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Hackathon   | 5 Min Read

Hackathon: What The Hack Are Hackathons

Written By Divyeshwari Singh

Come to the grounds of creative ideas that stimulate the problem-solving juices of developersUnshackle the problems of corporate culture with the Hackathon and learn the art of organizing one too.


“Be the explorer, creator, exploiter in the world of programming and coding. Hack the marathon in the HACKATHON.”

But before you ask, “Isn’t hacking illegal?” You should know a hackathon is nowhere close to literal hacking.

What is a Hackathon?

Let me pitch the idea. It is simple- a bunch of developers, software programmers or designers joining hands for a specified period, generally 24-48 hours, to build something awesome.

The participants basically try to ‘hack’ their way through the assigned task. It’s a fun environment where teams of 3-5 brainstorm with each other’s brilliant minds to create a virtual reality prototype over the weekend. The goal is to create a usable or prototype software.

Beginning in the mid to late 2000s, hackathons spread like fire and made a place in the lives of venture capitalists and companies to develop new technologies. The very first hackathons were organized in 1999 by OpenBSD and Sun Microsystems which were conducted in-company.

As events hackathons are focused, cooperative, innovative and highly stimulative. They wrap themselves with a plethora of opportunities for prospects and form an integral part of the corporate culture. Don’t limit hackathons to just technical industries; they have a name in the finance, healthcare, education, and government sector.

The speed and effectiveness of the hackathon is a major value-add to look for. They are the shortest route to significant outcomes that a program can take. Not all hackathons are the same, but yes the ground rule- “Build from scratch” is never compromised. Based on their objectives hackathons are of various types-

The various types of Hackathons

Hackathons are broadly of 2 types- Internal and External. The former primarily focuses on the people the company engages with, its own employees and the latter has participants from outside the workplace. Both of these types can be subcategorized with respect to the purpose they serve-

  • Online/Offline- the name comes from the location. Online hackathons have everything from registration to judging online. Offline is conducted at a physical location.
  • Application-based- The focus is mobile app development, video game development or the desktop operating system.
  • Specific programming language- Dedicated to developing applications which use a specific framework like JavaScript, HTML.
  • The cause- The social hackathons aimed at addressing issues of health care, women empowerment, education.
  • Code sprints- They are the longest of hackathons that last for 2-3 weeks where programmers write codes to create a software.
  • Demographic groups- they are community specific and are majorly organised for brand awareness.

The Hackathon Culture in Companies

Hackathons accelerate the process of digital transformation. They are not only about designing products but hacking out of the old ways, McKinsey.

The need to create in a competitive landscape is persuading companies to improve their innovation quotient. Hence what better way than a continuous series of hackathons to reap meatier ROI with better recruitment, employee engagement, and product prototyping. Hackathons are not mere sleepovers; they are an initiative for a better future.

“Apurva Dalal, an Ex-Googler and VP Engineering at Komli Media uses the hackathon company culture to let his employees do their own stuff and have fun at the same time. He further adds that hackathons are much freer than the daily rigours at the office.”

Companies tend to be more successful if they invest in a developer, coder, engineer or a programmer rather than the company itself. And with this, we present to you the 4 use cases of a hackathon shared by 2 major categories external and internal. The difference between the internal and external hackathons come with the purpose they serve. Keep a close eye on not mixing up the purposes.

Use cases for internal & external hackathons


External Hackathons

If you want to hack the old recruitment strategies and brand your initiatives, then external hackathons are the place to look for.

  • The Hackathons as a Recruitment Tool
    Hiring the right person has been a sensitive issue, close to the company’s heart. Modern recruitment tools such as assessments have helped smoothen the process, and a special addition of Hackathons as a recruitment tool to companies has contributed manifolds. 
    In the age of automation, artificial intelligence, the internet of things and all the technological landscape, hackathons seem to be all the rage for millennials. Undoubtedly the next generation workforce, which will form 50% of the employees in the global market are the millennials. As a part of the industry which is changing day by day, the trigger for this generation is to improve their skills and be a part of a great experience, one event which suffices all their needs is the hackathon.

    Let us now try to broaden our vision and see how hackathons play a significant role in the lives of recruiters-

    1. A valuable environment- Hackathon is the place where diversified minds and ideas come together under one roof to create solutions. The competition which aims at developing something awesome within a limited timeframe infuses work pressure among the participants, testing them beyond their limits. The fully engaged community of candidates gives a great opportunity to recruiters to know them better. Recruiters get an idea of the passion and dedication the individuals can exhibit if given a task to work on. If recruiters look carefully, they are provided by a 360-degree vision of the participant’s working potential.

    2. A powerful community- What companies want, is the best candidate, for the same hackathons are the way to meet the most powerful community enthused with ideas to become better. These individuals yearn for better professional development proving them to be commendable employees in future who will keep adding value to the company. Hackathons do not just allow recruiters to judge a candidate’s technical skills, but also the way they approach a problem and interact with others.

“Smart File, an Indiana-based file-sharing company, hosted “Bake-off”, a hackathon where developers were expected to create an app for the company’s API. The company’s digital marketing manager was not looking for someone who won the contest but wanted to observe the participants’ approach and choose someone who has a go-getter attitude and plays with the team. Travis Cunningham won even though he was a part of the losing team. What he demonstrated was a positive attitude even in the high-stress environment that ensued. An inquisitive fellow who even 5helped others succeed.”

It has been seen that the recruitment time is cut down by almost 80% in hackathons.

Hackathons have replaced the age-old tiring campus hiring drama with a new, creative recruitment approach. They are like the live band of ideas and performances where participants get a taste of how the future work will look like to them and not forget the recruiters who also an idea of what their best fit might look like.

Hackathons are a means for millennials to connect with the brand, once you have spread your magic and people have an idea of your work culture, they will definitely connect.

When companies like Facebook are wielding the sword of hackathons to break open newer paths of innovation. Hosting about 50 internal hackathons have been the reason behind real-world products such as the mobile ad or chat platforms. So, the next time you go on a hiring spree, consider hosting a hackathon of your own.

  •  Hackathons as a Brand Enhancer

    Times are changing very rapidly, and technological disruptions can arise from anywhere be it a start-up, large enterprise, or even a team. By organizing a Hackathon, companies provide a platform for talented individuals to come together and collaborate and build something new or even a disruptive technology.

    If you are a product start-up or a small organization, hackathons can help you get great ideas and at the same time reinforce the commitment of building a good product. For large organizations, hackathons can help you boost the brand image and can garner mindshare.

    The great thing about hackathons is that the crowds are typically engaged, motivated, and interested in learning and sharing ideas — often spending their entire weekends engaged in the pursuit of new knowledge. Ideation is the core of innovation, which is why companies like MasterCard Canada bring its APIs to developers at hackathons for honest, constructive and collaborative feedback. From a marketing and PR perspective, getting the word out at a good hackathon can be like hitting the jackpot. You’re exposing your product to a large, diverse group of potential customers and learning ways to improve it in real time.

Internal Hackathons

If you want to beat the era of boredom, are concerned about employee turnover and want to improve productivity then organizing internal hackathons to promote employee engagement and reskilling is the way out.

  • Hackathons as an Employee Engagement tool

    Think about it, how much effort companies put, in the new joinee to make him/her corporate ready. But when these employees are prompted by factors such as work-culture, growth prospects or a lack of cross-departmental communication they call it quits.

    1/6th employees quit their job within 3 months of starting the position.

    Quitting is just the beginning of the newly added costs, think about the amount you’d spend recruiting new candidates, training them and another heart attack if they LEAVE. So save yourself from the misery by engaging employees to stay in your organization.

    Hackathons are a great way of building a work culture and creating professional bonding among existing employees.

    The journey of hackathons has been fascinating, from the start-up garage to the corporate mainstage, it wasn’t a smooth ride. At each level they served people with different purposes, one such being employee retention and engagement. Big names in the business world such as Google, LinkedIn, and Accenture use internal hackathons to retain the employees while initiating innovative solutions to problems.

    Connect with the employees and breakthrough the organization silos with hackathons. So let us see what our employees really want and what the hackathons can offer.difference-between-millennials-&-corporatesOnce we know about the desires of our developers, we are in a better position to engage them, we know what they want, we also have a clear understanding of what we can offer, but the thread that bridges the gap is found nowhere. No, wait a minute, stop, think and now proceed, the answer is here right here- Hackathons are the survival kit.

I have points to justify my statement, have a look.

  • Learning tool-Above all, hackathons are a simply brilliant tool to promote learning and break away from closeted ways of thinking. It brings together a diverse group of people who may not have a chance to interact regularly, even if they happen to work for the same organization. It provides a great setting for finding solutions to problems that aren't apparent unless you step back and see things from a different perspective, which is exactly what a hackathon sets out to do.
  • The branding initiative-Where do you think Facebook's "instant verification on Android" feature, "like" button and "tagging in comments" functionality come from? These were all outcomes of their internal hackathons. The hackathon format lends itself superbly to the idea of creating useful, albeit crazy solutions in a time-bound fashion.
  • Time-bound innovation-Because hackathons are time-bound, they force everyone to focus their efforts on addressing the problem statement instead of being distracted by long-term planning and management

I think it is pretty much clear from the above arguments that Hackathons do connect employee’s expectation from an organization and offerings that corporates provide.

The concoction of exciting opportunities and experiential learning build great teams. When diverse teams from various departments- anyone from designers to engineers to marketers, come together it sets a creative framework and an adrenaline rush enthuses the workplace for quite some time.

A usual product development follows a very linear approach- the designer comes up with a proposal which is then passed on to the engineers, from where it moves to the manufacturer and lastly to sales. Hackathons provide a platform where all the ideas and professions come together to make an impressive product like the iPhone. Hackathons promote a culture of innovation in the company and act as a checklist to the employee desires as mentioned above. And that’s how you save yourself from the heart attack.

  •  Hackathons as a Skilling tool

    In this era of dynamism where skills are changing rapidly, advancements in knowledge is the survival kit companies look for. Today, all the business leaders and human resource managers consider learning as a strategic component of the overall organisational growth. A company fails to perform if its employees are not efficient in their jobs. Ergo a continuous development and improvement of skills will strengthen the ability to adapt to ever-evolving circumstances.

    Hackathons are one-way companies can target the employee’s competencies and behaviour. They nurture an environment of collaboration where employees with different levels of skill sets come together to solve a problem. The teamwork and varied inputs by employees provide a clear window to the business leaders and human resource managers, who are then able to identify the experts and the beginners. When teams work on problems and put efforts to search for a solution, there are some out of the box thinkers who apply all the learnings and hit the right chord while others follow.

    These events aid in the identification of subject matter experts and novices. Such a setup give candidates a chance to explore the reservoir of knowledge and skills which are new to the industry and recruiters an eye to distinguish the experts from the beginners. The experts can then be marked as the high potential employees who can be furthered skilled and also be the ones taking charge of the beginners. This is how an internal hackathon can contribute to skilling employees in an organization.

What is the best way to organize a Hackathon?

the best way to organise a haclathons..

Let us set some ground rules before we dive into setting up a hackathon.

Keep realistic expectations, don’t assume that the group will provide ready to apply solutions to your problem. Make the participation energised, give them an opportunity to learn, don’t develop a pressure for perfect results. If you want a product or a software in hand at the end of the event, then you shouldn’t read any further, you should look someplace else.

We would all want to run a successful hackathon and for that, the defining line is when you have a welcoming attitude towards the sufferers of “imposter syndrome”, the newcomers. They feel a level of insecurity surrounded by all the experienced people and a little confused about how to conduct themselves. Try reducing the awkwardness by putting them under team heads.

The must-have list of a good project is-

  • No ambiguity- Clarity in terms of the questions they aim to solve accompanied by a broad solution.
  • Achievable- the set time for the projects should be realistic and groups should feel accomplished at the end.
  • Open to newcomers- the project should be accommodating to the newcomers with a variety of skills and levels.
  • Guided by SMEs - The presence of a stakeholder [subject matter expert] helps the group guide through issues and make the project live rather than just a thing of the virtual world.

To add a cherry on top conduct workshops, where you have Ice-breakers for the hackathon, telling the participants which skills could be useful.

The place and date

Find a decent spacious place to host the event. The premises should be wheelchair –friendly with proper sanitation and last but not the least high-speed Wi-Fi. The seating should be comfortable and ample. Keep in mind that the date of your hackathon doesn’t clash with major events in the field, prefer the weekdays.


Hackathons cost exuberantly, you would need someone to support you cover the cost. Sponsorships are the way out, sponsors will support you bear the cost in return for some recognition or some other purpose. So get into the field and secure your sponsor.


Know your maximum. Invite as many you can handle. Make the form to spread the word and gather information of your participants. The must-haves in the form are-

  • Name
  • Job title
  • If they are new to hackathons?
  • What interests them?
  • Requests/needs

Few days to go for the big day

  • Find the project leaders who have a clear understanding and lead the teams accordingly, look for the helpers required in the workshop and don’t forget the email staff who keep track of the online registration.
  • Remodel your media marketing strategy by using hashtags, photos or beginning with a countdown
  • Have your supplies ready [pen, paper, markers, disposables etc.]
  • A day before, conduct a thorough check of the venue [enough chairs, tables, working Wi-Fi]
  • A reminder mail to all the participants to be on time at the event with the pre-requisites.

The big event

The wait is over, you are at the day, and you had been planning for. Don’t miss, to begin with, an impressive, engaging introduction about the event, make everyone feel at home. Spread knowledge about the history and the purpose of the event. Mention the essentials- the timings for various tasks [food, workshop] and also try a small introduction in groups if possible. Give a special mention to your sponsors. Once the session begins have people monitoring the hacking rooms, make sure everything happens at the scheduled time and be around to ensure efficiency.

At the concluding session just be a patient ear to everyone, but keep things quick as well. Finally, thank everyone for their support

The night after the hackathon

The most valuable part of any hackathon is the learning experience. There will always be a new idea for inspiration. Hackathons are great arenas for establishing bonds with like-minded individuals, gaining knowledge outside of your comfort zone and learning how people can work together to achieve a common purpose or goal.

Hackathons have become a great branding and recruiting exercise for the company. They help gain awareness in the developer community. The candidates, on the other hand, have at least one project under their belt. This wagon is a tough one to miss as it has become growingly important for all organizations to engage with prospective employees and create a community of their own.

Hackathons as a Solution for Companies

Now before we wrap up, let us know the offering of both the hackathons.

Internal Hackathons as a core offering

The idea of internal hackathons is to promote employee engagement and skilling to meet the need of changing times. The core offering of various organizations who help you organize an internal hackathon is the platform [which is a systematic, automated system which accepts entries], the content [gives the challenge in the form of MCQs and coding simulators] and an evaluation mechanism [used for certification].

Companies like HackerRank, Mettl provide you with the above-mentioned services to implement a smooth internal hackathon.

External Hackathon as a core offering

When companies aim at a recruitment strategy and branding initiative, external hackathons are their complete solution. The organizers of external hackathons organize everything from sourcing the candidates for participation to social media boosting to tracking results of the hackathon and certification. The first step of action is to accumulate a pool of innovative, flexible minds through various efforts which involve an invitation mail, a marketing strategy for social media communication with the prospects. Then followed by the same procedure inculcated in an internal hackathon i.e. the platform, the content and the certification external hackathons complete the full cycle. This is the complete suit that external hackathons provide.

Build the hackathon culture

Hackathons are a valuable tool for accelerating organizational change and developing a sustainable culture. Embrace the hackathon culture for better recruitment opportunities, for a brand identity and as a tool to engage employees. Reduce the malaise with hackathons.

Sliding CTA_6 Tips to Successfully Conduct Your Hackathon

Topics: Editor Pick Tag All Time Fav Ideathon/Hackathon

Originally published December 04 2019,updated December 07 2019

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