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The Datavant Guide to Hosting a Company Hackathon

 

At Datavant, we host a company-wide hackathon called Datavant Create. We are a remote-first team, so this is an opportunity to periodically bring everyone together in one place. This post outlines why we invest in this tradition, and shares our playbook for running a hackathon.

Why we do DatavantCreate

Our hackathon is a place for everyone on the team to work on ideas they believe the company should be pursuing. We want engineering teams to prototype new product ideas and build internal tooling, operations teams to design & implement new processes, and marketing teams to sketch out bold ideas for new campaigns. A truly great hackathon project is one that changes our minds. It doesn’t merely take an idea that is already obvious to everyone and implement it; instead, it takes a new concept and builds it out to convince the team it is more valuable, more timely, or more practical than we previously thought. A number of internal tools and product features have started out as hackathon projects — including an internal tool for our team to better serve customers, our employee pulse survey, and a new product feature to analyze overlap in multiple datasets.

Early in the pandemic, we decided to become a remote-first team. So we chose to have the hackathon take on another important role: building in-person connections on the team. I love feeling the energy in the room as hackathon teams huddle around laptops, and excitedly demo prototypes they hacked together in just a couple days. Of course, it’s not just hacking — we also make time for a fun event, a team dinner, or a company all-hands meeting.

Our playbook for running DatavantCreate

We have two workstreams, each captained by different people: (1) running the event itself, from lodging & venue logistics to catering to covid testing, and (2) running the hackathon, from curating ideas, to forming teams, to picking the winners.

Running the event

We’ve grown rapidly since our founding in 2017, and now have a couple hundred people attending company-wide hackathons. Planning a multi-day event for a group this large is a demanding job! Plan for this to take dozens of hours over multiple weeks. Our hackathon is typically a 3-day event (including travel), with 2+ days dedicated to the hackathon itself, capped by a two-hour session with demos & awards.

We usually start planning 8–12 weeks before the event by choosing the dates, identifying a target city or region, and then finding a venue for the hackathon. We often choose a large hotel with conference space to host the hackathon, allowing us to have a single vendor for event space, lodging, and catering. We like to have a single, large open room that can hold everyone. As soon as we confirm the venue, we send a save-the-date to the team.

If you’re looking to lighten the planning load you can use a service like TeamOut or Flok to streamline venue selection & contracting, or go even further and engage an event management agency. Generally, companies spend $1500 to $2500 per employee for a team event like this, depending on the type of venue & how far employees are traveling.

We’re a large group and want to gather safely, so we ask everyone to produce a negative covid test before traveling to the event. We use MediKeeper to make this easy & secure.

Running the hackathon at the event

Now that we‘ve worked out the logistics, it’s time to hack!

We typically have two or three participants from past versions of DatavantCreate volunteer to organize the next hackathon. While this can be less involved than the event planning work, it still requires several hours of dedicated effort in the weeks leading up to the hackathon.

Starting a few weeks before the hackathon, the organizing group helps build excitement for the event. They start a steady stream of communications to the company, sharing logistics, how to participate, highlighting past projects, and creating a forum for pitching ideas & forming teams. We often choose a theme for the hackathon to inspire certain types of projects — we’ve had a hackathon focused on providers & health systems, and another looking inward at team spirit & belonging. And we always welcome projects outside the theme as well.

Two weeks before the hackathon, we open up a tool for sharing & discussing project ideas — this can be as simple as a shared Google doc. Then, a week before the event, we host a live (virtual) event where people can pitch ideas & sign up for teams. We encourage participants to self-organize into teams (encouraging cross functional teams as much as possible), though the organizers can also match folks to teams if requested. After this event, we take our first census to record the participants on each team.

Once the big day is here, the organizers kick things off. For the next two days, teams are building on their own, with minimal scheduled programming apart from meals. The day before the demos, we ask each team to sign up for a demo spot if their project will be ready. Not every group that signed up makes it to the demos successfully. And that’s okay! We want teams to pursue bold ideas — not all of them will work out.

The organizers also select a judging panel to choose the best projects. The judging panel is a great way to get people beyond the hackathon teams excited about the hackathon. In the past, we’ve picked leaders from across the company to be judges. They provide valuable perspectives to the judging panel, and generate interest from across the organization. We also choose a popular winner based on a real-time audience poll.

After you’ve announced the winners (and given prizes, if you choose), it’s time to wrap up the hackathon on a high note. Take a moment to reflect on the excitement in the room, and the creative projects that your team has built!

That’s it

We wish you best of luck in running your own hackathon. Of course, you’re welcome to join our next hackathon too! We’re hiring software engineers, data scientists, DevOps engineers, product managers and much more at datavant.com/careers.