How To Run The Perfect Virtual Hackathon – Do’s & Dont’s

Running Virtual Hackathons

There’s a pretty popular saying about Hackathons. It goes something like “Hackathons are where your crazy ideas become a reality.” And I love that.

I love that because we live in an age and time where crazy ideas, creativity, and innovation are the wheels that keep our tech-driven society moving forward.

June 4th, 1999 is a special date for us in tech. That’s the day the first-ever hackathon was conducted. Fast forward to 2021, and hackathons have exploded in popularity around the world, and for good reason. Hackathons are to date, the single best way to foster innovation and drive engagement inside and outside your workforce.

A hackathon in action

That being said, these revolutionary events that potentially can change our world, for the better, are taking a different turn. They are now virtual!

The pandemic forced 90% of our world to go online, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Virtual hackathons now open up the opportunity for thousands of skilled developers from around the world to take part in the event, which is always a good thing.

The fact that location is no longer a restraint, gives organizations access to a diverse variety of profiles, skill sets, and ideas. As long as you’re running your event on a reliable platform with great infrastructure (cough cough, HackerEarth) your talent pool has no limits.

Sounds great, right?

Like in any great tale, there’s always another side to the story. And this one is no different.

Virtual hackathons come with it’s own set of challenges. Challenges like managing communication effectively, and not having the right expectations or goals in place can hinder your event from being successful.

However, if you’re backed by great tools built for running virtual hackathons, you can streamline the task of administration while increasing the quality of your submissions, at the same time.

Here’s my do’s and don’ts for running virtual hackathons-


#1: Be clear about your goals

The quickest way to do many things is to focus on one thing at a time. The same logic applies to organizing your virtual hackathon. Keep your focus narrow and your goals clearly defined and concise. This makes it much easier to organize and later evaluate if the hackathon was a success or not.

Most companies use the power of hackathons to tackle very specific technical problems and find optimal solutions to them. Some other companies have goals like helping developers get familiar and accustomed to a particularly new API or application by building something cool by interacting with it.

Now that you have a basic understanding of what your hackathon goals are, the next step is to define them. Whatever goals you choose, the key lies in defining and documenting them early in the process so everyone is on the same page.

Next, setting a reasonable period for achieving your goals is key. A time period too short, and you’re left with a less than functional product. So if your goal is to have a fully functional idea turned into a product by the end of the hackathon, you will need to give your participants enough time to achieve this.

To sum this point up, define your goals for the event right from the beginning. Write it or type it down and get everyone up to speed with the goals. Finally, make sure every part of the hackathon process works towards meeting these goals.

#2: Avoid miscommunication

Great communication helps build the foundation of any successful hackathon. And a lack thereof, could lead to significant mishaps, all which can be avoided. You will need to maintain great communication from the get-go. Over-communicate if you have to, but don’t let miscommunication take over and ruin the event.

Above, we discussed the importance of clarifying event goals from the start. The next logical step is communicating the same with every party involved and meeting them effectively through effective communication tools.

A few tips to administer a structured communication formula is below:

  • Assign designated Point of Contacts (POCs) to manage each section of the event
  • Conduct regular check-ins with your POCs to ensure everything is running smoothly
  • If something does go wrong, have your POCs report the issue and try to solve it as soon as possible, minimizing the damage (if any)

It’s better to repeat yourself and over-communicate the important parts rather than hurting a participant’s morale and chances of success in the hackathon, or vary expectations due to miscommunication.

#3: Choose the right platform

Everyone talks about successful hackathons but there isn’t enough talk about the platforms which host them. The truth is, the platform either makes or breaks your entire event and that’s why choosing the right one is key.

To carry out a memorable and successful hackathon, there’s many moving parts at play and hence the choice of platform is crucial.

The right platform should offer the following solutions:

  • In the case of the participants, there has to be a way to form teams quickly and easily online, submit their final products within the platform and have the option to edit their submissions before judging begins
  • In the case of the organizers, the right platform must offer features like streamlining the team formation process, access to every participant’s information within the platform, view the entire submitted project online and assign scores to the participants

A platform which offers the above features should be your first choice for streamlining the entire virtual hackathon seamlessly.

#4: Remember to have fun

When developers hear of hackathons, they immediately think of a good time. The idea of being in a stressful situation to churn out innovative products never occurs to them. Don’t ever make it that way.

That being said, this fun can be hard to replicate in virtual environments, but not impossible.

The perfect way to foster the fun elements involved in a virtual hackathon is to make sure the scoring system puts the most focus on learning, teamwork, and the experience gained from the event, rather than just the final product deliverable.

Build up excitement by creating a Slack or Google Hangouts channel for the event, and let your participants engage freely with each other. Another key initiative to build hype for the event is organizing Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions with leaders across SMEs.

Finally, after the Hackathon is over, each team could present their final product on a deck in front of the judges, to sell their idea. This would resemble the TV show Shark Tank a lot, and it might just be the peak of the virtual event.

Win or lose, it sure would be an amazing memory for your participants’ journey in code.

#5: What’s in it for them (Let’s talk rewards)

Human nature loves appreciation in exchange for their efforts.

Simply put, if you want to get the best out of your participants and make this Hackathon a lasting success, defining what the community gets in return for their participation in the event is vital.

Takeaways from attending a hackathon could range from being a learning experience to having an impact on changing our world, for good. For example, HackCOVID was a hackathon organized by HackerEarth in 2021 to deploy effective solutions in fighting Covid-19.

Every participant was made aware of the fact that their contributions in this hackathon could help in fighting the deadly virus as well as a reward of seed funding up to ₹25 lakhs.

Certificates, cash prizes, internships, or a full-time job offer, whatever the reward, clearly define it to set expectations right from the get-go.


#1: Micromanagement is a no-no

Communication challenges and virtual events go hand in hand. A side effect that comes with this is the urge to micromanage and over analyze every small detail.

Avoid that urge at all costs.

Micromanagement affects creativity and the final product negatively. The participants in a hackathon are its primary drivers, not the organizers. As iterated in the points before this, over-communicate the necessary information within fixed timeframes, but don’t force participants to fill in every tiny detail while they are busy developing their ideas.

#2: Don’t forget Social Media

Companies often undertake promotional activities to maximize the engagement and participation in hackathons. Television ads, billboards, and even radio spots are sometimes used to promote an event.

But an often overlooked promotional activity is social media promotion.

You have to realize, a majority of your participants and the developer community are active on the major social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and even LinkedIn.

Using these platforms to promote your event through paid or organic means is a great way to maximize your engagement, registrations, and visibility for the event.

Working as a Social Media Specialist, I can confidently say that Social Media alone enormously helps brands rack up awareness and registrations for events like hackathons or webinars.

When the right event meets its relative audience on the right platform, that’s when the magic happens.

#3: Don’t forget the developer community

It goes without saying that to maximize your chances of ending up with the best thought-of product, code, and ideas at the end of the event, you have to maximize your participation rates.

By the nature of probability, higher participation will equal higher chances of a successful event. And the best way to increase participation is to promote your event to an active community which knows the value of hackathons and has a high participation rate.

Companies can aim to create this community themselves through their recruiters and hiring managers by actively sharing content on social media and various developer forums. The aim is to connect with the community by writing posts and creating content that’s relatable.

If not that, you can always leverage the power of strong and powerful developer communities that already exist like HackerEarth’s community of five million developers.

#4: Don’t underestimate the power of non-technical teams

The days when hackathons were only meant for developers are long gone. We live in a time when innovation and ideas can be contributed from every department and team, not just the tech teams.

Hence, involving other teams in your hackathons like the marketing or the sales team can prove to be enormously beneficial for everyone. Each department is unique and can offer its perspectives towards building a more functional, innovative, and overall ‘better’ product.

The role of non-technical teams becomes especially important in the ideation phase of the event where their experience involved in post-development phases comes in handy. I like to think that the products might be built by the tech team, but it’s always the non-tech teams that make sure it gets its money’s worth.

I’m referring to the sales, marketing and customer support teams who are responsible for the job of maximising the revenue generated from the product. These are key business functions with their ears on the ground and bring valuable insights on product-market fit and customer demands. All of this information could be immensely valuable in the ideation stage of the hackathon.

Ignoring the non-coding teams could lead to missing out on some revolutionary ideas and products.

Signing off: Remember Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s law states that “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”.

Running a virtual hackathon could get immensely stressful and seem overwhelming at times. And by the general nature of an event like this, things will go wrong.

When, not if, but when things do go wrong, remember these 5 do’s and 5 don’ts that we discussed in this blog and gear yourself up to minimize damage.

Whenever I make big life decisions, I always ask myself, does the reward outweigh the risk? And in this case, it sure does.

You will be hosting an event that will foster creativity, innovation, and possibly groundbreaking products that might one day solve crucial real-life problems and make our world a better place. You can’t convince me that the work put into making virtual hackathons a success is not worth it.

Final thoughts? Remember to make it a fun experience for everyone involved, and don’t forget Murphy’s Law.

Thanks for reading!

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