Hackathons for the rest of us

Think you're ready to participate in your first hackathon or host one? Learn the ground rules and let the fun begin.

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Decision points

For live hackathons, the most important decision is how long it's going to last, Morano explains. One-day hackathons usually start on Saturday morning and finish Saturday evening. Two-day hackathons start Saturday morning and finish Sunday evening. Three-day hackathons start Friday afternoon and finish Sunday evening.

One-day hackathons are much easier to produce, and will draw three times as many participants as the longer types, as more people are willing to give up one day as opposed to two or three days, Wani says. The organizers also need to provide less food and don't need the meeting space as long.

On the other hand, "You will get a lot more mature applications with longer events," he notes. "Eight hours is not practical to get a fully baked item -- you will get some concepts and wireframes. But after an overnight session I have seen working apps. After 48 hours everyone has something to show."

West Monroe Partners, a consulting firm headquartered in Chicago, has an internal hackathon about once a month. But, since most participants aren't interested in giving up a Saturday every month, managers limit the event to a few hours in an afternoon, starting at either 5 p.m. Wednesday or 3 p.m. Friday, explains Dan Rosanova, senior architect at the firm.

After deciding the schedule and location for the event, the next big decision is who will do the judging. "The key is to get local celebrities, well-known in the local technology community," Morano notes. "You need judges that attract people, people who are influencers and have followers. Often, the most exciting thing for participants is to present their idea in front of a local CTO. The trick is to recruit those people."

The prize categories will usually reflect the agenda of the organizers. But offering prizes for the winners isn't enough -- there must also be "swag" (knickknacks as consolation prizes). T-shirts are popular, and technical publishers will often agree to hand out promotional merchandise, Morano says.

A good turnout for a regional public hackathon with several thousand dollars of prize money would be 60 to 80 people, Morano says.

Self-organization

Participants can work alone or in teams. They can show up in teams, or find teammates upon arriving. The latter situation generates the most energy.

Team consist of up to four people, Morano says, adding that he has never seen teams larger than four, and that the members would probably step on each other if a team were larger.

They form around roles, with a sweet spot of two or three. An example would be a designer and a developer; or a designer and two developers; or a designer, a business person with the idea, and a developer, he says. (In the last case the developer creates the software, the designer creates the interface and the non-technical person does the presentation, he notes.)

"The rule is that you need a programmer or developer, a hustler or business person who can sell, and a designer who can make things look beautiful -- because this is not the old days anymore when you could have ugly apps," Tamssot says.

When picking a team, "Focus on people, not ideas," urges Tamssot. "Find people you are compatible with and who can complement your skill sets. At a hackathon you can have real-life experience with potential partners in situations where they can't fake anything. Some members of our original team were not really committed, but it was great to separate the wheat from the chaff. There were a couple of members that I would never work with again."

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