Simon Willison’s Weblog


What makes an awesome hackathon? I want to host one at the LAUNCH Festival and I have never run one.

3rd December 2012

My answer to What makes an awesome hackathon? I want to host one at the LAUNCH Festival and I have never run one. on Quora

One of the hardest parts to coordinate of a hackathon (we tend to call them hack days here in the UK) is the demos at the end. If you have 50+ teams giving a demo you need to make sure everything runs SUPER smoothly or the whole process will quickly jam up.

The first thing to figure out here is the AV setup. Teams will often need to present on their own hardware, so it’s vital to have a quick turnaround. The best setup is to have TWO laptop setup points (each equipped with a savvy technician, a preview monitor that shows exactly what will be projected on stage to avoid dual monitor setup problems and every variety of display adaptor you can get your hands on). While one team is presenting, the next team can be setting up their demo—then you can flip over to the other setup. There’s no reason not to extend this to three setup points so you can have two teams preparing to present while another team is on stage.

I suggest emphasizing demos over prepared slide decks—or even banning slide decks entirely. It’s nice if you can include enough time for the judges to ask a couple of questions, but depending on time constraints this might not be possible.

Make sure you have a good mix of categories and prizes, and promote them ahead of time so people know what to hack towards. A hackathon is more interesting if there’s a variety of stuff going on, so having a prize for e.g. “most unexpected hack” or “hardware hack” or “funniest hack” will let teams know that it’s OK to do something a little out of the ordinary.

I’m actually not too keen on super-valuable prizes as I feel they can skew the atmosphere, but it depends entirely on what kind of hacks you want to encourage.

No matter what you do, the demos will go on for a LONG time—3 hours plus is not out of the ordinary. This is a difficult issue: the audience will lose interest and it will feel like a slog for everyone (especially hackers who have been up for 24 hours and are restless to go home)—but it’s important to give teams a good chance to demonstrate what they’ve been working on. I don’t know of any good hacks to deal with this—make sure there are breaks, and that people have a feel for how far through the process they are (and teams know roughly when they will be on stage) and have a kick-ass moderator to keep things flowing along. Try to keep it fair too—it’s pretty common for the earlier teams to get to ramble for 5 minutes while later teams are restricted to a 2 minute slot.

This is What makes an awesome hackathon? I want to host one at the LAUNCH Festival and I have never run one. by Simon Willison, posted on 3rd December 2012.

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