6 Lessons from Organizing a Hackathon

January 20, 2018

I organized a geographically-distributed, week-long hackathon at Salesforce. Why did I do it? Because I wanted to do a hack, and the bigger company-wide hackathons were only twice a year. At Salesforce, hackathons are the perfect place to showcase one’s ingenuity: Every hack has the potential to become implemented at work. Hence I heeded the famous saying: “if you want something to happen, do it yourself”.

This was my first time organizing a hackathon. Here’s what I learnd from trial by fire.

1. Executive buy-in is crucial

The hackathon was sponsored partially to help meet our VP’s targets. While metrics were the impetus, the output of the hackathon, including the knowledge that the team gained from participation, and the demos, were worth much more than the food and prize budget.

2. Have at least three organizers

Have one person close to the funding source, one who setups up and operate the AV, and at least one champion per different location. Different job roles also helped: we made the hackathon a week long because the operations person mentioned 24 hours in a week is much more flexible than any strict day. The change of duration gave us an unprecedented number of entries, double the amount expected for an inaugural hackathon.

3. Delegate, delegate, delegate

Since I was the champion for the project, the onus was on me to make it happen. I tapped into the wide variety of skills and the deep expertise of our team. Request for judges, t-shirt design, and lunch order + pickup were handled by team mates. Their contributions made the hackathon a success.

4. Mine the previous hackathon organizers’ experience

I reached out to the organizer of the company-wide hackathon. She has been running multiple hackathons per year for several years. How to convert teams to participants, which system to use for signup and video upload, and the format of the final judging were only the tip of the iceberg. While there was much to digest, standing on the shoulders of giants gave me the confidence to continue.

5. Leverage temporary authority to build relationships

Having the responsibility to spearhead the hackathon, and the VP-approved authority to make it happen, gave me the impetus to talk to many people. Hackathon was our shared topic. If the person is technical, I asked about their ideas and the progress of their project. If they were more on the business side, I encouraged them to join a team to give feedback. Or at least come to the final judging, to feast on the free food and be amazed by the bright technical minds of our organization. Because of my hallway/water cooler talks, more people know me by name, and it feels good to be acknowledged in the hallway.

6. Go where others fear to tread

Organizing the hackathon was a ton of work, since it involved various people and leveraging their expertise. I was also contestant in the hacakthon, and did my regular work as a software engineer. It was my busiest week so far at Salesforce. But I don’t fear being busy. Few people would organize AND compete in the same hackathon. Yet it is precisely because so few people would even consider organizing the event, that made driving this event worthwhile.

Overall it was a high-profile networking experience. Our VP thanked me on front of all the participants and judges, and the output of the hackathon will be treasured for the years to come. I learned much from championing the first hackathon of our team.