Why (and How) You Should Host a Hackathon

Molly Howard, VP of Operations at Ovia Health, shares what she learned from the planning and execution of Ovia Health’s Technology Supporting Women Hackathon. 

Ovia Health recently hosted the Technology Supporting Women Hackathon in downtown Boston: a weekend dedicated to solving a problem facing women today using technology. This two-day event was truly spectacular. We were able to meet so many incredibly talented individuals who were eager to give up their weekends to solve problems that women face. Our attendees ranged from medical providers to budding engineers, from data analysts to undergraduates, and all brought unique skills and perspectives.

One of Ovia Health’s values is Champion Women, and we’re so lucky to do this every single day through the work we do with our three mobile apps: Ovia Fertility, Ovia Pregnancy, and Ovia Parenting and with our maternity and family benefits solution. The experiences we shared at the hackathon emphasized the importance of our mission. Looking out at a room of people giving up their weekends to help solve important women’s health challenges, you can’t help but feel hopeful about the future.  

Hosting a public event can be intimidating, particularly when all your team members are already wearing multiple hats. However, as it turns out, if you mix limited resources with unlimited passion, you can pull off a successful hackathon! Here’s how we did it.

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3 months ahead

  • Find internal champions. The true heroes of the hackathon were two software engineers on our team: Nicole Felch and Nathan Fennel. The “Technology Supporting Women Hackathon” was their idea and they did the lion’s share of the planning.
  • Get buy-in and an investment. Pitch the initiative to your leadership, and make sure you request an appropriate budget. Our leadership team was excited by the idea and invested $5,000 in the Hackathon. The choice of the word “invested” is important here: we invested in the hackathon for the recruiting potential it offered (a priority for us because of our lean recruiting strategy) and the team building and comradery we knew it would provide. These are outcomes that can reasonably be expected of a hackathon, and a company should be willing to invest dollars to see them come to fruition.
  • Pick a date. Easy!
  • Pick a topic. Make sure your topic isn’t too narrow or too broad for the audience you are looking to attract. We ran several ideas by our broader company to see what topics people would be most excited to hack.

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2 months ahead

  • Logo development. We paid a small amount ($50) to a designer through an online platform to come up with a hackathon logo.
  • Build a sign-up process. We used Eventbrite and linked to a Google Form to ask more specific questions about a hacker’s interest in participating. Pro tip: Make sure to ask for food allergies during the sign-up process.
  • Build momentum and interest. Nicole and Nathan did a fabulous job publicizing the hackathon. They used communities they were already part of (such as developer meetups) as well as communities where they thought we could attract underrepresented hackers (such as university women coding groups).
  • Find judges. We wanted a three-person judging panel reflecting different perspectives. Specifically, we were looking for a public health expert, a technologist, and an engineer. We tapped into our networks and asked everyone in the company for ideas and came up with an absolutely fantastic group of judges: Grace Galvin, Amma Marfo and Rory O’Connor.

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2 weeks ahead

  • Finalize schedule. We opted for a two-day hackathon for our inaugural event. Friday night, we started around 6 p.m., and doors closed at 10 p.m. On Saturday, doors opened at 8 a.m., and there was a code stop at 5 p.m. Presentations went from 6-7:30 p.m., and doors closed around 9 p.m.
  • Create legal docs. Nathan created three docs that all participants had to sign to participate: 1) a hackathon code of conduct, 2) general terms, and 3) specific hackathon rules. These are primarily important to ensure ownership is clear (the ideas generated stay with teams and not with Ovia Health) and that there are clear expectations around behavioral norms.
  • Confirm with judges. Plans can change, make sure to send a quick note to confirm participation.

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1 week ahead

  • Coordinate logistics around food and food delivery. We served dinner on Friday night and breakfast, lunch, and dinner on Saturday. We had coffee, tea, and water available throughout. We had some alcohol on both Friday night and Saturday night, but this was not a big focus of the event. Pro tip: more food is better than less food (obviously), and it’s good to make sure your caterer labels every ingredient for every item. Many participants greatly appreciated having food that they could safely eat.
  • Legal docs signed. We dropped our documents in DocuSign and sent them out to participants in advance. This helped streamline the sign-in process.
  • Staffing. Ask others in the organization to participate. We had our Chief Medical Officer serve as mentor, teams to help with the sign-in process, teams to coordinate different meals, technology and design mentors, and lots of people on deck for anything that was needed.
  • Create name tags on lanyards. Pro tip: put the Wi-Fi passwords and hackathon schedule on the back of the name tag.
  • Technology set-up. Make sure your space has the technology that you’ll need to host the event. This means reliable internet (ideally with a backup system), a TV/projection system, a microphone, and some sort of recording device.
  • Create a Slack channel for participants. Days before the hackathon, participants were introducing themselves and sharing ideas.
  • Welcome email. Be sure to send an email a few days before with reminders about location, timing, and expectations.

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Day 1 of Hackathon

  • Signage. Make sure people know how to get to your space and know who to contact if they’re having trouble finding it.
  • Sign-in process. We had a team of folks outside the main room checking participants in and ensuring they had signed all of the required paperwork.
  • Open networking. The first hour of the hackathon was just for participants to get to know each other and start sharing ideas, which allowed us to easily transition into actual hacking later!
  • Welcome. Nicole and Nathan welcomed all participants to the hackathon, shared logistical information, and talked about judging criteria. Our Chief Medical Officer talked for five minutes about Ovia Health’s mission and vision and our hope for the hackathon.
  • Pitches. Nicole invited hackers to get up one-by-one to share a passion project or idea that they were looking for support to hack or a skill set that they could contribute. Pro tip: write down all of the project/ideas to reference during the facilitated conversation.
  • Facilitate conversation. The goal of the facilitated conversation is to help participants form hacking groups. For some, this is easy. For others, we helped make introductions and suggestions. We had several Ovia team members offering support for participants needed help executing their ideas, and we were proactive about locating people who might not ask for that support unprompted.

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Day 2 of Hackathon

  • Technology. It’s best practice to have a few spare computers around. Some of our participants didn’t own computers, and it was our goal that our event be as inclusive as possible.
  • Support. We asked Ovia Health team members to stop by to provide support and expertise. From designer to product owners to engineers, these volunteers helped group after group over stumbling block and shared valuable skills.
  • Classes. Hosting a few classes during the hackathon broke up the work time and provided skill development opportunities. For example, one of our wonderful judges, Amma Marfo, taught a fantastic class on pitching.
  • Code stop. An hour before presentation time, we mandidated a code stop. This means every group took the time to prepare for their presentation (which doesn’t always happen at hackathons). Additionally, this break allowed groups to zoom out and focus on the big picture in their presentation versus focusing just on the last technology piece that they fit in before the buzzer.
  • Presentations. Each group had two minutes to present their pitch and a minute to answer questions. Make sure technology is set up beforehand and that there’s a point person for troubleshooting. Pro tip: provide the judges with forms with judging criteria for each group.  
  • Judging. After the presentations, the judges went to another room for ten minutes to discuss. Again, having those consistent forms will make the judging process quicker and more connected to the criteria.
  • Awards and celebration. The award ceremony was brief but meaningful. The top three groups were announced. Don’t forget to take pictures!

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Post-Hackathon

  • Send prizes. We found Amazon gift cards to be the most flexible option (and they’re easy to send)! We spent about $1200 on prizes.
  • Collect feedback. We conducted a brief survey with four questions:
    • 1) What were you hoping to accomplish at the hackathon?
    • 2) What could we do better for next time?
    • 3) How did you hear about this event?
    • 4) Any other feedback for us?
  • Retrospective. We got together after the hackathon to share our reflections and review participant feedback. We’re excited to continue making improvements in future hackathons.

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Hosting a hackathon is a great way to energize a team, showcase your organization, and support a mission that your organization is excited about. It takes planning and some resources, but it shouldn’t be out of reach for most organizations. You can use this post as a playbook, map out the steps that need to be followed, and divide and conquer. See you at the next hackathon?