How IBM ran a virtual hackathon for its employees across 10 countries

How to run a virtual hackathon

A couple of weeks ago, more than 500 IBM employees across China, Japan, India, The Middle East, Germany, France, Italy, UK, Canada, Brazil and the United States got together to solve some pressing customer problems from the comfort of their homes. 

The goal? To infuse Artificial Intelligence into existing products. 

How? Through a virtual AI-a-thon.

Now, don’t be surprised. Everything around us is going virtual and so are hackathons.

Most people know hackathons as an event where people come together to a physical location to solve real-world problems with technology. And doing this virtually has its own benefits, said Jeffrey Dare, Advisory software engineer at IBM and one of the organizers of the IBM virtual hackathon. 

IBM virtual hackathon

For those who are new to virtual hackathons, Jeff said you’d need to keep these points in mind for successful execution:

  1. Know your target audience and have your problem defined to a granular level. If your employees don’t understand what the problem is in the first place, you may not reap the benefits of an activity like this. Also, have your judging criteria set and announce it before the hackathon starts.
  2. If you are running an AI hackathon as IBM did, you must have your data sets ready. Also, make sure you invest in the right infrastructure. In the case of a virtual hackathon, signing up for a hackathon software such as HackerEarth can make the process so much easier.
  3. Run a hackathon once every quarter or once every 6 months. But make sure it is not too frequent as it could bring down your employees’ interest levels

Virtual hackathon


Jeff said there were 3 key benefits that clearly placed this model above the traditional one:

  • “For starters, the virtual hackathon was really engaging. Most employees don’t want to travel to a different location. In fact, the coding phase started during the lockdown and we were skeptical if things would work out or not. But it sure did and the employees loved this model for the flexibility it offered.”
  • “It helped bring the global IBM team together. We encouraged our employees to form a team as diverse as possible. Imagine someone sitting out of China brainstorming with an employee based out of IBM Brazil! Virtual was the only way it would work and it did wonders to keep our employees engaged.”
  • “Managing the hackathon was a cakewalk. The HackerEarth platform did all the heavy lifting for us and with no logistics to take care of, it was a huge relief for an organizer like me.”

The result? “Most of the solutions solved our customers’ problems. We were able to move all viable solutions into production,” said Jeff. 

In fact, one of the judging criteria we have is the hack’s applicability. So yes, we have long term benefits from running hackathons like these. Since it was virtual, we were able to scale the hackathon without worrying about logistics.”

virtual hackathon

Running internal innovation campaigns is an excellent way to engage talent and have a surge in creativity and output. Here is HackerEarth’s 7 point guide to hosting the perfect virtual hackathon:

  • Define a clear objective for the hackathon. It could be a solution for a real-world challenge your company is facing or to engage with your current workforce or both.
  • There is no harm in over-communicating. It is necessary to over-communicate timing and expectations and ensure everyone is engaged during the virtual hackathon.
  • Bring in as many employees as you can. Trust us, the more people on board, the better the outcome.
  • Let participants know the hackathon protocols and judging criteria in advance.
  • Keep the hackathon fluid. Let people have fun while they work on making your products better. So if they need a break or if they want to have a fun session in between, let them.
  • Have informative sessions to engage with the team during a hackathon. This could be an expert webinar or even a fun online game that can be played to ensure everyone is in high spirits during the hackathon.
  • Invest in the right tech. With the right tools, you can make the distance seem smaller and virtually bring people from around the world closer to ideate and create solutions.  

Also, if you wish to learn more about hackathons in general, here is our comprehensive guide to helping you host the perfect hackathon. If you want us to help you host the perfect hackathon, virtual or not, reach out to us we’ll help you get started.

Hackerearth Subscribe

Get advanced recruiting insights delivered every month

Related reads

Tech Layoffs: What To Expect In 2023
Tech Layoffs: What To Expect In 2023

Tech Layoffs: What To Expect In 2023

Layoffs in the IT industry are becoming more widespread as companies fight to remain competitive in a fast-changing market; many turn to layoffs…

6 Ways To Streamline Tech Hiring With A Recruitment Automation Platform
6 Ways To Streamline Tech Hiring With A Recruitment Automation Platform

6 Ways To Streamline Tech Hiring With A Recruitment Automation Platform

I have to manually sort through 348 applications for an open role, talk to hiring managers about new vacancies, and handle admin work….

Get advanced recruiting insights delivered every month

View More

Black Friday Sale

Get 50% off on all Hackerearth products!

November 24th - November 28th Mark Your Calendars
Popup visual