A recipe for a great hackathon

Tim LeRoy
on 13 April 2017

In his previous role our Delivery Director, Charlie Allen, regularly ran hackathons for clients, so we asked him for his recipe, perfected with a pair of successful hacks for Manchester City Football Club.

We all like challenges, new experiences and to be taken out of our comfort zone. It’s good to keep moving, moving quickly and moving well. Momentum and continuous learning are not only at the heart of innovation, but also are integral to success when designing and delivering a hackathon.

With Manchester City Football Club, we used hackathons as one vehicle to explore new territory quickly. The first was deriving new insight from match data, the second was a fan engagement piece. Man City have a very open and refreshing attitude to innovation and I touched on it in my post after the first hack.

Whilst wrapping up the second hack for Man City, the principal client turned to me and said,

“It’s completely mind-blowing how strangers can form a team and deliver amazing work in such a short space of time. It really reaffirms my faith in people and what they can do together.”

What really struck me was that word for word that was what he’d said at the end of the first hack last summer. And he was spot on. Witnessing it is very powerful and stimulating and being at the heart of organising such successful hacks was hugely satisfying too.

Don’t misunderstand, it takes a lot of work to make that happen, but once everything is in place the magic can happen. We wanted to ensure people had an amazing experience as well as working their socks off. We were hugely lucky that Man City had the facilities and supportive attitude to make it happen.

From my experience, and in no special order, these are the most important ingredients:

A clear problem to solve

Arriving at the right one can take time, however, a well-framed challenge or set of challenges is an absolute must. It gives context and focus.

A committed customer

It is a lot of work and will need a strong client team, so they need to be in no doubt of the time, resources and commitment it will take. There are communications, logistics, operations and legals to sort and partners to manage. It is a lot of hard work, but as you’ll see at the end of this, there’s a lot you get in return.

A clear idea of what “great looks like”

Workshop it early to set a vision of what this is and stick it on a wall in your line of sight to remind you.

Start small

There are mega hacks and more niche ones, and the MCFC event was at the the niche end. Trying to recruit 60+ high calibre people from around the world to commit 48hrs of their life is difficult, even when you have a really strong proposition. My advice would be to start with a smaller hack, and build on the experience and learnings of each one you do.

Committed partners

Get your partners on board to share the load and to participate. Opta & Chyronhego provided data and great facilitators at the first MCFC hack, and spot challenges and prizes for the second were provided by Google & UBtech.

Strong communications plan

You will need to publicise the hack well in advance, pushing out the recruitment messages and comms continue before, during and after the hack. A plan is essential. Make use of all the channels available, from traditional PR and corporate digital platforms like Twitter (as well as personal networks) and to open up the hack use Periscope or similar to give a real time updates and interviews. Most importantly keep a well-organised eye on all of them and react quickly to questions and mentions.

A strong recruitment and selection process

Who do you want to attend? What does a good team look like? What skills are required to explore the challenges? How experienced do you want the hackers to be? How will you accept applications? How will you review the applications? What are your selection criteria? Where do you want to recruit from? All these need careful consideration.

We had a target of a 1/3rd split between local/UK/international and a mixture of experienced hackers and novices. All this needs to be worked out before you go out the door and start shouting about it. Allow some wildcards to get through too, they will add extra spice and flavour.

Foster an open and collaborative environment

We set out to create a very open and collaborative hack. A key component of this was a team had to be multidisciplinary. Slack was great to start the conversation, make introductions, announcements and for enquiry handling. We seeded that conversation too with special events and insights to warm-up the crowd. Fostering this was part drum banging to reiterate these principles at every available opportunity, and partly to lead by example.

Start your communications with an open, collaborative and friendly attitude and it’s easy to carry it through to the event. We also had a couple of peer awarded prizes — Team’s team and Player’s Player — to recognise that spirit more formally.

Provide support to the hackers

There was a lot of expertise on hand prior to, and during, each hack to guide the hackers, to provide insight and to smooth the process which encouraged people to seek advice and share learnings with each other. We made it clear that we, the delivery team, Man City and the partners were all there for the hackers to help them spread their wings and fly.

Create a level playing field

We ran a facilitated stream for a small number of teams through a rapid product design process, for those with little or no experience at hacks. At the first hack the judges were unable to distinguish the academy teams from the main field, and at the second an academy team won!

Break out

Provide different mental stimulation, away from the main tasks to keep brains fresh, area’s to step away from the crowd, and spot challenges to provide stimulation and inspiration.

The odd surprise doesn’t go amiss.

Unannounced, the CEO of Man City, Ferran Soriano, came in to thank the hackers at the end of the hack; to listen to the teams’ presentations and to join the judging panel. Involvement and acknowledgement from the top went down a treat with the hackers.

At the first hack Girona FC were training at the City Football Academy and dropped in a couple of times to see what we were doing and to see if they could complete the task below!

An army marches on its stomach.

Feed and water them (well) and they will not wilt. Introduce sugar late on Saturday!

Quietly competitive

Have lots of prizes; it’s a competition after all. People like to compete and win but don’t make it all about the winning. We designed and delivered an experience which everyone remembered, and the fact that there were some decent prizes was just a plus.

Great support people on the ground

We had amazing support from the Security/Stadium/Health & Safety team at City. With a big crowd in one place for a long period of time, you need to make sure that you have the right people to handle the ‘unforeseen’.

Be clear on the IP

Decide what your position is on the intellectual property generated at the hack and communicate it clearly during recruitment. There are several different and sensible approaches, but ideally try to have as an open and fair model as you can.

Work out how to break the ice

To get teams performing quickly you need to get everyone a little more familiar on the day. Slack was great for initial communications, and then at the first hack we had a specialist accessible football coach who put the hackers through lots of training drills — great for bonding. At the second we played games like Werewolf and Two rooms and a broom. Again great for bonding and breaking the ice.

Werewolf — Gotcha — Credit Oliver Read

Team formation

We set a couple of parameters for what a team looked like. We gave the participants an opportunity to form their own teams, and then built teams from the rump who didn’t form one themselves.

Observe and monitor the teams and their health

We’d supportively check in with every team continuously throughout the hack to check they were good or not. Do be prepared to intervene if they went down a rabbit hole and didn’t come back or the dynamics are not working.

Capture your learnings along the way

We captured feedback from the hackers at every opportunity and from Man City, and used the pain points as much as the positives, to improve our plans for the second time around.

Have a great delivery team

Underpinning everything is an exceptional team committed to ensure that everyone who attended had an amazing experience, got out of their comfort zone, delivered great value to Man City and went home with a large grin on their face.

So what do you get back?

  • You meet fantastic people who commit to help you tackle and solve your problems.
  • If you are looking for new talent it’s a great way to see how people perform under pressure.
  • You get the learning and ideas generated at the hack and if you want to develop further you’ve just meet a cohort that could help you further
  • You get to see how other people approach research, design, problem-solving and creating new things.
  • You get to travel far, quickly. 15 teams can cover a lot of ground in 48 hours.
  • You get a lot of differing approaches to your challenge.
  • There are great stories generated for your external communications team.
  • You get a great opportunity to engage publicly (out of your comfort zone) and use the learnings to encourage and stimulate your internal culture of innovation.
  • You birth a new community and make new friends.
  • You get to say you were there.


Having pulled it off for City twice, I’ve really got the bug, and if you want the advice and support of great team to deliver your hack and help you move quicker please do get in touch with us at Dootrix, either in Manchester or Hampshire.

At Dootrix we specialise in simplifying complicated information, data and processes, to make them easy to access and easy to use.


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