interfaces, give EASY ApiOmat a try.

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