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Virtual hackathons and the future of hackathons in a post-Covid reality

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by Startacus Admin

What the Hack event HackBack
After completing their second successful, fully virtual event, What The Hack has insights to offer on the future of hackathons in our post-Covid reality. Caitlin Hafer, Operations Director, shared their thoughts...

"Covid has shown us that challenges create innovation. Hackathons give organizations the chance to challenge participants in a controlled setting and tasks them with solving problems in a short amount of time.  

Traditionally, hackathons take place over two days during which teams of tech, business, marketing, and design experts analyse problems, create new products, and pitch their ideas to a panel of expert judges.  At a What The Hack event, the winning team receives a bundle of tools to help them move their product forward.  Prizes include software licenses, convention tickets, and mentoring among others.  

Besides the chance to found the next Google or Stripe, hackathons give participants the chance to interact with others in the tech community, grow their network, and find likeWhat the Hack team minded friends and founders. In fact, Sophie and I met at a hackathon!!

In order to ensure the best products come from the event and the networking opportunities are as great as possible, What The Hack brings a wide variety of participants to all of their hackathon events.  

As with everything else, Covid turned the traditional setting of a hackathon on its head.  Instead of a large room, our events moved to a Zoom call and 30 different living rooms. Now, after completing our second successful, fully virtual event, What The Hack has insights to share on the future of hackathons in our post-Covid reality. 

Pluses Of Virtual Events

  • A wider range of participants. At our last event What The Hack welcomed people from all over the world and spanned 15 time zones from the Pacific Northwest to Singapore and everything in between.  
  • More expert opinions.  During our keynote speaker series we hosted industry experts from the US, Ireland, Europe, and the Middle East.  As we at What The Hack has always believed, the more experiences we can have at a hackathon the better the products our participants will create.  HackBack proved this with our highest quality projects yet! 

  • Planning takes less time.  Logistically, we’re able to plan an event in as little as two weeks.  Finding a location that fits a large group of people at different work stations for an affordable price can be difficult.  With an online event, we can skip finding a location and focus on creating a great online experience.  

Minuses Of Virtual Events

  • Quieter participants can get lost.  While we’re able to use our painfully energetic personalities to bring out and encourage quieter participants at live events, it’s harder to find those who might need some extra encouragement at a virtual event.
  • We’ve found that encouraging participants to share their thoughts in the group chat on Slack or Zoom gives people the opportunity to share their thoughts without being in the spotlight.  Breaking the ice at the start of each meeting with a fun question about time-zones, locations, or coffee consumed is another great way to get some of the quieter participants joining in. 
  • Casual interactions are hard to recreate.  Because participants are spread across the world it’s hard to recreate the casual moments that occur during lunch or downtime that can be so important in an in person event. 
  • This is something that we are still working on!  Although we’ve found that leaving Zoom chats open before and after scheduled talks and creating a general channel in the event’s Slack have helped bring people together for casual conversations.  

Things that didn’t turn out to be an issue

  • Quality of final products and presentations. We thought that there would be a lot of issues with collaboration within groups since they are working virtually.  However the final products from our virtual events have been as good and better than those created in live events. 

  • Maintaining participant engagement. During our first virtual event we worried about keeping participants engaged.  However teams buckled down in a way that required no prompting from us.  During our second virtual event teams even worked after the first day had completed and began working early on the second day!

What the Hack event HackBackAs we said at the beginning of this collection of thoughts, Covid has shown us that challenges create innovation. 

At What The Hack we’ve taken that challenge head on to create a new structure for hackathon events.  While we look forward to returning to in person events, we won’t be dropping the virtual aspects any time soon. We have the option to create fully in person, fully remote, or hybrid events.  We have the ability to welcome volunteers, speakers, mentors, judges, participants, and perspectives from all over the world.  

While Covid has changed the location of a hackathon, it has only strengthened our conviction that challenges are there to be met and that the more people we can reach the larger the impact we can make on the world. 

We might be small, but we’re out to make a big difference in the world."

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Published on: 21st June 2020

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