How to Run an Awesome Hackathon for Your Remote Team

How to Run an Awesome Hackathon for Your Remote Team

To the uninitiated, pausing normal business operations for 10 to 36 hours so the entire team can work non-stop on random projects, drink beer and eat pizza, and (potentially) fall asleep while coding sounds, well, crazy.

But hack events, or hackathons (as they’re officially known), are integral to many organizations — from massive tech companies like Netflix and LinkedIn to creative agencies like Kettle and Big Spaceship.

And for good reason, because hack events have a ream of benefits:

  • They often result in amazing and usable ideas
  • They let your employees express their creativity and pursue their passion projects
  • They bring everyone closer together
  • They can add some excitement to an otherwise predictable schedule

However, hosting hack events can be a little more difficult when your team is scattered across the nation or globe, not concentrated in a single office.

While some remote teams choose to bring everyone together for a retreat-style hackathon, that’s not always financially feasible — especially not if you want to host recurring hack events.

But where there’s a will, there’s a way! Read on to learn everything you need to know about planning and running a virtual hack event.

Let’s get down to business

How to Run an Awesome Hackathon for Your Remote Team

Before you do anything else, there are a couple high-level details to sort out. Namely: the date of the hack event, how long it will run, and who will participate.

If you’ve never attempted to do one before, give yourself plenty of time to plan. Two to three months from now is a nice length of time (plus, it lets you handle more of the work up front).

Don’t forget to take your engineers’ schedule into account. SilverStripe, for instance, holds its hack days in between the engineering teams’ sprints.

And of course, look at your company’s calendar to make sure you’re not planning your hack day on or near a major event: a product launch, a big release, a major project deadline, etc.

“From time to time, a SilverStriper won’t be able to participate in hackday because something’s gone down with a project or client. But we try really hard to avoid that.”
Clarion Coughlan, SilverStripe Development Manager

At the same time you choose a date, you’ll also need to pick out a length. Hackathons can last anywhere from a single day to an entire week — and there are pros and cons to every option.

For example, if you opt for an eight to 14 hour hack day, then there’s a smaller chance your employees will fall behind on their traditional tasks. But by necessity, the projects will be smaller in scope.

If you host an entire hack week, on the other hand, your team members can take on some really ambitious projects — however, they’ll be spending a significant amount of time on non-priority tasks.

The best solution (for your first hack event, anyway) is probably a compromise: a two- or three-day long hackathon.

Next, decide which team members will be involved in the hack event. As Etsy employee Elise Pereira points out, many tech companies limit their hackathons to the engineering teams — but if you take this route, you’ll miss out on all the creative potential of your non-technical people.

“[At Etsy], everyone gets to hack no matter what team they’re on or where they plant their feet. Creativity knows no bounds.”
Elise Pereira, Director, Head of Internal Communications, Etsy

Plus, letting everyone participate means you’ll get a lot of cross-department mixing, which is important for a healthy work culture.

You can make taking part mandatory or voluntary. A team-wide hack event is incredibly invigorating and fun — and if any employees are hesitant to join because they feel like they “should” be working, this policy will relieve their guilt.

Nonetheless, if you have a bigger company — or some of your employees really can’t spare the time — hosting a voluntary hack event is more than fine.

Finally, choosing a theme can be a great way to give the event some structure. Vivify Labs has an awesome list of potential themes, including internal culture, customer focus, productivity, and so on.

Or, like Kickstarter, you can keep things completely open, “meaning everything from office hacks, to art hacks, to food hacks, to life hacks are encouraged.”

“It’s a chance for us to experiment — to drop what we’re doing and try our hand at projects we’ve been wanting to undertake but never had the time. As one of our engineers said, ‘It’s like Halloween for nerds.’”
Michael McGregor, Kickstarter’s VP of Communications

Whether or not you set a theme, establishing specific judging criteria is key. Need inspiration? Check out the criteria WITI’s Virtual IoT Hackathon judges use: impact, originality, technical difficulty, polish/design, and presentation.

Once you’ve figured out the logistics, send out an announcement with the details. If joining in is optional, you should also ask everyone who’s interested to let you know by a certain date (ideally, within one to two weeks).

A little prep goes a long way

How to Run an Awesome Hackathon for Your Remote Team

The team-formation process traditionally takes place on the actual day of the event. But if you set up teams in advance, you can give people a chance in similar time zones to work together — meaning that your content marketer in Hong Kong won’t have to get up and go to sleep at crazy hours to hack with your UX designer in Salt Lake City.

To that end, consider asking everyone to start thinking about who they’d like to work with while the event is still roughly two weeks away.

Organize the process by creating a Slack channel or Redbooth workspace specifically for the hackathon. You may even want to post a world map showing where everyone is located, so people can create geographic clusters.

To create momentum for its hack week, the Spotify team also collects ideas in advance.

What you don’t want to do is leave everything to the last minute — advance planning is a win for everyone involved:

“Whenever we’ve run a successful hackathon, we’ve allowed groups to plan ahead of time. This allows the groups to hit the ground running when the hackathon starts. Time isn’t wasted talking about what it could or should be, but rather it allows for a quicker, more efficient turnaround on ideas.”
Andrew Howlett, CEO of digital agency Rain


The fun stuff: Publicity, prizes, and treats

How to Run an Awesome Hackathon for Your Remote Team

Approximately one to two weeks before the event, you should share the remaining details.

First, let the hackers know who will be judging. If your team is small, having your founders or the leadership team pick the winners is probably easiest, but for larger companies, bringing in guest judges means you’ll get objective and fresh perspectives.

In addition, publicize the schedule. You’ll want to set start and finish times, along with chunks of time for presentations and awards. Take a look at Socrata’s hackathon schedule for an idea.

Finally, announce the prizes. Prizes definitely aren’t mandatory, but they make the event a little more fun and competitive; plus, they reward your team members for participating.

Potential prize ideas include gift cards, an extra vacation day, tech gear, or company swag.

Speaking of swag — if you want to send your hackers a cool surprise, order custom-printed shirts for the event and arrange their delivery for the first day.

And last but certainly not least, even the most driven hack-week participants need to eat.

Think about ordering food to be delivered to each of your team members — send everyone a surprise dessert or snack box to be delivered midway through the event.

Sure, doing this might eat up some of your budget. But remember — you’re saving money on the food that would traditionally be served at an in-person hackathon.

Hackathons don’t just bring your people closer together: They generate awesome (and potentially product-changing!) ideas.

Now that you know how to organize them for your remote team, you can start reaping their benefits as well.

Mix It Up With Your On-Site Team

Each of the Redbooth tech teams (including the Collaboration, Core, Platform, iOS, and Android teams) has its own hack week.

“For a whole week, you can be fully responsible for the product from the top to bottom,” says Ilya Zayats, a full-stack developer at Redbooth.

“On the hack weeks working with new features, it is like nurturing your own baby — full focus and maximum responsibility.”

According to Ilya, Redbooth’s hack weeks have been responsible for some major innovations: “real-time” updates, new front-end architecture that facilitated the build of chat and new Gantt charts, and more.

“Plus, hack weeks have also resulted in a ton of internal tools and improvements that make our days as developers easier and allow us to ship faster,” he adds.

But the biggest benefit?

“You can switch your focus and break the routine. It is kind of like having a vacation…except you actually spend more time working than during a normal week,” Ilya says.

“You also get to feel like a product manager — and get a huge round of applause in the end of your demo. It’s really energizing!”