ACTICO Hackathon 2018 – How to Realize a Successful Hackathon

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A Hackathon is an athletic and competitive event where the sport in question is “Hacking”. This usually includes software development, but can actually be any kind of creative problem solving. The goal of a Hackathon is to come up with new business ideas, create prototypes, validate concepts, or simply to improve or solve problems. The best results receive prizes.

What We Do During a Hackathon?

The annual ACTICO Hackathon is a two-day exercise where we challenge ourselves to explore new use cases for the ACTICO Platform, try out new technologies, and tackle some hard-to-solve problems that we come across in our everyday work.

The Hackathon starts at a Friday and ends Saturday afternoon. Some of the topics that the 13 ACTICO teams just covered are:

  • Machine Learning
  • Cloud/PaaS Architectures
  • Decision Analytics and Dashboards
  • Big Data, Event-Streaming with Apache Kafka
  • Central Secret Management
  • DSLs and Model-Driven Code Generation
  • 2D Game Development (admittedly, a bit off-topic for ACTICO)

Lessons Learned

We have done a Hackathon several times now. And we got better and better at doing it. Here are some of the things that we think are crucial for a successful Hackathon

1. Openly collect topics weeks in advance

We ask all our team members what they would like to tackle, and give ourselves time to do so. A Wiki page is used to collect topic suggestions with a short description, motivation and goal. And this list is initiated at least 8 weeks in advance and visible to everyone.

During the time before a Hackathon, a lot of problems and ideas get directly channeled into that page and create a lot of excitement for the event

2. Let teams organize themselves

People at ACTICO can freely choose the topic they would like to work on. A Hackathon is a challenging exercise that works best when people can identify, and are convinced that they can make a valuable contribution

3. Teams should not be too small and not too big

We have the guideline that team size should be at least 2 and 5 at most. A minimum of 2 means that the topic has to be considered relevant by at least two people. That usually filters out niche topics automatically. In contrast, we found that if a team is too big, people start stepping on each other’s toes. That’s why we decided on a maximum of 5.
However, if it is a truly interdisciplinary team (with developers, marketing, and sales people joining), you can probably have even bigger teams. If a team turns out to be too big, we split it in two. This adds an additional level of competitiveness between them when they work on the same problem.

4. Simple food & drinks

Provide food and drinks for lunch, dinner and breakfast, but don’t make it too fancy. We started with a high-class buffet for our Hackathons, but people didn’t like that they had to interrupt their work for quite some time during dinner.

Now we usually have simple food that people can quickly grab and even take back to their computers and continue hacking if they like. So we do pizza, burgers, sausages – of course including vegetarian choices. And there is a longer time window where food is available, so that everybody can choose when to eat.

5. Let everyone vote on the winners OR have a jury

After all teams have presented their results, we let everyone vote for the winning team with one vote only (sometimes two). Voting for one’s own team is prohibited. This voting works fine for us. It’s fun, gets everyone engaged and is generally considered fair (even though it is not really because of different team sizes).

The real other option is to have a jury that makes the decision. This is definitely the better choice if it is not an internal Hackathon, but consists of people that didn’t know each other before

6. Maybe give people additional time after the Hackathon

We have seen great results from individual teams that we continued working on even after the Hackathon, often because they just needed some more polishing to actually be integrated into the products or solutions of ACTICO. And it’s good if you can do it right away to leverage the energy that the Hackathon generated.

We found the Hackathon to be a valuable tool and an important element of the ACTICO culture and way of doing things. So we will definitely continue to do Hackathons at ACTICO for the foreseeable future.

Volker Großmann, CTO