Hackathons > Lessons from running 200 remote hackathons
Scene from the movie ‘The Social Network.’
A room full of boisterous Harvard undergrads. In the center: a small group of coders hunched over their laptops, typing away at warp speed. Jesse Heisenberg’s character, Mark, explaining to a perplexed Eduardo (Andrew Garfield) that he had walked right into Facebook’s first-ever hackathon.
The audience learns that the coders have 10 minutes to get root access to a Python web server, expose its SSL encryption, and then intercept all traffic over its secure port. The catch? They have to do so while being inebriated beyond their wits. The premise is that if anyone can manage stealth in such a state, they really must be golden.
Drunk, but absolutely golden.
Allow us the pleasure of that intro, please! It reminds us of when we could smell code and innovation in the air, the ideas floating around that one could almost touch, the adrenaline. It gets us poetic and dreamy-eyed. HackerEarth loves hackathons (minus the alcohol obviously). So, you can imagine our pain when COVID threw our plans for 2020 right out the window.
As the world went into quarantine, we went through an existential crisis. No more hackathons in the physical realm – how were we to survive that? The sadness lasted only for a bit, thankfully. HackerEarth has 8 years of experience conducting hackathons across industries, and it took the team only a short time to regroup and work out a process for conducting these events online.
Despite the challenges, we ended the year with 200 remote hackathons (you can read all about them here). Along with that came a ton of learnings and growth, late nights and seemingly-impossible deadlines. Allow me to share these lessons we learnt from running 200 remote hackathons:
Lesson 1: Developers LOVE fighting real-world challenges with hackathons
As most developers would agree, code is never mere code. A line of expressive text can maybe paint a pretty picture in your head; weave a beautiful story; or profess love for a concept, or another human being. But, code….code can essentially create another being – an artificial entity, but creation nonetheless. I know I’m bordering on science fiction, but you catch our drift.
In 2020, however, sci-fi and reality mingled and coders were at the helm of it all. We saw our developer community eagerly participate in hackathons that tackled challenges the world was going through. From celebrating one’s right to sexual expression to mitigating the effects of the virus, and even finding a real-life missing person, our developers solved it all with JAVA and panache.
Lesson 2: Hackathons still rule as branding, engagement, crowdsourcing, and upskilling tools
When redoing our calendar for 2020, we presumed we would be conducting many hiring challenges as companies bounced back and started hiring again. We were delightfully wrong! The Microsoft Azure hackathon that we ran right in the middle of the lockdown was a branding activity meant to help developers get acquainted with the new platform; and a perfect example of how brands used this platform to engage with the community. Hackathons are also great for crowdsourcing ideas and offer cost-effective ways of community networking for the organizers.
A 2019 survey showed that Indian employees spend about 7% of their daily hours commuting. With WFH helping devs save these hours, honing skills became easier. We saw this reflected in the choices our clients made, and also on our Slack channel which we use to interact and converse with developers across the globe. We conducted more ‘internal hackathons’ in 2020 than ever before. Companies asked us to organize these events with the sole intent of keeping their tech teams engaged, and providing them the opportunity to upskill themselves.
Lesson 3: Virtual AMAs cannot replace a physical workshop, but they ain’t all that bad
The ‘upskilling’ part of a hackathon comes from the workshops, and interactions with subject matter experts that are built into the event itinerary. A workshop in the real-world is a different beast altogether. You can have a day-long workshop with breaks in between. There is ample opportunity for strangers to shoot the breeze and talk about the Pythons in their backyard. Finding a virtual alternative for this was difficult, but we found an answer to the conundrum.
AMA (Ask Me Anything) sessions were the alternative we had for these workshops, and minus a few initial hiccups they fared well overall. Zoom fatigue is real, as we all know. Hence, we kept our AMA sessions short and interactive, and broke down a day-long talk into smaller bytes. This meant that each hackathon would have a slightly longer lead period than before – but we found that it helped developers understand the topic better. The shorter sessions can be well accommodated in between all the housework and to-dos we’ve all had to add to our lists in 2020.
Also Read: A Lookback At The Hackathons In 2020
Lesson 4: Communication. And then some
With physical events you can rest easy knowing the likelihood of your participants dropping off after finalizing travel and stay is really low. Drop-offs are easier with virtual events. As easy as not clicking the ‘Join Meeting’ button 😂
2020 taught us a lot about the power of communication. From making sure our event descriptions were more precise than before, to leveraging the power of social media and emails, we went through a masterclass in the art of communicating without being OTT.
This also allowed us to understand how our community was fighting the pandemic much better and tailor events according to their needs. Whether it was an upskilling project or a hiring challenge, this approach helped us get maximum traction for all our events.
Lesson 5: Brands that invest in the community are brands that will reap the rewards
Eight years into our journey of helping companies find the right tech talent, we know exactly how hard the sourcing-to-hire cycle is. 2020 reiterated the fact that community engagement needs to be at the forefront of every company’s tech recruiting process.
Even if a brand wasn’t actively hiring last year, the fact that they were willing to keep communication lines open with developers and help them develop and master new skills through innovation challenges went a long way in building brand recall.
Developers are drawn towards companies that do not just see them as means to achieve a business goal, but as a precious resource that needs to be nurtured. As our recent survey shows, more developers are asking about upskilling opportunities at work post-COVID.
Using upskilling as a hook for engagement and sourcing will not only earn you brownie points from the gods of code, but also help you keep your sourcing funnel flush with unicorns and purple squirrels.
On to more….
As 2021 begins, we have an exciting list of hackathons lined up. If you’d like to organize one for your company, or are interested in knowing more about this cost-effective way of engaging with developers can benefit your business then please book a demo slot here.
See you at the next big HackerEarth hackathon!
More On Hackathons: How HackerEarth Helped IBM Run A Hackathon Across 10 Countries