Why Your Hackathon Needs a Theme

I’ve had the pleasure of planning and organizing a number of hackathons over the past year and one of the most important things I’ve learned is that a hackathon must have a good theme.

To be clear: A theme is more than just a catchy title, it’s a branded part of the experience that pervades the day.

For years I’ve wanted to put on a “summer camp for developers” and I finally got my chance last August when I ran a “hardware hackathon” using a theme loosely based on the 90’s Nickelodeon hit “Salute Your Shorts” (if you’re of a certain age, you might recall the catchy theme song which inspired the name of the event).

To make this “summer camp” a true theme, we incorporated a number of elements:

  • A catchy title: Camp APIWANNA (there was an API focus in addition to the hardware focus)
  • Developed an analog / wood / canoe visual branding for all signage and printed material
  • It’s worth mentioning that the hardware part of the focus of this event drove a lot of the camp theme (think arts & crafts)
  • We started the day with my colleague playing “Reveille” on a bugle (no cheesy taped music here!) – all of the “campers” sang our camp song, reading from song sheets (“Camp APIWANNA / we’ll hack things with these parts…)
  • I challenged our catering vendor to come up with a “summer camp” themed menu and boy did they deliver! “Traditional” camp breakfast in the morning, BBQ in the afternoon, and a cookout theme for dinner, complete with s’mores!
  • The “counselors” (volunteers helping with the event) had whistles
  • We had a target shooting competition to determine who got first pick from the “special parts” table – of course we used suction cup darts against a target drawn on a glass window, not real firearms!

For many reasons the event was a great success (some said the best hackathon at our company that they’d attended), but one comment from the post-event survey really stood out:

The theme was carried throughout the day with just enough kitsch to make it enjoyable.

The reason why such a focus on a theme like this is necessary is that it allows the participants to “step into” the day – away from their backlog, sprint, conference calls, inbox, and other obligations. Our participants weren’t just at a hackathon, they were at Camp APIWANNA and were able to leave their distractions at the door.

Likewise, when the day was done, the pressure was off to carry things forward. The projects from that day existed at a point-in-time. As expected, some continued on with a life of their own, but for the ones that didn’t their creators could rest easy knowing that when the day was over and they left camp (after “Taps” played), their projects were done and they took with them the memories of a great time and the new things they’d learned.

When the Enterprise kicks you in the shins

Driving serious change in a large bureaucratic organization is like playing soccer without shin guards.

You’re always going around trying to move things forward, and then every now and then – WHAM – you get kicked in the shins by someone who’s job it is to make things harder to move forward (or prevent change entirely).

It sucks, and you get pissed. Sometimes expletives are hurled (in your head at least), and you have to limp off the field.

But after a while the pain goes away and you’ve had a moment to study your opponent. You realize that them kicking you in the shins was quite likely avoidable – maybe you came at them too fast, too hard or too recklessly.

Time to get back on the field and have another go at it – score the goal you’re looking for now that you know what’s going to raise their ire, and most of all, make sure you still enjoy the game.