AWS Public Sector Blog

How to host a virtual hackathon

man working at desktop computer at night shadow

As education has shifted to remote delivery, traditional mechanisms for engaging students and creating practical learning opportunities have had to adapt too. One mechanism—the hackathon—is increasingly taking place virtually. Typically, hackathons are in-person technology events where teams or individuals create solutions to a specific problem or challenge in a short timeframe, often 24 hours or a weekend. Hackathons are also social learning events where peers can connect, learn from each other, seek support from technical experts, and produce a cool (even if imperfect) solution. Cloud technology tools and resources can help virtual hackathons be as successful as traditional hackathons.

To recreate key aspects of a hackathon virtually, we identified tips and best practices drawing on our experiences: Andreas delivered a ten-day Alexa Skills Hackathon to 40 students as part of the annual Build.Well.Being event, and Justin routinely hosts hackathons including the AWS Nonprofit Hackathon for Good. Here are our tips:

Encourage interdisciplinary teams

Hackathon teams often self-organize. Having interdisciplinary teams can be beneficial. At St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences for the Build.Well.Being event, the hackathon teams combined students from a range of disciplines. This included students from non-technical backgrounds who had never written a single line of code as well as full-time developers. Connected by a common challenge, students brought their different perspectives, experience, and knowledge to the table. A guided ideation phase with small tasks given to the newly formed teams helped to get a clear vision of their ideas, as well as the steps needed to get there throughout the hackathon. Supported by technical, domain-specific, and business mentors, every team produced multidimensional and functional prototypes.

Provide pre-event learning

If your hackathon is taking place within a tight timeframe or with interdisciplinary teams, it can be helpful to provide learning resources in advance as a knowledge level-set. This could include contextual information about the hackathon challenge or about potential technologies available to hackathon participants. In the St. Pölten hackathon, students had access to AWS Educate and the Alexa badge, the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), and the Zero to Hero online training. These resources introduced the fundamentals of voice technology and its applications to the students.

Implement a multi-communication channel plan

Part of the challenge of running a virtual hackathon is the inability to communicate face-to-face in real-time with the organizers, your team, and with the experts and mentors. Being able to ask questions and receive near-immediate responses is essential to moving quickly and clarifying any potential areas of confusion. Amazon Chime and other popular communication messaging tools are helpful for disseminating information. However, even with dedicated technology channels, feeds can become overrun, making it difficult to hold meaningful conversations. To counter this, we advise creating a cohesive communication strategy across four types of channels:

  • General hackathon channel: Where logistics, announcements, links, rules of engagement, policies, and other critically important things are broadcast.
  • “Ask an Architect” booth channel: Staffed by people with technical expertise who can answer hackers’ questions about their ideas, solutions, and help them get un-stuck.
  • Team channel: A dedicated place for each team to communicate. It can be on any platform the team decides, but the students should consider the advantages of a technical expert being able to join this channel.
  • Organizer’s channel: Where coordinators and technical advisors can make calls for help, secure clarification on judging criteria, or have other tactical discussions that don’t clog up the other channels. This channel is not available to the participants, so more logistical or sensitive event discussions aren’t made public.

Manage time carefully

In every hackathon, one of the challenges is the running clock. Organizers and teams need strict time management. At St. Pölten, students were working on the hackathon over nine days in the evenings. A benefit of this approach was that students had time to reflect on the challenge and their solutions, and schedule time to connect virtually. Andreas organized daily mentoring and technical sessions to support students as they developed their prototypes. Be mindful that participants may also need time for questions and answers outside of any sessions—communication channels for this are key. Remind participants to protect time for creating the final product, which could be in a form of a two to three minute pitch video where a working demo is presented.

Engage and incentivize participants

If educators or students are thinking of organizing a multi-day hackathon, we recommend having a quick call at the start of each day to check in with teams, their status, and remind students of available support. You could also use a general hackathon channel to kick each day off or send a daily email with updates. Reach out to industry and community partners to support the event and bring the challenge to life. For example, St. Pölten involved Hilfswerk, a leading national organization for the elderly and the national association in support of the blind and visually impaired, to represent the customer voice and help students understand challenges faced by these members of the community. Participants also received access to AWS services through the Alexa Skills Kit and AWS Educate and a session from an Alexa solutions architect.

Celebrate success

It is difficult to re-create the excitement of the final hours of an in-person hackathon in a virtual environment. Therefore, put extra effort into making the winners announcement an exciting and rewarding event. Having a high profile keynote is an excellent way to achieve this and also gives the event more impact, reach and visibility. Finally, be sure to properly showcase the best results—after so many days of hard work, the teams have more than earned their time in the spotlight.

Hackathons provide great learning opportunities to participants, and with appropriate thought given to structure, format, content, and logistics, virtual hackathons can be just as impactful as face-to-face events. Learn more about how AWS Educate can support cloud learning, and how to start building your own Alexa Skill. Learn more about the cloud for education.

Andreas Jakl

Andreas Jakl

Andreas Jakl is lecturer for digital healthcare at the St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences, focusing on mobile technologies, augmented and virtual reality, wearables, and machine learning (ML). The St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences (UAS) in Austria was founded in 1993, offering 26-degree programs. Though the university is relatively small in size, it is a leader in the region, known for its focus on innovation. The St. Pölten UAS is globally connected and has a mission to pursue future-oriented academic education in diverse subject areas, while functioning as an important center of research.

Justin Stanley

Justin Stanley

Like most humans, Justin hates writing autobiographical blurbs. He has a masters from Carnegie Mellon University, but not in what you might guess. He is a senior solutions architect at Amazon Web Services (AWS), where he has worked for the last half decade and currently works with healthcare organizations. Justin is actually unsure of how many hackathons he has participated in; after it hit triple digits he stopped counting. He is lucky to live with his wife and two dogs in the PNW.

Melanie Nethercott

Melanie Nethercott

Melanie Nethercott is a program manager for AWS Educate, at Amazon Web Services (AWS), based in London. Her education experience spans teaching, research, and programme delivery roles. She is passionate about closing the digital skills gap by improving access to cloud learning opportunities and resources.