29th July 2020

How to run an effective remote hackathon

Jordan Edmunds

Jordan Edmunds
Head of Sales

Whether or not you work as a developer, most people have an idea of what is involved with a hackathon. I blame The Social Network, which created many of the clichés we have come to associate with them.

The reality, in my experience, is quite different. For a start, hackathons come in various shapes and sizes and are designed to solve different problems.

They certainly don’t all involve drinking tequila, eating pizzas and staying up all night.

At Zing, we use them as part of our engagement process with customers. Often they are designed to build a prototype to demonstrate a working solution, to get buy-in and work through some of the initial technical issues and business problems.

In the past few months we’ve had to make a big adjustment in how we run hackathons – largely because we haven’t been able to be in a room together.

Recently we’ve had two situations which required a hackathon to create working solutions, based on Twilio’s cloud communications platform. We decided to press ahead and run them as remote hackathons.

IVR Flow Zing Example 980x578

Here’s what we learned in the process, hopefully serving as a guide to anyone looking to run a hackathon remotely.

The Zing guide to running a remote hackathon

1. Don’t obsess with remote. The main thing is to not get caught up in the idea that the hackathon is happening in multiple locations. All the same fundamental rules apply.

2. Before the hackathon starts… Make sure you prepare just as thoroughly as you would in person – for example, having the right people “in the room”, roles are decided up front, timescales are agreed (it’s easier for people to leave a virtual room!), the connectivity and communications technology is tested properly, people understand the process, you have access to all applications that require integration, and so on.

3. Consider everyone’s schedules. While lockdown is effectively over, that doesn’t mean to say that everything is back to normal. Don’t assume that people can be involved eight hours straight – they may have care commitments that you need to know up front. But participants also need to understand they can’t dip in and out either, unless it’s pre-agreed – or is an emergency, of course! Be realistic about timescales too. Our last hackathons have been two days each, which felt about right in our world.

4. Involve the customer or key beneficiary. We run our hackathons with our customers fully engaged as part of the process. In fact, we appoint them the product owner. This way they feel they have a vested stake in the solution and will fight harder to see it developed. Typically, we use Confluence, working with Jira, which gives them full visibility to everything we see.

5. Start with the problem. The first phase in any hackathon is a discovery phase, where the objective is to develop a problem statement. It’s not uncommon for us to spend 25% on the discovery phase – it’s that important to the final outcome.

6. Replace the Post-it notes with virtual equivalents. Usually we get through a lot of Post-it notes during the hackathon, especially the discovery phase. We have found using online whiteboarding tools such as Miro provide a good alternative. Don’t be afraid to use real-world props either. For instance, if you need to scribble a diagram down, there’s nothing wrong with doing that and holding it up to the camera!

7. Keep your video on. It feels strange at first not being in the room together, but one element we found helps is keeping Google Meet on all day, even when you’re not working on something jointly at the time.

8. Talk at the end of each sprint. It’s easy to get too addicted to instant messaging to get quick answers, but that misses out on the vital visual and audio communication elements. So take time out to get everyone together to talk through progress in-person, especially at the end of each section or sprint.

9. Take regular breaks. In many ways it’s more intensive running a virtual hackathon, because you’re always on screen and have to concentrate in a different way. Ensure your team takes regular breaks. Why not order food in for everyone that arrives at an agreed time, so everyone gets a shared experience.

Remote hackathons – they may become “a thing”

What was the experience like running the hackathon remotely? Actually, much smoother than we expected (bearing in mind, we did our first one in the early days of lockdown!)

While we love getting together to solve problems face-to-face, I can see this being another way we work with customers, especially if there are geographical challenges or we see further localised lockdowns.

But don’t take our word for it, here’s what one customer said:

Zing took us from initial idea to a working virtual contact centre in two days. In a world where speed of delivery really does matter, being able to work fast, while at the same time having an understanding of the problem, is a rare skill. I have seen this first-hand with the Zing team.

Chris Wicks
Chief IT Architect, BCG Platinion

As the UK’s only partner 100% dedicated to Twilio, hackathons are an essential way for us to build a prototype and demonstrate how it works. We are expecting that running them remotely will become a regular occurrence in the future.

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