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Hackathons bring many participants together to solve real-world problems every year, enough to fill a stadium with an optimal seating capacity. People with diverse perspectives and backgrounds, such as analysts, coders, business strategists, designers, etc., venture to these events to solve predefined challenges within a specified time limit. Closely following the tech titans of the world, more organizations are resorting to hackathons, some for brand-building, others for talent acquisition and training and development.
At a hackathon, participants learn how to harness the power of ideas and collaboration to create a functional solution or prototype of a service/product/business model. However, a hackathon is more than its entrants. This blog will cover the two most essential bedrocks of a successful hackathon, the ones we call mentors and judges.
Hackathon mentors are accomplished professionals dedicating their time and efforts to help participants in their area of expertise throughout a hackathon event. Effective mentorship is what drives teams to turn ideas into beautiful realities. Whether technical or non-technical, hackathon mentors can play a pivotal role in determining the success of a project. Their responsibilities vary significantly across the mentoring spectrum based on their domain expertise. For example, some mentors are excellent at helping teams with techniques to improve design, originality and user experience, and others are subject matter experts in specific business processes. And some mentors possess expertise across a wide range of technical capabilities.
Hackathon mentors ensure meaningful experiences for hackers in such time-intensive creative events. They may be hovering around the hacking space at in-person events, following their rotation schedule, waiting for hackers to beckon them over to address their queries. Mentorship for a virtual hackathon is quite like an offline hackathon, except it happens virtually. Therefore, mentors should provide insights into the challenge or thematic subject and assist in skills needed for the challenge. In other words, the ideal mentors are strategically aligned to the event’s themes and goals.
Listed below are some professionals who may play the mentor’s role during an event:
Hack teams comprise members with diverse backgrounds. Each with knowledge, experience and objective. Sometimes, as they seek solutions to challenges, they feel deviated, disoriented and doubtful of their abilities. The role of a mentor/coach is to become a beacon of hope to drive out obscurity and confusion, providing teams with new perspectives to solve challenging problems. The team needs someone with adequate experience and skills to help them glide through daunting obstacles.
Below are some of the roles and duties of a hackathon mentor:
Some of the best practices related to mentorship that produce impressive results are as follows:
Mentors should know where the team needs to get and what hiccups to iron out. Is the aim of the hackathon a high-fidelity prototype or a low-fidelity wireframe? What crucial business issues do participants need to address? How do they present their ideas by the end of the hackathon? Mentors should help them understand where to shift their focus and what level of effort is required.
Nobody enjoys being caught off-guard, but everybody has some limitations. For example, the teams might be working on areas with which even mentors are not acquainted. It would be best if mentors stayed prepared beforehand in situations like these (for example, somebody volunteering as a design mentor at a fintech event even though she/he is from a different industry). In such cases, it would be best to research before the event and understand the intricacies of such topics.
Often, mentors are within the team’s reach for a predefined amount of time. Typically, they may prefer going by their schedule and not according to the event. However, the best course of action would be to stay connected with teams through multiple communication channels should the need arise.
A mentor who stays around and is easily approached helps improve team morale. But one should ensure not to go overboard by being with them too much. Besides, they will receive multiple feedback from different mentors, so they might need some time to process that information, settle on a plan of action and do what is required. Therefore, it would be best for mentors to tell the teams beforehand when they visit to see the progress. If the participants do not seek any help, they should not be disturbed.
The hackathon teams comprise team members from diverse backgrounds; for example, some are good at coding, and some are good at visual design. But suppose they fail to understand what initiatives need to be taken and why they are most likely to feel directionless and apprehensive about the idea’s viability. In that case, the role of mentors comes into play.
If teams lack domain expertise, a mentor’s support is crucial to stay on course. So, with self-reflection and forethought, mentors need to gain role clarity when preparing for the hackathon. For example, why were you chosen as one of the guiding forces? Or, what inspired you to volunteer as a mentor? What is one thing that you know better than anyone? Experienced mentors’ perspectives are invaluable to the teams.
Good mentors are more than just problem solvers. They understand that hackathons are not about them or giving weight to their ideas. It is about helping others see hope. What sets them apart is their ability to enhance their learning and their inclination to wish nothing but the best for their teams.
For example, let us assume that a team asks its mentor about choosing the best application model. Ideally, a mentor should give them hints and direct them to some resources to find a couple of model examples, encouraging them to explore and decide what works best for them. That is the ideal way to make a well-informed decision without relying solely on the mentor’s suggestions.
Most incredible mentors empower their teams, reinforce their ideas, recognize their passion, and help them chart the way forward through the maze. They are strong proponents of learning by doing and expect their teams to make their own decisions concerning their strategies, products and business models.
Now that we have already discussed what embodies the term “mentors,” we will explore the second most crucial cornerstone of a successful hackathon drive – “judges”.
Judges are the important decision-makers vested with the authority to evaluate submissions and declare winners during the demo part of the hackathon event. Without them, undertakings of such a scale would not be possible. The judges are responsible for expressing their opinions on the pitches received, assessing the teams’ efforts individually and determining who is eligible to win the prize. In addition, they would grade ideas based on realistic capability, level of innovation, business value and ingenuity.
Selecting the right judges is a determining factor in the decision-making process. Although this may seem complicated, understanding the event’s objective makes it easier. Hackathon judges typically have extensive technical backgrounds, but an exception may be granted to subject matter specialists for themed events. It is common to see judges acquired from sponsoring companies; however, organizers can also onboard more judges if needed. Even mentors with a mix of technical and subject-matter expertise can be commissioned to perform the role of a judge.
Choosing an adequate panel of judges will go a long way toward better branding a specific hackathon event and attracting participants. In addition, there is nothing like bringing together a panel of industry celebrities as judges for drawing participants to connect with the event and garnering maximum eyeballs. For example, if you get industry bigwigs as panel members, hackers may aspire to display their ideas.
Hackathon judges with expertise on the challenge or thematic subject can gauge a final product/idea’s prowess based on:
At the end of the challenge, when hacking is complete and presentations are over, a strained silence and wild anticipation ensue. It is followed by judges heading over to their respective zones and deliberating on which hacks were differentiators and deserve awards. But the question is, how to judge a hackathon effectively? Of course, everyone wants the right teams to succeed but selecting the victor is not easy. However, making decisions can be simplified with the right judges and selection criteria.
Not all hackathons require tangible outcomes (a functional tool, feature, product, etc.) but the top-scoring team’s idea should contribute to something substantial. If it is not the ultimate solution, it must lead to the solution. Moreover, expecting a thoroughly ready, polished project at the end of the event is unreasonable. But one can analyze and assess the outcome to look for the level of thought, effort and perfection that went into creating it.
One of the most crucial parameters when judging a hack is the originality of the idea. How technically feasible is it? How innovative and realistic is the idea? Does it hold tremendous potential? Is it well thought out from multiple aspects?
Is the project accessible on Bit bucket/GitHub? What already existing technologies have been used? Does it demonstrate the concept as a minimum presentable product?
How much learning has taken place throughout the event? Did the team go the extra mile to outplay the competition? Have they expanded their learning horizon by learning modern technologies/ methodologies/tools/APIs?
Can an idea be deemed pioneering just because it is original and admirable? Most certainly not! How well did they utilize the time and available resources to produce the outcome? Were they attempting to solve the old problem in a new way? Could this prototype come in handy for developing a refined product? Is it a viable solution or not? What about the sustainability of the final product’s lifecycle? Judges should factor in multiple aspects during the assessment before grading the final project.
By migrating the modalities of conducting hackathons online, organizers can achieve better visibility and global reach. Virtual hackathons have successfully infused innovation by streamlining the process for key stakeholders involved – organizers, participants, mentors and judges through new-age platforms. Online hackathon platforms are instrumental in fostering innovation and engagement.
Without proper guidance, organizers and participants can both be off track. That is why communication is of the essence for ensuring clear expectations are set between the mentor and participant. A virtual hackathon platform comes with many features to facilitate spontaneous communication between the mentors and mentees, such as private messaging features to communicate and collaborate, regardless of time and location. In addition, many organizers leverage Slack, a real-time multi-screen team communication tool, to create several public and private channels that both participants and mentors use for conversations.
Hackathon events often witness massive participation, leaving judges struggling with the gargantuan task of assessing every entry by hand. Online hackathon platforms empower organizations to conduct a successful hackathon with a singular, streamlined dashboard for admins and judges. They can quickly schedule and manage large-scale participation, automate the shortlisting process and enable easy review of submissions for judges and panelists. In short, virtual hackathon platforms provide judges with all the resources they need to be successful in their respective roles.
Organizations can leverage virtual hackathon platforms for pursuing diverse objectives, such as establishing a brand presence, engaging the workforce, recruiting top talent, and innovating with the best and the brightest. Due to the platform's broad applicability and immense potential, there is a staggering increase in the number of virtual events being conducted globally. The virtual platform enables companies to engage participants simultaneously across different time zones and geographies. Such a tech-enabled platform would allow companies to host hackathon events and manage them end-to-end with the utmost ease, from registration to project submission to judging.
At an onsite event, participants must work on their tasks at a particular time and period. Moreover, it is common to see some people not attending such events, probably because of a packed schedule or unavoidable commitments. Flexibility is one of the most significant advantages that online hackathons provide. Virtual hackathons can extend longer than traditional face-to-face hack events, which gives participants a lot of leeway to regain their composure amid the frenetic pace of the event. Most importantly, people with strenuous schedules have the liberty to work on their projects at their convenience.
Mercer | Mettl’s Xathon is an all-in-one hackathon management platform to host world-class hackathons effortlessly and successfully. Crafted to host large-scale, engaging hackathons, it will help you identify and hire the best tech talent and engage with existing employees and tech communities.
With top-of-the-line features that help businesses grow, Mercer | Mettl’s Xathon is a surefire way to conduct campus and corporate hackathons. Mercer | Mettl’s decades-old expertise, holistic view and analytical rigor make Xathon a product that has been preferred and valued by some of the most renowned organizations- JP Morgan, Microsoft, Amazon and Accenture, to name a few.
With Mercer | Mettl’s Xathon, you can get closer to your objectives with thorough assistance from subject matter experts who will help define problem statements in tune with your goals, business, themes and help finalize solutions. In addition, our 24×7 support team helps ensure seamless process execution to make your event a success.
Originally published April 22 2022, Updated April 22 2022
Abhilash works with the Content Marketing team of Mercer|Mettl. He has been contributing his bit to the world of online business for some years now. Abhilash is experienced in content marketing, along with SEO. He’s fond of writing useful posts, helping people, traveling, and savoring delicacies.
A hackathon or ideathon is an event where people with different skill sets come together to solve predefined challenges within a specified time frame. Ideathons and hackathons are increasingly being used for corporate branding, hiring at speed, innovating and engaging employees.