Lessons Learned From Executing Successful Virtual Hackathons

Lessons Learned From Executing Successful Virtual Hackathons

Steve is the Head of Data Science and AI at Australian Computer Society, a proactive social media contributor and LinkedIn influencer.

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Like many of us, we see politicians, scientists and medical professionals racking their brains on how to solve and address some of the biggest problems the world is facing under this pandemic. 

However, my team thought: What we can do as ordinary citizens to help create a better society? Can we tap into the innovation and creativity of thousands of software engineers, designers and businesspeople to push us along? We were lucky enough to have our CEO greenlight our hackathon — and we had only nine days to launch it.

My team broke hackathon history by executing the largest online hackathon in APAC to date: with almost 3,000 people involved, all within only nine days and with very limited resources. We completed another hackathon shortly after the first, working with the Australian and New Zealand Defence Forces and involving over 25 defense organizations and industry partners.

Based on my experience as head of data science for ACS, I know how important it is for tech leaders to create these kinds of opportunities, especially during times of crisis, to help drive innovation. Here’s what I learned from our virtual hackathons.

The Hackathon: The Main Objectives And Benefits

A hackathon can be described as a “marathon of invention.” Anyone interested in ideating a solution for a specific challenge attends a hackathon to learn, build and share their creations, typically over the course of 48 to 72 hours. In a nutshell, during a hackathon, teams develop a project from scratch, demo it to judges and win prizes. 

Challenges And Considerations With Virtual Hackathons 

Managing 15 people on your team is difficult. If you’re a CEO, managing 1,000 people might be a challenge. In our case, having 2,700 completely new faces from 13 different time zones presented its own challenges with the dissemination of information, competing categories, sponsorships, judging and, of course, the deadline of submissions. Here are some important elements to consider when it comes to creating your own virtual hackathon:

• Different Skill Sets And Backgrounds: As countless articles report, diversity in any team produces more innovative, productive and engaged members, and this is especially true when you have to build a team, ideate and ship a product in two days. To the best of our ability, we ensured diversity of skill sets through our capture forms. We worked to understand why mentors and competitors were participating and to optimize the dynamics of team creation, mentor pairing and lead mentor groups. It’s important to understand that some joining your hackathon are experienced professionals, while some are fresh graduates. 

• Most Participants Are Strangers: The saying “You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression” holds true in all settings, but it is especially important online. Building and forming trust is the bedrock of successful team building, and we employed many strategies behind the scenes. Some of the most successful experiments we executed were:

1. Creating private channels for teams based on an internal algorithm for ideal team creation.

2. Cross-pollinating data from different channels to give meaningful and interesting resources and requests more visibility to other competitors.

• Innovative Use Of IT For A Successful Virtual Hackathon: A completely virtual hackathon presents its own challenges and perks. But as long as you have rock-solid software and a passionate heart, you can overcome anything. Most importantly, the event doesn’t need to use complex and feature-rich software. In many ways, the key fundamentals of effective communication, private rooms to ideate, and access to qualified mentors and resources are key. To this end, we used:

1. YouTube’s free livestream service to broadcast the opening ceremony and judging.

2. Slack as the primary communication channel.

3. Simple, cloud-based applications for workplace collaboration (e.g., Google forms, Trello, etc.).

4. LinkedIn and Twitter for marketing and social media activity.

5. Zoom for webinars, mentor inductions and workshops for our competitors.

Lessons Learned

Both hackathons varied in their challenge scope, audience size and processes. In each case, our team was able to rapidly ideate, deploy and iterate on new resources, induction methods and timelines for the audience: This yielded amazing results. Based on this experience, here are some lessons learned: 

1. For IT, simple is best.

It goes without saying how reliant we are on the basics of IT systems in our day-to-day lives, but that is a conversation for a different day. The key lesson we learned was that as much as hackathon bespoke solutions exist in the market, you don’t need a great deal to execute a high-quality experience — only qualified people in the driver’s seat.

2. Teams can work it out.

Participants are not children who need direction and guidance from a parent. Many are students, managers and passionate individuals who do not need the top-down pressure to remain motivated to ideate the next best solution. Channeling that energy is all that an organizer needs to do: Any more and the experience may start to spoil.

3. Mentoring is critical.

In this same vein, mentors should not be micromanagers who need to time-box or patronize their peers. All true innovation requires for mentors is a light touch, deep expertise in challenge areas and a safety net for when things go sideways.

4. Under pressure, diamonds can form.

There is a reason hackathons are short and provide some of the most effective value-to-time ratios for any organization to begin the process of innovation. With a mix of global anxiety, restlessness, expertise and passion, hackathons have created some of the most amazing products our organization has seen. From 3D printed helmets to children’s education tools, our team was astounded by the level of thought and care put into their work.

Final Thoughts

As tech leaders, it’s vital that we continue to explore and push ourselves in the hopes of creating truly innovative products. Virtual hackathons provide opportunities for us to come together and explore our capabilities.


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