What We Learnt Running our First Virtual Hackathon

SideHack2020 T-Shirt, Stickers and Pizza

SideHack2020: Our First Virtual Hackathon

The challenge introduced was running another awesome hackathon, but virtually — COVID made remote working a requirement and we had to adapt to this new way of working while maintaining the value of our past hackathons. The pivot to remote also completely changed the logistical side of planning, for example sending t-shirts rather than buying plane tickets.

Benefits of Running a Hackathon

For Participants

The purpose of a hackathon is to give each attendee a chance to break off from routine work, develop new work relationships, improve skills, and challenge themselves in new avenues — many Sidetraders have great ideas, and a hackathon is the perfect opportunity to develop these ideas into future projects.

For the Company

At Sidetrade, we always search for new ideas and ways to enable the team to innovate around their talents. Sharing knowledge, creating solutions to problems, challenging ourselves — this is our oxygen. A hackathon provides an environment that promotes these principles, free from distractions.

What We Learnt

Our first mistake was forgetting that the hackathon was in the calendar until a month beforehand! With the current state of the world, it can be difficult to keep track of time, or even know what month it is! Kicking off just a month in advance actually gave us just enough time, but logistics would have been more manageable if we had started sooner.

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Tips

1. Set a schedule

It’s difficult to anticipate the logistical challenges. What helped us was writing a schedule, not just for the hackathon itself, but also for the organisational milestones leading up to the event. For example: gathering ideas, forming teams, and sending out goodies early enough to dodge shipping delays.

2. Select Projects

We try to make sure that selected hackathon topics are not already planned in the product roadmap — setting time away from the usual work enables participants to be creative and innovate new ideas. That said, projects should stay relevant to the company’s mission!

3. Build Teams

Decide on teams by allocating people to the pool of project ideas. It’s important to do this in advance, to give teams a chance to meet (virtually, of course) and plan ahead so they can hit the ground running.

4. Check Infrastructure

Make sure teams have the infrastructure they need (e.g. servers and databases) to prevent delays that can block them during the hackathon. Company-specific infra, such as the VPN, should be prepared to handle the increased load. Being able to count on the infrastructure frees up people to focus on creativity.

5. Run Demos

At SideHack2020, we had fifteen teams, and two hours for everyone to demo: this divides into eight minutes per team. Allowing two minutes between each presentation for switchover gives each team six minutes to present. This is short, but has the advantage of forcing teams to be concise. This makes demos fast-paced and exciting! We noticed, however, that pretty much every team underestimated the time their demo would take. It’s best to have a moderator remind teams if they’re running out of time.

6. Foster social interaction

Don’t forget that hackathons are for team-building and networking. Since we could not physically get together, we relied more on our online company social network. Creative challenges such as getting people to post photos showing the event’s stickers and t-shirts drove engagement, kept teams up to date with each other, and built a sense of community.

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Views from the software developers, data scientists and other tech experts at Sidetrade — the global AI-powered Order-To-Cash platform: www.sidetrade.com