What We Mean When We Say Hackathon

Hackathons started out in the Open Source community as a way to bring people together to work on projects that people cared about and that needed a burst of love and attention. It didn't take long for the format of the hackathon to turn into a competition so that investors could look for the next hot startup or so that large companies could find their next 10x engineer. When we say "hackathon" we are talking about an event where people get together to volunteer their time and do something meaningful.

We don't run hackathons as competitions with large prizes because we have seen how those large prizes get in the way of collaboration. We have also seen time and again that the projects that win at competitive hackathons are not necessarily the projects that have the best long term viability. Instead, we encourage cross-team cooperation throughout our events and focus on getting work accomplished that will have a life beyond the festive weekend of pizza and coding. Instead of large cash prizes, we give small thank you gifts to all the attendees (a t-shirt, a goody bag, or something else provided by a sponsor) and a few fun, maybe even oddball, prizes for categories that are often determined by the judges over the course of the event (eg "Best collaborator", "Sleepiest hacker", "Best Dance Moves While Whiteboarding").

Roles to Fill

Sometimes the same person will fill multiple roles, or tasks will be broken out by person, rather than role. Think of these more as aspects to be considered, rather than individual people rigid in one set of tasks:

  • Organizer
  • Facilitator
  • Fund Raiser
  • Promotions
  • Assist

To-Do Lists for each component


  • Capacity check

(12 people to really get something done, 40 for many humanitarian events, 80 for well promoted, 150 for a sudden hit)

  • Internet (1 WAP/30 people, 50 up preferred)
  • Allows outside catering
  • Available power outlets and strips
  • Sufficient seating and tables
  • PA (if necessary)
  • Projector (and screen)


  • Language for event
  • HashTag for event
  • Logo (I suggest thenounproject.com)
  • Banner sourced, printed up
  • Tshirts or stickers sourced, printed up


  • Form a budget - remember to cover the swag you promise sponsors promotions on!
  • Break into useable chunks
  • Seek companies in line with the event
  • Seek local startups

Add a task each for: securing sponsorship, for sending invoice, for receiving payment


  • Local contact
  • Lead organizer
  • Facilitator
  • Media maker
  • 4-6 speakers

(0-3 sponsors; 2-4 technical; 2-4 subject matter experts)

  • 1 mentor for every 50 people, minimum of 2
  • Judges (3-5)


  • Determine if everyone is doing different iterations of one challenge, or you are offering curated challenges for them to select from, or just seeding the brains
  • Seek one challenge per 10 people, or one challenge that can be broken into components
  • Ensure one point person for the challenge (person asking)
  • At least one lead-up call between the asking org/person, open to registrants to ask questions, discuss stack, etc
  • Notes from those calls posted


  • Registration page up
  • Write up for own blog
  • Twitter outreach (set a reasonable number, given topic and location)
  • Meetup Groups (set a reasonable number, given topic location)
  • Write up on other blogs
  • Outreach to local tech groups
  • Outreach to local academic institutions
  • Outreach to local relevant groups
  • 10% capacity 4 weeks in advance
  • 20% capacity 3 weeks in advance
  • 60% capacity 2 weeks in advance
  • 80% capacity 1 week in advance
  • 110% capacity 3 days before
  • 150% capacity day before
  • Email day before reminding attendees about event, location, etc


Providing meals sure is nice. Be sure that the food is able to be delivered, that you can pay over the phone in advance, and that they provide eating ware.

  • 3 options for each meal (12 days before)
  • Book each meal (10 days before)
  • Verify (3 days before)


  • 4 large-ish prizes to go to members of the winning team (sourced, ordered, received)
  • Smaller prizes such as books, kits, etc (sourced, ordered, received)


  • Email out to attendees thanking for attendance, reminder of what happened
  • Blog post about event
  • Prizes out


Introductory questions are so that people can get a better feel for each other than just names. You want the questions to be short, but show personality. In smaller groups, you can ask more involved questions.

For groups of people who might be timid

  • What is one thing that you learned last week?
  • What is a way you surprised yourself recently?
  • What is something you are proud of yourself for doing?n determined by the judges over the course of the event (eg "Best collaborator", "Sleepiest hacker", "Best Dance Moves While Whiteboarding").

For the techies

  • If you could only visit one website for the rest of your life, what would it be?
  • First memory of using a computer


Based on what the goals of the hackathon are, you can set the tone in some pretty explicit ways. For humanitarian and collaboration hackathons that GWOB tends to do, stick to the following:

  • Seed for awesome people. When you first open up registration, before the big promotions pushes, be sure awesome people will be in attendance. Ideally, they’ll not only have the technical chops but also a sense of social decorum. They will help set the tone for the rest of the group.
  • No big prizes. People on a team each need to be able to have a part, so laptops and gaming systems are a no-go. Also, when it’s one big cash prize, no one talks to other teams.
  • Give away what jerks tend to covet – ie, IP. Anything made at the hackathon is open source. Not only does this encourage people to work on open source projects (yay!), it also makes sure that people are learning how to work together and collaborate.

Speakers and Mentors

  • Speakers: While speaking slots can be completely customizable, we suggest doing a combination of lightning talks (5 minutes each, general overview of topics) and workshops (30 – 60 minutes on information-heavy tutorials) from subject matter experts in areas such as APIs, security, community building, logistics/workflow, UI/UX, etc.
  • Mentors: Onsite subject matter mentors act as floating resources for the duration of the hackathon, and help teams define workflow, generate ideas, problem-solve, and develop final pitches. Often speakers will double as mentors after their speaking slots are finished.

Want to Hire Us?

We’d be more than happy to chat with you about events around real-world problems with the objectives of long-term impact and community building. Hit us up at info at gwob dot org