Blog / Technology

You don’t have to be a tech company to run a hackathon, you just need the right approach. Our Chief Technology Officer, Andrew Todd shares the secrets to making your hackathon a success.

If you thought hackathons were just for tech companies, challengers and hot new start-ups, think again.


For many (yes, even traditional financial services organisations and the regulators), running a hackathon is about creating that desirable innovation culture that the fintechs do so well. Not only is there the possibility that your next big product or service could come from a hackathon, but hackathons are a great way to engage and motivate your people – it’s why hackathons have become part of many firms’ talent retention and acquisition activities.


As you’d imagine, there’s a lot to gain and a lot of fun to be had when you run a hackathon, but it needs to be done right. So here’s my advice on how to make yours a success.


Ask yourself why you want to run a hackathon and what you want to get out of it. The point of a hackathon is to generate creative solutions to real problems – usually something that will make a difference to your clients; your business; your people – or all three.


Also determine how you will measure success. Our aim was to get more people from outside our development team involved in our hackathon (we did it, with a 121% increase in the number of cross-functional teams from the year before). But you could also base it on the number of ideas generated, or how many projects make it to market.


Think of a hackathon as a marathon brainstorming session – with the ideas actually being worked on. Our hackathon took place over 24 hours, but some can last a whole weekend or more. There are no rules, but you’ll want to give people enough time to come up with their ideas, develop them and bring them to life. It may seem obvious, but make sure your hackathon doesn’t clash with any significant projects, client deliveries or school holidays so that everyone can focus on it and enjoy it. Who knows, it could become a regular event.


Get engaged, enthusiastic people to be involved and help lead it from the outset. You’ll want to recruit the best socially networked people in the office and your brand champions (you know the ones) who can bang the drum, spread the word and motivate people to get involved. They’ll be critical in keeping the energy and spirits high throughout.


Branded apparel and giveaways like hackathon survival kits are a sure-fire way to get people interested and make everyone feel part of something special. The IRESS Global Hackathon tees have become something of a collectors’ item year on year. Never underestimate the power of swag.


Get your leaders on board. Having their visible support and energy sends a strong message to your business about the importance you place on innovation and the role each person has to play in it. They can also help remove any blockers that could get in the way of you running a successful event. Make sure they’re involved - put them on the judging panel and send out internal communications like blogs and videos (we set up a dedicated Slack channel) to build excitement and ensure everyone feels enabled to take part.


Which brings me onto my next point, be inclusive. Hackathons aren’t just for developers. Invite everyone to get involved, irrespective of role, experience, expertise, or location. It’s a great way to get people collaborating with others they might not have met or worked with before. Put them together and see what magic they make.


A hackathon is a chance to create out-of-the-box ideas in a low-risk environment. It’s not often you get the chance to do that so why not have fun with it?


No idea should be off-limits, that said, you may want to keep things focused to ensure you get valuable outcomes. Offer a few categories or themes for people to work around and let them get creative.


Yes, there will be fails and you’ll probably get some inappropriate ideas too - you can offer prizes for those. ‘Bring Back the Biscuits’ (a campaign to reinstate a particular brand of biscuits in our Sydney office) was a tongue-in-cheek idea put forward in our 2016 hackathon, it didn’t technically meet our hackathon criteria but we had to recognise it because it got people engaged and talking, and that’s all part of the fun. For every ‘Bring Back the Biscuits’ idea there will also be a gem of an idea which could turn out to be a game changer for you or your clients.


Let’s be clear, a hackathon is not just about having the coolest ideas – some of the best outcomes I’ve seen have come from teams that work cross-functionally together, sometimes even across borders and time zones. Encouraging and enabling collaborative working using tools like Slack and, is something that can continue long after the Hackathon has ended.


Ah, an important one this. Hackathon is not only a test of creativity, but also one of endurance and stamina and what every successful hackathon needs is pizza. Yes, hackathons and pizza go hand in hand as do energy drinks and coffee (one in each preferably). Celebrate the milestones throughout your hackathon accordingly with a well-timed pizza delivery, coffee round, morning-after breakfast and the occasional beer.

How to run a successful hackathon

Lots of elements go into making a hackathon a success. 


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