It seems everyone is talking about hackathons these days — and for good reason. Providing a more open infrastructure for a community to create new relationships and develop ideas is valuable. It’s very efficient from an event producer’s perspective. If the conditions are just right, some really amazing products and experiences can come from such events.

Heck, it even sounds like fun.

But while hackathons sound very easy to pull off — creating just the right environment to foster a productive experience can be difficult.

The obvious challenge is just how much structure to provide. While the more informal approach and lack of parameters is what makes hackathons successful, it requires just the right amount of guidance.

Which reminded me of something.

I recently attended a meeting at my son’s pre-school, and the following quote (from a child) was used to illustrate the importance of play in child development:

Play is what I do when no one is telling me what to do.

Now I’m not saying that a successful hackathon mirrors an ideal learning environment for three year olds, but it is something to think about.

If you are building a hackathon experience, here are a few tips that come to mind:

Clarify the (Movable) Goalposts
Sharing a few blue-sky possibilities and solutions is always a great way to get things moving in the right direction. Even better: if you have an opportunity to share a sample data set ahead of your event, do it. You’ll give your participants the opportunity to configure any special software required, as well as a clearer idea of all the potential directions for development.

Tell the Story
While an emcee is not needed at every moment, it’s always a good idea to have someone periodically check in with your participants and provide a general overview. This helps to bring a renewed energy to what can be a long process. Sharing with the outside world via social media channels can be a good way to garner attention for your cause as well.

Passion Drives Participants
As much as your brand or company wants to take advantage of the hackathon format, keep in mind that the best developers are primarily driven by their passion. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but a great cause trumps your prize package every time.

With all of the above in mind, I’d like to invite you to SXSW Interactive’s very first hackathon on Sept 29 & 30. We’ll be playing with some health/medical data in an attempt to make the world a better place.

Hope to see you there.

Above flyer by Caroline St. Romain.

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