How to organize a successful corporate hackathon

On 15, Jan 2021 with:

By Isaack Shayo, Senior Program Associate.

So you’re thinking about organizing a corporate hackathon. You work for a corporation and have heard the hackathon is the perfect opportunity to come up with new products and rejuvenate your company’s business. Perhaps you don’t work for a corporation; you are organizing the hackathon on behalf of a corporate partner. 


Whatever the case, corporate hackathons are becoming increasingly popular (eg. Vodacom’s Instant Schools hackathon, 2019; Mastercard API hackathon, 2019; Airtel mobile money hackathon, 2017; Ecobank fintech challenge, 2017.) And for good reason. In a short time, they promise to create a lot of value: new innovative ideas, developer engagement, creating community, corporate branding, IP development, a path to recruitment, and the list goes on. 


But what about all the hackathons you’ve heard about (or even participated in) that amounted to nothing? I have participated in many hackathons myself, judged, and even organized a few. And while they can bring a lot of value, you need to organize them well and get many things right. 


You need to have the right stakeholders participating (the corporation, the hackers, media, etc), you need to have an enticing prize, your challenge needs to be inspiring but realistic, and you need to have appropriate goals for the challenge. But I have attended hackathons that got some of the above right and sometimes all the above right. But without a robust process, the hackathon would not achieve its goals  Especially for the corporation.


And it makes sense if you think about it. Running a hackathon is a management problem. Everything else falls into place in obedience to your process. No matter how hard you try, you can’t make your participants more creative or innovative. But you can design a process that allows them to achieve these things.


So here are some key elements in the process you need to keep in mind when organizing a corporate hackathon.


Onboarding the corporation

Well it’s not a corporate hackathon if you don't have a corporate, is it? You need to have a smooth process to get the corporation to understand and buy into what you want to do. And I’ve found that more than anything, you need to allocate yourself enough time. Adequate time is important because corporations have long internal approval processes. So even if you have someone championing you within the corporation it will still take time to get everyone within the company to understand and approve all the items needed for the hackathon to happen.


Coming up with the challenges

Corporates have a lot of interesting challenges that your participants could work on. They also have a deep understanding of their customers, pain points, and even case studies to put things in context for your participants. But for one reason or another, you might find it extremely difficult to bring these challenges to the hackathon in a meaningful way. There are many reasons for this and it’s good to be aware of them so you know how to handle the situation. The corporation might not be willing to expose its real challenges due to competition. Your process needs to address this either by modifying the challenges or finding new ones. Another reason you may find it hard to narrow down a challenge is that some corporates are likely not that experienced with hackathons. And so your process needs to allow them to work with you and use your experience as they figure out the challenges.


Problem-solving process

This will determine whether your hackathon delivers any useful outputs. The right process will allow the participants to be creative and come up with solutions that are valuable to the corporation. Here are the key items to consider: 


1) You need to give the teams enough time to do the “hack” (i.e. challenge). The number of days will depend on the type of challenge you have and the nature of your participants (eg. if they are students or professional developers. If you’re not sure, set aside 2 days. It's enough time for the participants to understand the problem and build a prototype. But it's also not so long that they get tired.

2) You need to support your participants without excessively interrupting them. 

3) If you’re running a tech-focused hackathon, it’s vital that people write actual code. As Linus Torvalds put it, “Talk is cheap. Show me the code.” 

4) You need to have audience feedback sessions where your participants go out and talk to potential customers about what they are building. This will keep them grounded. 

5) And my last advice would be to align the judging with the work done during the hackathon. This is so as to manage the expectations of the participants and corporates. Clearly outline what is important for the hackathon at the beginning and how the winner will be chosen. 


Outside hackathons, where else do you think the process has such leverage? I believe this is the case for most innovative initiatives. More than people or resources. Ignoring the process may seem to work for a short while. But it will eventually prove to be detrimental to your work.

The good thing is that a lot of thought has gone into establishing methodologies for processes, especially in the tech field. So you can use these frameworks or draw inspiration from their principles to increase the positive outcomes from your work. Some are Lean Startup by Eric Ries, Human-Centered Design by, and Customer Development by Steve Blank.


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