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This is how you nail it in a hackathon – four tips for businesses and hackers

At the end of November we took part at the Junction 2017 event as Castrén & Snellman’s partner company. Europe’s largest hackathon gathered some 1,500 software developers and designers to Dipoli at Otaniemi for an entire weekend, to solve challenges presented by companies. We acted as mentors in the legal tech area, helping developers in service design, technology and in refining business concepts.

Based on our experiences, we put together some tips both for companies who think about participating in a hackathon, and hackers competing in a hackathon.


Four tips for businesses in a hackathon

1. Offer an interesting challenge

A hackathon is not a competition just for development teams, but it is just as much an event where companies compete in whose challenges the best experts choose to tackle.

Programmers and designers participating in a hackathon are first and foremost motivated by learning something new and solving challenges that are of interest to them. Whether a challenge is interesting or not depends among other things on the importance of the business problem that needs solving and whether the solution allows them to use technologies they haven’t previously used.

It may be difficult for a company to objectively assess the appeal of their own challenge. Don’t hesitate to ask hackathon organisers for their opinion and help. It is of their best interest too to have as many interesting challenges as possible.

2. Bring something tangible to the challenge

As part of their challenge, companies typically give teams access to some of their data or APIs that will allow them to access the company’s systems.

If you give the teams access to a data set, make sure there’s someone to help them get started, and can answer questions like: ”What do these negative sales figures mean?” or ”Can I remove these one hundred duplicate rows?”. The teams are often international, so try to provide any textual data in English. Include in the planning of the challenge someone who has insight in analytics, who together with business experts will validate the sufficiency of the data set content to allow the solving of the problem. Make the effort to gather and tidy up a comprehensive data set, or the challenge may remain unsolved.

If you choose to offer the teams an API, make sure there are people on site who are able to help the teams in using it if the interface documentation you offer is not comprehensive enough. If you can give them code examples on how to use the APIs or even a ready customer library in a few common programming languages, the teams will be more likely to utilise your API. Offer them an API to an environment that contains as much production-like data as possible, or if possible, an API to production, even.


3. Staff your team with business experts

Business experience is the best you can offer to the teams. Particularly at the beginning of a hackathon, when ideas are still being drafted, it’s important for the team to be able to validate whether they are solving a relevant business problem. It’s advisable to bring to the event more business people from your company than technical experts, as hackers participating in a hackathon prefer solving technical problems themselves. They may only need some clarification in interpreting your data or in using your API’s. If ten teams are solving your challenge, two to four business representatives and one technical expert simultaneously on site will do the job.

Bring more business people than technical experts from your company. Hackers participating in a hackathon prefer solving technical problems themselves.

4. Stand out with prizes

All industries aren’t equally interesting. It may difficult to beat space technology or robotics, but with lucrative prizes you can try to even out the situation. At Junction this year, many companies gave 1,000–2,000-euro gift cards to popular online stores. So, you should think about what types of and how valuable prizes could make you stand out from others.


Four hackathon tips for hackers

1. Ask mentors open-ended questions

You will get more valuable information from mentors if you get them in their own words to tell you about their business and their own or their customers' problems. You'll get more out of them with open-ended questions that cannot be answered with just yes or no. Write down tips, so you can refer to them in your demo.

2. Identify the characteristics and limitations of the customer company and their industry

Companies operating in different industries and different countries have certain characteristics and limitations. A project may face a situation, for example, where data can be stored on a server located only in a certain country or where every action needs to have a perfect audit trail. It is important to be aware of these situations to be able in your demo to tell how you would handle them in your solution. However, it is not feasible to try to implement everything during a hackathon.


3. Ask customer companies about their systems and data

If your idea needs data to work, but the company didn’t bring any, or that one thing you'd need is missing, go and talk to them about it. The data may well be found in the customer’s other systems or be relatively easy to acquire. If needed, you can produce your own mock data set for your demo and describe the functionality of your solution in real life. The better your solution fits into the existing system map of the company who issued the challenge, the better your chances.

Test user, test task, asdasd and lorem ipsum will flatten the feeling of your otherwise energetic demo, leaving an unpolished impression.

4. Use the customer’s language and a clear visual identity

To make your demo more identifiable, use concepts that are familiar to the customer. Test user, test task, asdasd and lorem ipsum will flatten the feeling of your otherwise energetic demo, leaving an unpolished impression. Hasty user interface design can also give an unpolished feeling. In HTML, for example, overwriting the default list styles using CSS only takes a few minutes, but will do wonders to the overall look of the solution.

Asko Relas