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Talent Assessment | 10 min Read

The Ultimate Guide to Hackathons

What is a Hackathon?

A hackathon is an event where people from different backgrounds, such as coders, analysts, designers, business strategists, etc.come together to solve various predefined challenges within a specified time frame to create a working solution or prototype of a product/service/business model.

Closely following the Facebooks & Microsofts of the world, more and more tech companies are turning to hackathons, some to propel their brand, others to hire at speed.

With the world moving towards digital transformation, organizations are exploring new avenues for innovation and recruitment, and thus, online hackathons and ideathons have been gaining popularity in startups and universities. 

New technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, bots, etc. are hardly a part of the educational curriculum. Hackathons provide a much needed platform for people interested in these new-age technologies to demonstrate their talent and get a chance to work on them. 

While the common understanding of hackathon participants is limited to coders and analysts, a more unorthodox approach can bring together quantitative and qualitative minds, opening your hackathons and ideathons to problem-solvers in general and resulting in better engagement and creativity. 

Not only can hackathons promote participation from multiple disciplines, but they are also perfect for the ever-evolving world of tech and business. A great way to envision a futuristic brand, product, and team, hackathons expedite the innovation process from a couple of months to a couple of days and are a great way to build and cater to an enthusiastic community.

What are the Different Types of Hackathons?

What is an Online Hackathon?

Online hackathons are digital events that use the World Wide Web to engage participants across the globe, without any logistical barriers. Most organizations use a partner platform to conduct a virtual hackathon. Online platforms allow a certain degree of automation in the process, making it less burdensome for the organizers. 

Online hackathons give organizations the freedom to spend more on marketing and prizes as the event logistical costs are not very high. They also enjoy the prerogative to run for a longer duration and hence may result in better quality solutions.

What is an Offline Hackathon?

The offline or onsite hackathon invites participants to an actual physical venue where team members sit together through the entire span of the event to come up with solutions. Needless to say, onsite hackathons require the most amount of planning and logistics among all other modes of engagement. Right from booking a spacious place to arranging food for all participants, onsite hackathons need months of planning and spotless execution to create an atmosphere that encourages ideation and innovation.

What is a Hybrid Hackathon?

As the name suggests, hybrid hackathons are a mix of part offline and part online hackathons. Most organizations choose to conduct the first few stages in the online mode, and then the final presentations of the product prototype are onsite at a chosen venue. 

While both offline and online hackathons have their pros and cons, a hybrid hackathon allows organizations to achieve their objectives through the right mode, with the right intensity.

Usually of longer duration than both offline and online hackathons, hybrid hackathons are less capital intensive than onsite hackathons as only a few chosen teams are hosted at the venue. They pack all the advantages of both kinds of hackathons and are a win-win for both the organizers and participants.

What is an Internal Hackathon?

Internal hackathons are aimed at employee engagement, teamwork, and promoting a culture of creativity and collaboration. A great way to identify existing talent with entrepreneurial potential, hackathons help organizations see their employees in a new light. With no worries of data leakage, organizations can give complete creative freedom to their employees to aid the process of innovation. 

What are the Benefits of Internal Hackathons? 

Internal hackathons are a great way to give your employees some time off from their daily workload and get cracking on new ideas. Here are some of the benefits of conducting an internal hackathon for your employees:

One Person, Multiple Roles

Employees are often stuck in the monotony of their daily chores, hindering their full potential to create or learn something new. Hackathons can help your employees execute new learnings, find their innate interests and capabilities, and put them to use for the growth of the business. It’s a win-win! 

You might be surprised by the things your employees are capable of when given time, space, and creative energy. Also, hackathons are a great way to find someone with the entrepreneurial fire and nurture it for a strategy role. Hackathons can help you create new roles for existing employees or even identify training needs where applicable.

Future-Proof Your Business

Hackathons might result in some great ideas that can be immediately acted upon and some others which can be put in the future roadmap of the business to be revisited at an opportune moment. Events like these can help organizations share their future vision with their employees and work towards future-proofing the company, together, through the continued practice of innovation-led-hackathons.

Inclusive Team-Building

While hackathons are considered playgrounds for coders and developers, they often bring together technology and non-engineering teams for an inclusive and innovative team-building experience for a fruitful exchange of perspectives.

What are the Objectives of Internal Hackathons?

  • Paving the road to business innovation by crowdsourcing ideas from existing employees.
  • Employee engagement through vision sharing and collaboration.
  • Training needs identification through gauging interest.
  • Encouraging a platform for learning, development, and innovation.
  • Talent mobility through high potential recognition.

What are the Success Metrics of Internal Hackathons?

  • Rate of Participation – Participation and interest from existing employees.
  • Volume of ideas exchanged and learnings generated.
  • Conversion Rate – Actionable prototypes and business strategies born out of the hackathon.
  • Impact on the Team – A sense of shared vision and goals.

What is an External Hackathon?

External hackathons are a great platform to invite outside talent, interact with a community, and kickstart open innovation. Often external hackathons are a way to get media coverage, start a dialogue with tech communities, and carry out recruitment. While external hackathons do demand more planning, they also cast a wider web of dialogue and engagement with the outside world interested in innovation.

What are the Objectives & Advantages of External Hackathons?

The benefits and objectives often overlap when conducting an external hackathon:

New People, New Technologies

It is difficult to always keep a tab on changing technologies and even more difficult to adopt one. External hackathons serve as a playground for new people and new technologies to step in and innovate. Your organization and employees might be set in their ways, using the same technology, and while there’s nothing wrong with it, there’s always a new way to do the same thing, and hackathons can help you realize the same. 

At a time when new technologies like AI, ML, Blockchain, etc. are being used globally at every step toward digital transformation, hackathons can help you rope in these new technologies and the right people.

Corporate Branding

Create a media buzz by associating yourself with a hackathon and emerging as the voice of innovation. Make your brand known to a global audience by publicizing your brand by concocting an excellent theme for your hackathon. Whether your organization is looking for funding from potential VCs or hiring, hackathons can help you get noticed.

The More the Merrier 

Hackathons are a great way to get together with like-minded individuals and gallop through persistent business challenges through innovative and novel solutions. Hackathons can also be used by organizations to test their new products or business offerings on a diverse and creative group and get unbiased feedback and points for improvement. 

Recruitment

One of the most popular uses of external hackathons is to cut short the recruitment process that is usually spread over a couple of weeks to just a few days, and see the candidate in action. Hackathons provide an exceptional platform to assess a candidate on their technical skills, people skills, time management skills, etc. By giving organizations inroads into tech communities and innovators, hackathons help build a talent pipeline to engage with in the future.

What are the Success Metrics of External Hackathons?

  • Rate of Participation – Participation and interest from innovators and changemakers.
  • Volume of ideas exchanged, learnings generated, new technologies utilized, business opportunities created.
  • Conversion Rate – Actionable prototypes and potential startups/products born out of the hackathon.
  • Media Coverage
  • Participant feedback and impact on the community.

What Do You Need for a Successful Hackathon?

A successful hackathon, online or offline, is often a result of clear objectives, a well thought-out and challenging problem statement, supportive marketing campaigns, dedicated operational support, and an efficient platform.  

Primary Decisions 

It is essential for you to first decide the type and mode of your hackathon. They are important considerations and will feed into your primary decision-makers. Ideally, a hackathon is a break from the regular workday and should be planned keeping that in mind. It should be short, spanning between a day or two, if it is a continuous onsite event. While an online or hybrid mode of engagement can last up to 2 weeks or more, depending on the scale of the hackathon, ensure that you choose a weekend for the onsite events for maximum participation. The event is not just what happens on the D-day but everything that builds up to it. In the case of onsite events, choose a location that is central and easy to access.

Location agnostic events, i.e. a virtual hackathon, is easy to execute while onsite or mixed hackathons need several months of planning and booking for a successful and seamless execution. 

The budget of the hackathon will be determined by its type and mode, and will, in turn, determine the scale, duration, and prizes for the event. It is of utmost importance to ensure that the top management in your organization is on board for conducting a hackathon, and the objectives and success metrics are laid down in close discussion with them to ensure proper resource allocation.

Every hackathon is distinctive and your organization can bring its own uniqueness to the table with the kind of challenges they put forth, the number of rounds, the assessment method, and the prizes they give away – everything is a reflection of the brand you wish to portray and the objectives you wish to achieve through this hackathon.

Objectives 

Want to start a dialogue with potential employees, build an interactive tech community, find an innovative solution to your product, support a social cause, or create a culture of collaboration amongst your employees? Hackathons are the answer to all of these!

Hackathons can contribute to and enrich the innovation process, help identify new talent, and create a unique competitive advantage in a corporate setting. 

Hackathons can help you understand, establish and improve your position as an employer and as a brand in the market, better aligning you to your audience and the means to create traction among them.

Brand Positioning

Your organization might be using the latest and greatest technology and creating ground-breaking products/services, but if your brand is not known to the world for its innovation, it is time to make some buzz. And hackathons are the perfect way to do it!

While you can argue in support of a more traditional marketing campaign to increase your brand visibility, your marketing efforts should reflect the innovation your organization stands for. Hackathons are a great way to position yourself at the forefront of innovation while sharing your vision with the community.

A hackathon can contribute to building an employer brand for you to ease your recruiting efforts. It can help you carve a suitable identity for yourself and your product/service by putting it out for a broader community to use, also helping your company showcase values and any social causes they may support.

Many international universities, as well as organizations, host hackathons to encourage diversity, inclusivity, and women in tech. Larger organizations like Microsoft often host hackathons internally, across the globe, in association with NGOs to work on real-world problems. 

In the wake of Women’s Day, Amazon held a hackathon/ideathon called #WOW 2019, i.e. Women of the World 2019, to diversify their hiring event and hire women across technical and non-technical roles. They held a campus recruiting drive on Mettl’s hackathon platform, Xathon, to hire women from E-schools and B-schools of India.

Amazon also conducted an online hackathon, called the AWS Educate Challenge, co-organized by Mettl in 2018. Program members of AWS Educate India were encouraged to participate in solving real-world problems surrounding healthcare, environment, education, governance, etc. The objective of the hackathon was to increase knowledge around Amazon’s cloud computing, Alexa, and build AWS Educate as a brand. The winners were awarded Amazon credits and Amazon products like Echo, Kindle, etc. in addition to other partner prizes. 

Recruitment Tool

The hiring landscape is undergoing a wave of change due to digital transformation and the advent of technology. More and more companies are moving away from traditional hiring processes and trying out new tools and technologies to make hiring a pleasant experience for both the recruiter as well as the candidate. From sourcing to selecting, each stage in the recruitment process is witnessing the use of new-age technology.

While in-person job interviews are still a battle-tested way to screen tech talent, they come with a major shortcoming. They don't give companies a robust sneak-peek at how the person will perform in the role. Good news! Hackathons can come to the rescue and 11X your recruitment.

Jagoda Wieczorek
HR Manager, ResumeLab

With the focus shifting on using technology to increase efficiency, recruiters are increasingly turning to tech events, social media, and even virtual hackathons to source candidates and finding novel ways to increase interest from potential employees. 

A great way to make inroads into the tech community, building a brand name, and using it as a hiring tool, especially for campus hiring, hackathons are the new fad in tech recruitment. Based on the ideas of innovation, problem-solving, and prototyping, hackathons can create a business simulation to test candidates on their real skills. 

With numerous online hackathon platforms available in the market, many organizations are also conducting virtual hackathons as part of their campus engagement strategy without having to set foot in campuses. Virtual hackathons are an excellent way for companies to introduce themselves and for participants to showcase their skills. A hackathon is the single most effective way to source, screen, and select candidates. A form of gamifying hiring, hackathons make recruitment interactive and rewarding for candidates as well as recruiters. 

Product Innovation 

Your product will always need new perspectives and ideas to evolve, and a great way to put your product for testing and improvement is by crowdsourcing through hackathons.

Since the hackathon' s participants work on real projects, supervised by more experienced professionals, the chances are that the end product might be an actual, finished product ready to be recycled for the company's use. Just think of it, you're gathering a handful of talented folks, they will most likely use all their creative powers to come up with a solid product/ idea.

Pete Sosnowski
VP & Co-Founder, Zety

Automation and digital transformation are affecting businesses in all domains. Hackathons are not just for tech companies today; every industry is relying on technology, directly or indirectly. In today’s consumer-driven market, more and more companies want to use technology to understand customer psyche better to be able to track usability, personalize their experience, and build more products. Hackathons help your business innovate by bringing together the best of minds.

Hackathons are increasingly becoming a norm in the industry as they provide a playground for problem solvers to explore endless possibilities and deep dive for a fixed but continuous stretch of time. Usually a MVP (minimum viable product) takes months of planning and execution, but what makes a hackathon unique is its ability to result in a prototype or MVP in one-tenth of that time. There is hardly any other situation that nearly produces the same result as a hackathon. Hackathons don’t just guarantee innovation, they guarantee innovation at a speed, which is precisely what the tech culture intends to achieve. The agility of a hackathon as an event is exceptional. 

Problem Statement 

Hackathons are a reservoir of innovation and only a good problem statement can produce the desired result. Choosing a problem statement that a wider audience can relate to will ensure whole-hearted solutions, a better participation rate, and a deeper level of engagement. The problem statement is important for both the organizers as well as the participants. 

The problem statement needs to cover the current state of the situation at hand, the final impact, and where the gap lies. For this, define the theme – it could be a unique technology like blockchain, a well-defined business problem, or a trending topic in the industry. When deciding the theme of your hackathon, think of the future roadmap of your business, your most crucial business obstacle, and/or the trends you want to adopt in your business strategy.

JP Morgan, a multinational investment bank, organized a 36-hour hackathon called the Quant Challenge for undergraduate students of IIT where they wanted to find a solution to the daily problems, their quantitative research and data analytics teams were facing, by using machine learning and derivative modeling. They formulated the problem statement by emphasizing on their current state and laid out a detailed context with supporting data.

Marketing & Operations Support

Successful hackathons are often a meeting point of outstanding marketing efforts, remarkable operational efficiency, and execution. The planning is indispensable to its success. 

To make any event remarkable, one needs to build anticipation through marketing efforts. Hackathons are no different. Many organizations often encounter a challenge while attracting the right kind of participation for the hackathon, something that can be achieved through marketing campaigns. In fact, marketing just doesn’t help a hackathon get awareness and participation to start with, it also leaves a lasting impression of the event through followup email campaigns thanking participants who found success, asking for feedback, and subscription for the company’s event calendar.

Make sure to keep your marketing in the loop about all important aspects of the event, like who, what, how, where, when, and the prizes to be won. Most tech enthusiasts have one motive or another to participate in a hackathon, make sure you make it worth their while by focusing on advertising the rewards, which could be fame, a job, an internship, a fixed sum of money, goodies, networking, or anything else that your hackathon is promising its winners.

Choosing the right hackathon platform makes conducting a platform easier due to built-in features that support your marketing efforts like social sharing and email triggers. 

Operationally, if you are hosting an offline hackathon, you will need to arrange for a spacious venue and create an environment that encourages uninterrupted working. If your hackathon is spread over days, then an endless flow of food and resting areas for participants takes precedence. 

However, more and more organizations are leaning towards organizing virtual hackathons due to the flexibility they offer to both the organizers as well as participants. Virtual hackathons ease logistical costs, it becomes easier to increase the scale of the event, and participants can work from their comfort zones.

How Do You Organize a Hackathon?

Hackathons might seem like a long, endless list of things to do, but it can be broadly categorized into six easy steps – Ideating the hackathon, organizing the event, inviting participants, choosing judges, reviewing submissions, and declaring winners.

  • Hackathons start and end with ideation. Once you are clear about the objective of your hackathon, you can ideate around themes, challenges, stages, participants, judges, and everything else required for the hackathon. You might need to set up a committee or assign a dedicated person for the ideation and execution of a hackathon. 
  • Organizing a hackathon requires a flexible and agile platform that lets you conduct a hackathon effortlessly. When you choose a platform, ensure that it can help you create a personalized landing page. The landing page of your event is one of the most important aspects of the hackathon, as it is the first interacting page with participants and holds all important and key information about the event. This page needs to represent your brand as well as the hackathon. This one page needs to be the single go-to page for all things related to your hackathon.
  • Participants are the reason for your hackathon, so you want to ensure you have the maximum outreach. This is where you will need the help of your friends in marketing. Decide on how many participants you need to make it a successful event, and then think backward. Ensure that the hackathon platform you use easily lets you share your event on social media platforms for more traction. Choose a platform that makes it easier for participants to create teams, strategize, and collaborate in a single platform. The more difficult your hackathon platform is to interact with, the more chances that participants will drop out.
  • Choosing the right panel of judges can surely help in branding your hackathon better and attracting participants. Make sure the judges are celebrated names in the industry or come with their following for easy marketing. When you choose a hackathon platform, choose partners who can help you reach out to a wider network of not just participants but also judges.
  • One of the most challenging aspects of conducting a hackathon is to review submissions in a fair and timely manner. Organizations should lay down parameters at the start so that judges can effectively grade all the submissions.
  • Your hackathon platform should be the reservoir of everything related to the event. A live leadership board can boost the participant’s enthusiasm, ensure transparency, and easily track winners after putting together the performance of every team at every stage.

Whether you choose to conduct an offline or virtual hackathon, the platform will play a significant role in making your event a success.

How Mercer | Mettl Can Help?

Mercer | Mettl’s Xathon is an online hackathon management platform that helps you host world-class hackathons successfully and effortlessly for identifying and hiring the best tech talent and engaging with existing and potential employees and tech communities.

Key Features of Mercer | Mettl’s Xathon Are:

  • Personalized Event Page to engage participants
  • Quick Scheduling of tasks and stages in one single dashboard
  • Seamless Collaboration with multiple stakeholders – organizers, participants, and judges
  • Submissions Management to keep track of all submissions, their score, and status
  • Leadership Board to get live updates and help in the assessment

With stellar features that help your business grow, Mercer | Mettl’s Xathon is based on the current and future needs of organizations, measured through a lens of innovation. Mercer | Mettl’s holistic view, specialized expertise, and deep analytical rigor make Xathon a product that has been the choice of leading organizations like Amazon, Accenture, JP Morgan, Microsoft, and many more. 

With Mercer | Mettl’s Xathon, you also get access to subject matter experts who help define problem statements in keeping with your objective, theme, and business as well as provide assistance in assessing solutions. Mercer | Mettl’s 24×7 support team ensures seamless execution to make your event a success story.

Originally published December 6 2019, Updated August 5 2020

Bhuvi Kathpalia

Written by

Bhuvi is a content marketer at Mercer | Mettl. She's helped various brands find their voice through insightful thought pieces and engaging content. When not scandalizing people with her stories, you’ll find her challenging gender norms, dancing to her own tune, and crusading through life, laughing.

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