Hackathons are a vital part of Rightmove’s culture. It’s a chance for people across the company (it’s not just for engineers) to innovate, take a break from their day job and play around with some technology or a new role for a few days. We’ve run a Hackathon each year for at least the last 10 years and over this time we’ve picked up a few tips along the way that help make sure that every year we organise a successful Hackathon.
Why do we do it?
We like to do Hackathons because collaboration is important for our company; it’s a good opportunity for people to work across teams, across our different offices and across disciplines. It’s also a good opportunity for people to innovate and build on ideas they think our users will like. In fact some of the features we have on our website (e.g. Draw-a-search) were initially created in a Hackathon and then were put live to our users.
Organise a date first
This may seem obvious but once we have a date for the Hackathon, we can start organising everything else. We have found at least 12 weeks is needed to organise a successful event, this is something to take into account when setting the date. This time period allows the Hackathon organisers to plan the event, participants to come up with ideas and form teams etc. The other thing we need to consider with the start date is the timing of the event, we try to avoid dates when most people are on holiday or there’s a huge product launch so we can have as many participants attend as possible.
Form a committee
In the immortal words of the sitcom ‘Scrubs’, ‘I can’t do this all on my own, I’m no superman’. There’s a lot of organisation needed for a Hackathon so having an organiser’s group can help spread the load and share different ideas or solutions to problems as they occur. We aim for 5 – 7 people and the last few years have been made of engineering managers, engineers and people from the product side. This is to help make the event more inclusive and make sure the Hackathon is available for anyone to attend. This year we were planning on running the Hackathon across our London, Milton Keynes and Newcastle offices so went a step further and reached out to volunteers in each office who could help us co-ordinate things like swag delivery, helping organise breakfast etc.
We created a Slack channel, met up weekly as an organising committee and a Trello board was created where we could create a list of tasks and assign owners to them (doubling up on tasks that required more work). Having these different tools allowed us to regularly update the group on the progress of our tasks and raise anything that we may have missed or change in circumstances that may impact our plans. This year we hosted our Hackathon in December which unfortunately coincided with the rise in cases of the Omicron variant so having these regular meetings allowed us to come up with backup plans and pivot when needed.
This is not a comprehensive list but the kind of things we have on our task list are:
- create an ideas board
- create a timeline containing things like when teams have to be formed by, when comms should be sent by, when the Hackathon kicks off
- find and order swag
- organise someone to take photos
- ask designers for creatives
To try and make every Hackathon unique we have a different logo that our designers create and the last couple of years have introduced a theme to help the creation of the logo. For the Hackathon during lockdown (2020) the theme was around hacking at home and the next year was around being able to return to the office and hack together again. Having these logos also meant we could create posters to get some buzz about the Hackathon and we can use the logos on our swag and make some unique merchandise for people (more on swag in another section).
There’s different ways we have done this in the past. We used to have a physical board where people could post their ideas and then we would host a pitching event where people could ‘sell’ their idea to participants and then people would join the team of the idea they liked the most. After listening to feedback and to help make the Hackathon more inclusive and accessible, we decided to switch to a Confluence page. This allowed people to post their idea and other participants could read through and sign themselves up to the idea they wanted to work on or reach out to the idea originator for more details. This way does mean we need to send more comms and set a deadline for team formations so we can keep the timeline on track and make sure people don’t leave joining the team to the last minute.
Below is an example of how we document ideas:
We promote people working in a team instead of hacking solo because it allows people to work with different peers, increases collaboration, offers the opportunity to support each other, get more done in 3 days and more importantly, they’re likely to have more fun if they’re on a team!
Who doesn’t love swag? One of the things our participants love about the Hackathon is the ‘one of a kind’ merchandise they receive for being part of the Hackathon and each year we try to keep it different. We’ve had beanies, desktop plants, mugs, stickers but a staple is always a T-shirt or hoodie with a Hackathon logo designed specifically for that year. This as you can imagine requires some planning; we need things like design team to come up with a logo, research items we think people will enjoy, order the items, etc. so it’s important we start this early. Another factor to consider when ordering custom items is that it is likely to consume the majority of the budget so the sooner we work out what items to purchase and how many people are taking part we will know how much dollar we have left to play with. Different items will have delivery timescales and there could be external factors that impact this as well for example this year the ongoing global supply chain issues had an impact on what we could order and arrive on time so the sooner we order the better. The aim is to be ordering at least 4 weeks before the Hackathon start date.
We like to celebrate successes so after the presentations we have an awards ceremony to hand out prizes to the winner(s). We started with an award for best idea and listening to feedback we expanded this to include other categories like best presentation, best blog post so more people had a chance of winning a prize. We decide the categories in advance of the actual Hackathon so teams have a chance to think about what categories they want to be entered in. As for the prizes, after listening to feedback from previous Hackathons we now give the teams a trophy to share for the category they won in and each individual receives an amazon voucher.
For the Hackathon itself we aim for it to last 3 days. This is so teams have significant time to develop their idea, present their prototype and have time to prepare their presentation/blog post. Although recently we’ve had to run our Hackathons remotely, the feedback we’ve received is that having a Hackathon in the office is people’s preferred choice. People enjoy the Hackathon because it allows people to collaborate with different people across the business and this is easier to do in person than remotely. We can also do things like breakfast for everyone or get food in for people staying late. With a remote setting these are harder to organise, we have allowed people to expense these meals but found that not everyone always takes up this option.
The standard structure for one of our Hackathons is:
- kick-off with breakfast
- hand out the swag
- brief intro to hackathon
- teams code
- food and beverages at 6pm
- teams code and potentially prep presentations/blog posts
- food and beverages at 6pm
- practise presentation sessions
- publish blog posts
- vote on winners after presentations
- prize giving event
It may seem a bit daunting the number of steps required to run a Hackathon but now that we’ve done a few we have a basic structure we follow and slightly tweak things here and there to ensure a better experience for everyone. The basic structure is as follows:
- set a date & a budget
- work back X weeks to when you need to start the organisers’ group
- decide the theme / logo
- decide on the prize categories, the swag items
- launch the team board
- send out the sign up form & ask for t-shirt size
- order the trophies
- booking time in senior managers’ diaries
- identify resources needed (Cloud environments, collaboration software..)
- order the swag
- plan the event day by day
- run the Hackathon
- have a well earned treat when it’s all done