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Laura Heritage

Organization culture is often a great barrier to a digital transformation. Getting everyone to think in terms of digital business – rather than business as usual – can be extremely challenging. And, I do mean everyone, from the business to the technical employees. It’s not that people don’t have the potential to change. Chances are, you’re surrounded by talented people who know your business and technology. They know your customers’ greatest pain points. They know where innovation needs to occur if you just let them exercise their creativity. The transformation is right there, but somehow not happening. How can you make change a priority?

This article looks at the internal hackathon, an approach that has been proven to stimulate interest and creative ideas in the direction of digital transformation. A hackathon is an event where people get together and code, usually with an overarching theme or goal. For example, some hackathons assemble developers and ask them to create a great mobile app to solve an environmental problem. In our arena, we see enterprises create a hackathon that challenges small teams of developers to create apps that work with an API that helps with a particular business challenge, or they create a hackathon to surface new APIs from existing assets in the company that will be valuable to the business. There are many ways to go. Here are some of the things I help companies navigate when hosting their hackathons that might be helpful to you.

What are the basics of holding an internal hackathon?

Now that you have determined you want to hold an internal hackathon how do you actually do it?   Is there a secret?   Does it need to be a massive production with months and months of preparation?   No there is no secret, maybe some best practices and no it doesn’t need to be a massive production. You can start small.  Most companies have more than one hackathon. Typically, they do a series, aligned with a particular business strategy such as patient admissions, fleet management or customer order, or aligned with a technical strategy, such as mobile, RESTful APIs or microservices.


Set the Scope of the Hackathon

It’s best to keep the hackathons simple and really get into the fun of it. Create an environment where no idea is too small and where no idea is a bad idea. Create an environment where you have people of a variety of skills from business to technical sharing their ideas and quickly executing them. It really does wonders for employee motivation and morale.

Setting the scope of the hackathon is the most important thing you need to nail down. Once you have the scope set, everything else becomes a set of to dos that you need to execute on. The following scope items need to be determined up front to set the stage.

Audience – You know you are dealing with an internal audience, but you need to further refine the target group of participants. What is the skill level of the group you are targeting? Will they need some education on concepts or technology before they can participate? Are they going to be willing participants? Do they have time to participate? Maybe there is a better time of the month or year that would increase participation.

Goal and Measurements of Success – What is the goal of your hackathon? Why are you having it to begin with? Yes, at the beginning of this blog we talk about digital transformation but you need to be more specific on what you are trying to achieve The goal is very closely related to the audience you choose

 For example:

  • Are you trying to influence specific organizations or educate employees on certain technologies?
  • Is there a particular area where you want to rapidly surface ideas?
  • Are you trying to seed a catalog of apps to go to market?
  • Are you trying to vet an API before it is released externally to the market?
  • Are you trying to find out what assets your employees think have value?
  • Find areas where your employees think need improvement?
  • Is this a marketing campaign to change your companies image of being old and un-innovative?

Now that you have a goal how are you going to measure the success of the hackathon?   Make sure to define these ahead of time

For example:

  • Employees now know and can code Node.js
  • A set of ideas to investigate further
  • A set of apps
  • A set of new APIs
  • A list of comments, recommendations and issues about your APIs
  • Increased morale – this might take a few days after the hackathon to gage

Size – Determining the size and location of the audience is one of the key criteria for determining how much you are willing to invest in the hackathon. Are you going to have 20 -30 participants, each working individually?   Or are you going to have over 80 participants working in groups?   We have found that the group size of about four is a good number.  It ensures everyone is able to participate and you don’t have people just sitting on the sidelines.

Location – Where will your hackathon take place?   You have the following options, again depending on the size and team structure you are targeting.

  • Local – If you keep the hackathon in one location it makes logistics a lot simpler and reduces the time and costs of setting up the hackathon.
  • Cross-Site – For larger more geographically distributed hackathons, you will need to identify hosting sites. Logistics becomes more difficult as you have to coordinate rooms, meals, audio, WebEx, etc You will need a site coordinator at each location to lead the teams. If you are spanning different time zones broader then 4 hours, this will be very difficult and will change the hackathon experience. Even a 4 hour time zone difference creates some challenges.  It can be done, but you need to plan for it
  • Remote – This type of hackathon where everyone is remote.  It’s difficult for many reasons.  You lose a lot of the benefits of teaming and sharing of ideas. You also lose the ability to remove people from their day-to-day environments.  You can also lose participation if the prizes are not fantastic or the challenges for the hackathon are not interesting

Theme What is the Theme of the hackathon going to be?  This can have a very wide scope to a very narrow scope. It depends on what your goals and expected results are from the hackathon  and on how wide or narrow the scope should be.  Below are a couple of possible scopes.

For example:

  • Identify core services/data, then define and generate a proper RESTFul API based on those core services.  Have participants explain the business case for the API, who would be the targeted developer, what would be the benefit to the end-user and what value would this bring to the corporation?  Give a demonstration.
  • Provide a set of APIs around a particular topic area where you are looking for apps.  For example merchant payment APIs, Banking Rates API, Healthcare FHIR APIs, etc.
  • Set a particular subject area where you are looking for innovation, like “Banking and IoT” and see what people come up with.   Or, how can we improve customer service in banking?
  • What innovation can we do with Node.js or another particular technology you are trying to adopt?

Length – How long are you going to run the hackathon?

  • 1 day
  • 2 days
  • 1 Week
  • 1 Month or more

 Timeline – As soon as you have set your audience, size, location, goals and themes you can work backward on the timeline for the rest of the activities you need to plan for.  The initial scoping of the hackathon can take only a few hours to months depending on your target audience and your investment level.  Internal hackathons can be established and setup much quicker then external hackathons, as greater care needs to be taken to ensure a great experience externally.  As a swag for a simple internal hackathon, I would give yourself a good two to three month runway for getting it up and going, especially if everyone who is working on the hackathon has a day job as well.

rolesRoles and Responsibilities

To successfully host a hackathon you need to have people who can play the following roles:


  • Executive Sponsor– Well respected executive in the company that the audience would look up too.  Gives a very short hello and kick off.
  • Hackathon Mastermind– The mastermind and driver of the hackathon.  This person sets the goals, scope and outcomes.
  • Project Manager– A person to keep everyone on track to ensure everything comes together for hackathon day.  Helps the Master Site Coordinator during the event.
  • Master Sites Coordinator– Responsible for everything across all sites for the day:  Room, Lunch, Projector, Audio, Webinar  May need more then one.
  • Site Coordinator– Room, Lunch, Projector, Audio, Webinar.
  • Master of Ceremonies/Special Guest– You may have this person if you are introducing new concepts or technology.  Someone to get the creative juices flowing.
  • Technical Subject Matter experts– Have at least two of these for audiences of 40 or more in a location. Have at least one in each location if you are running a cross-site hackathon.
  • Social Leader– Responsible for blogging, tweeting, pictures and other social aspects during the event.


Communications before the event and after the event are essential for a successful outcome. Before the event, you need to market to your target audience. Four to six weeks before the event, put out an announcement of the hackathon.  This can be an email, blog or article.  Two to three weeks before the event, open up registration for the event.  Post any pre-read materials if you have any. A week before the event, send out reminders, event registration, logistics and any updated information.

After the event, it is especially important to keep moment of the innovation going.  Send out thank you emails and post events results. If there were follow up items from the hackathon, make sure you keep the participants informed of their progress.


Logistics, logistics, logistics… It’s all about logistics.  Create your list and tackle them.  Here is a sample of logistic items you need to consider:





  • Reserve venue/rooms across all locations.
  • Identify site coordinators if cross site.
  • Arrange for catering across all sites DO NOT forget about the vegetarians/Kosher/Halal, etc.
  • Determine AV and Wi-Fi requirements If possible bring a Wi-Fi hot spot as backup.
  • If cross site or remote:
    • Have a chat open at all times.
    • Have a couple of phone numbers to call for help and an open bridge at all times.
    • If there are speakers:
      • Have WebEx open at all times This makes it easy to quickly debug if there isn’t a technical SME onsite.
      • Having video would be nice.
    • Bring electrical extension cords and power stripes.
    • Bring Bluetooth speaker and music to make it festive.
    • If possible do not have one long meeting table Have a table for each team.
    • Order swag for the attendees such as T-Shirts, chargers, etc.
    • Get approval and order prizes.

Reading-Chest-book-reading-logo_imagelargeMaterials and Pre-reads

Materials or Pre-reads are important for your hackathon especially if you are exposing a new concept or new technology to your developers.  They can also help spark ideas prior to the hackathon starting.  Pre-reads can introduce a new business concept and show a need that needs to be filled in the market.  Pre-reads can also be technical information to skill the developers up.  For example you might provide a tutorial on a technology you want them to use.


For example:


  • Tutorial
  • Best practices
  • Interesting articles on technical concepts


  • Latest trends in your industry or adjacent industry


Build out your agenda based on your hackathon length, target goals and outcomes.  Make sure you schedule a few times each day where you regroup with everyone to make sure they all have what they need


TechReqTechnical Requirements

You need to think about the technical requirement from a holistic approach.

For example:

  • How are you going to register your participants? Are you going to use something like http://www.hackathon.io as a communication channel with them?
  • How are you going to manage the APIs? Will you use an API Management solution like the Akana’s API Management that provides a developer portal?
  • What development platform will the participants use? Are they able to choose whatever they want? This could become a support nightmare during the hackathon depending on the skill level of your participants.  Or will you dictate using a cloud platform like http://c9.io

Some organizations I work with have very tight security and they can’t install anything on their laptops and their network is limited as well.  Make sure you vet all the tools and networking you need to leverage well before the hackathon.

Judge HackathonJudges and Judging

Establish the criteria for judging well before the event.  Make sure everyone participating in the event understands the terms. Depending on your audience you may want to wait until the day of the event before you announce the criteria.


Some example criteria you can judge on:

  • Business value/Impact
  • Creativity
  • Simplicity
  • Design
  • Most likely to get implemented
  • Consumer value/Impact

Choose your judges based on your goals and desired outcomes of the hackathon.   I would suggest four or five judges ranging from business to technically skilled.  For example, in one hackathon I participated in we had two business judges and two technical judges.  It was very interesting to see the scoring from each of their perspectives

Another concept is to the let the participants vote on a set of criteria.


The prizes are the most important part!   This can be tricky depending on your budget and other large enterprise rules and regulations.  The prizes can be anything from your corporation’s rewards points programs to gift certificates, sporting event tickets or time off.   You can get creative here.  You can have a varying level of prizes depending on the size of your hackathon.

When will you hold a hackathon?

Running an internal hackathon doesn’t need to be mountainous or cumbersome.  Start small and work your way larger, if you need to get larger.  Ask the community around you for help and advice.  I’d be happy to help out and give advice.   Most importantly don’t forget why you are throwing the hackathon in the first place and have fun doing it!


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