5 Tips For a Best. Hackathon. Ever.

It’s been a week since the 5th Semi-Annual Indeed Music, Food and Art Festival Hackathon and I’ve fully caught up on my sleep. How did it go?

Screenshot of Indeed's internal social media feed in which an Indeedian states "Best. Hackathon. Ever." with 30 likes and one comment.

Screenshot from IndeedFeed: “Best. Hackathon. Ever.”

Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned for putting on hackathons.

Tip 1: Pick a theme, but have room for interpretation.

Although it may seem liberating to have a no-theme hackathon, a few boundaries actually help people to come up with ideas – creativity loves constraints. Our approach is to have a theme, but allow people to interpret it as they like – or even ignore it if they have some idea they’re passionate about. Past Indeed hackathon themes have included the usual suspects for a consumer-focused Internet company: mobile, social, data, etc. For this hackathon, we did something a little different. At Indeed, our mission is to help people get jobs. Our theme this time was “Help People Who Help People Get Jobs,” which encouraged the hackers at our engineering offices around the world to think of their colleagues in other departments (sales, marketing, client services, etc) and how they could be helped.

To: All Sites
From: Indeed Hackathon Committee
Subject: Hackathon Theme

Who helps people get jobs? WE DO! All of us – from Ops to Dev to HR to Marketing to International to Sales and Client Support. We’re pretty good at it. Jobseekers love Indeed, and we love them. But for the first Hackathon of 2014 lets give some attention to another special group of people: Indeeders.

That’s right. It’s time to help people who help people get jobs!

  • Does your buddy in International look stressed out? Write some code to generate his powerpoints!
  • Think our software should sell itself?  Make it so with Twilio!
  • Know a CS rep who needlessly suffers because he or she can’t automate away some daily task?  Prevent hardship with Python.
  • Feeling particularly subversive? Build a web app to replace your (or someone else’s) manager.

To solicit ideas from the whole company we had an idea wall on IndeedFeed (our in-house social network) where everyone could vote. Then we had an idea happy hour and pitch-fest where folks from all parts of the business could practice their elevator pitch and entice hackers to work on their ideas.

Tip 2: Provide plentiful good food.

Great hackers deserve great food (better than pizza and soda). And healthy food! That’s why we kicked off mid-day Thursday with a chocolate fountain at lunch. Oops:


For dinner, Korean-Mexican fusion food truck Chi’Lantro set up a taco buffet. Foodies in Austin love Chi’Lantro and so did the participants. But it wouldn’t be Austin without some high quality barbecue! FYI: in Texas, barbecue (“BBQ”) does not mean meat cooked over an open flame on a grill, it means smoked for many hours at low temperature in a smoker. Fortunately for us, we have a couple of amateur pitmasters on staff. They brought a smoker and treated us to a whole side of beef brisket at midnight and another mid-day Friday. Delicious!

People filling plates with various snacks, including chocolate from a chocolate fountain

An open smoker grill with a slab of brisket cooking on it

Photos: The chocolate fountain and brisket (not at the same time). Yum!

Tip 3: Get quality T-Shirts.

Make t-shirts that people want to wear. Besides great artwork, this means comfortable good-looking t-shirts in a range of women’s and men’s sizes. We’ve tried a number of suppliers, and our current favorite is American Apparel tri-blend.

T-Shirt Design with cartoon people grouped together to form the word "Hack"

Many thanks to Hans Krebs, one of our visual designers, who made the artwork for this hackathon’s t-shirt. The design depicts Indeed employees, wearing our trademark blue “I Help People Get Jobs” t-shirts, arranged to spell hack. But it’s also a game: find the 10 unique representations of people (hint: one has a mustache, one is wearing a skirt, etc).

Tip 4: Involve everyone, not just coders.

Pieces of artwork Indeedians created, including one that says "I love Indeed"Not everyone can code, but everyone is creative and can make stuff. Our hackathons are more than just code-a-thons. They’re a 24-hour creative-expression-fest. For example, at previous hackathons we’ve painted artwork, including a giant system diagram, on the walls. At this hackathon we had non-coders learning to code (thanks codecademy!), we had a product manager direct a movie, and folks made some great oil-on-canvas paintings. Next time we’re thinking of expanding the art-side of the hackathon even further.

A cartoon character DJ with turntablesAs for music, if you were saddened by the shutdown of Turntable.fm rejoice! PlugDJ is a great replacement – a real-time shared music-playing experience. Set up a PlugDJ community room for your event and send your hackathon participants the link. For our hackathon everyone moves into one big workspace and we set up loudspeakers hooked up to our PlugDJ room. This way everyone gets to take turns choosing the music, and people can vote it up or down.

Tip 5: Finish strong.

After a hard 24 hours hacking, everyone deserves the opportunity to show off their work. Teams need to be encouraged to practice their presentation ahead of time. We limited our presentations to 2 minutes, which is very short when you’re trying to demo something and explain it. To keep the 30+ presentations moving, we set up two presentation stations, each with its own laptop and projector. While one team was presenting, the next team was setting up their demo. This made for fast transitions, which everyone appreciated after being up all night.

The best part of this hackathon? 15 projects are going into production to help people who help people get jobs! These include a new internal Question & Answer platform, a tool for managing translations, several new reports for various departments, improvements to IndeedFeed, and much more.

If you have other suggestions for a great hackathon, share your thoughts with us, we’re @IndeedEng.