August 10, 2020

Best practices in organizing virtual hackathons

A conversation with Ben Busby, DNAnexus

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Ben was involved in about 44 hackathons over a six year period at NCBI. The majority were almost exclusively in-person with just a few online participants. After moving to DNAnexus a few months ago, he has contributed to several online hackathons as well as webinars and meet-ups.


Social interaction is important. Get people sharing and interacting in a hands-on session right at the beginning. Think about how to effectively use Zoom breakout rooms to introduce people to each other. It’s also important to have a good moderator to facilitate conversations and make sure that everyone has a chance to contribute.


How do you keep people away from their day jobs for the duration of the hackathon? It’s hard for people to stay focused and engaged for the length of the event because they get busy. Online hackathons typically run much longer than in person events and people need incentives to participate or else they drop off. One of the best motivations is pushing the envelope of new science!

How to organize virtual hackathons

The biggest indicator of success for online hackathon teams is to have someone who is really engaged on each team, which means that organizers should take the time to prepare team leads. The more organizers can engage with participants before online hackathons, the better. Put people on teams who have interacted before. A hackathon may not be the place for people who have never met before to collaborate. A birds of a feather session, in which people are broken up into special interest groups, scientific speed dating events, or breakout rooms can facilitate interactions. With in-person hackathons, teams of four to eight work well, but with online hackathons, you need to increase sizes to 10-12 because not everyone is going to be able to participate fully. Slack or similar platforms are really helpful as a way for people to talk to one another in addition to Zoom.