Hackathon is only for hackers

Hackathon - innovations are created here

In a hackathon, interdisciplinary teams work together on relevant problems and innovative solutions. In this article I will explain what makes a hackathon, introduce you to well-known hackathons and show you why a hackathon is a worthwhile investment for your company and how you can organize one.

Hackathon definition

The term hackathon is made up of the terms “hack” and “marathon”. It stands Chop not for cybercrime. Rather, hackers are tinkerers and creative minds who quickly build innovative solutions or “hacks” or functional prototypes. In a narrower understanding, hackers are developers and engineers who “hack” program codes or develop technical solutions. The second part of the word marathon symbolizes the temporal structure of a hackathon. Because a classic hackathon takes between 24 and 48 hours. This means that the teams work very intensively together on solving a task during the hackathon.

The first hackathon

One of the first hackathons took place in 1999 as part of a developer conference. The aim of this hackathon was to develop a new feature for the Palm to network with other Palm devices via an interface. The relation of a hackathon to technology is very relevant, especially in the age of digitization. After all, digital technologies are an important driver of innovation and, from the users' point of view, almost always offer the simplest solution. However, at a hackathon, not only the technology, but above all the interdisciplinary cooperation to solve relevant problems is in the foreground.

Goals of a hackathon: Solving problems

The goal of the hackathon is to deal intensively with a specific topic or a specific problem. The discussion does not take place on a theoretical, intellectual, but on a very practical level. Because in the time available, specific prototypes are created in response to the topics and questions of the hackathon. The timebox is an essential success factor of a hackathon. Teams are required to present concrete results in the time available. Because only by “doing” the problem becomes more understandable and potential customers also have the chance to give feedback on specific prototypes.

The typical course of a hackathon

Even if the exact course of a hackathon can differ depending on the topic and the organizer, a hackathon follows the following prototypical course.

1. Introduction to the subject

A hackathon begins with an opening speech in which the participants are greeted and made familiar with the process. This is followed by lectures that shed light on the topic and the problems and challenges to be solved are outlined. Under certain circumstances, participants can find out more about the companies involved or more in-depth information on the topic at information stands and clarify any open questions.

2. Teams and groups can be found

After the general introduction, the group formation phase begins. At some hackathons there is also the opportunity to network with other participants in advance and to sound out possible team partners. It is important that participants from the various industries come together in order to be able to develop a holistic solution concept.

3. On your marks, get set, go!

Now the actual hackathon can start, the participants begin to implement their ideas and try out their possible solutions. The participants consciously or unconsciously go through a design thinking process or follow the lean startup method. A hackathon lasts one to two days and ends with the presentation of the work results.

4. Presentation

At the end, the teams are given a stage to present their developed solution concepts and product ideas. A hackathon is not always about developing fully developed products. Rather, the elaboration of holistic solution approaches and specific prototypes contribute to a better understanding of the problem and are an important milestone for further product or company development.

5. Award ceremony

Finally, a jury evaluates the work results and the winning ideas receive cash and prize money. It is not uncommon for promising startups to emerge from a hackathon. If a company is the organizer of the hackathon, teams are given time and budgets to pursue the idea further.

The most famous hackathons

Hackathons have seen a surge in popularity in recent years. Many hackathon organizers are so enthusiastic about the interdisciplinary cooperation that other events will follow. For inspiration you will find a number of well-known hackathons in the following overview.

ING Diba - The bank with visions for the future

ING Diba is in the middle of the digital transformation from a direct to a digital bank. Hackathons offer the chance to develop unconventional ideas and to think outside the box. The global 24h coding hackathon has already taken place several times in the Netherlands. The aim has always been to make online banking even more attractive and customer-friendly.

minDBox - Deutsche Bahn goes digital

Deutsche Bahn started its first hackathon called “Track Position Faults” in 2015. Meanwhile, the events under the title “minDBox” have become an integral part of DB’s innovation and digital strategy. For example, the Kai chatbot was developed to answer questions about DB's products, offers and services. In addition, a solution was sought to inform people in wheelchairs, strollers or bicycles about the availability and functionality of elevators at selected train stations. This information is now made available on the DB website and in mobile apps.


The bankathon is a public hackathon sponsored by various companies. As the name suggests, this hackathon is about the development of modern payment solutions, financial applications and banking products. Incidentally, the first bankathon was won by a team that automates booking processes. Thanks to the tailwind of the hackathon, Candis has now become a startup with more than 10,000 customers.

Symbioticon - Hackathon of the Sparkassen Finanzgruppe

The hackathon of the Sparkassen-Finanzgruppe “Symbioticon” lasts for several months. The last award ceremony took place via livestream in March 2021, where teams received prizes of up to 32,000 euros. In advance, the minimum viable products (MVP) of the final teams were shared by video so that interested parties could influence the jury's decision with questions and votes.

BCX - Bosch is hacking the largest IoT hackathon

According to the company, the largest hackathon in Europe in the context of the Internet of Things (IoT) is being organized by Bosch and other partners. The last time it was held, more than 700 participants came to network devices of all kinds over the Internet. The next BCX Hackathon is planned for 2022.

Youth chops

Jugend hackt is aimed at young people between the ages of 12 and 18 with an affinity for technology and takes place in the DACH region. “Jugend hackt” is organized by the non-profit organizations “Open Knowledge Foundation Germany” and “mediale pfade.org” an association for media education. Here you can find the next youth hacking events.

Coding da Vinci

The Coding da Vinci Hackathon combines digital technology and culture. Tech-savvy participants of all ages network with cultural institutions in various German cities. In contrast to a classic hackathon, the hackers have up to ten weeks to implement their ideas. If you would like to be a part of networking culture and technology, then take a look at the upcoming Coding da Vinci events.

We vs. virus

To combat the corona pandemic, the German Federal Government made a virtue out of necessity. In March 2020, innovative solutions were developed by 28,000 participants as part of the “We vs. Virus” hackathon. This made “We vs. Virus” supposedly the biggest hackathon in history, through which projects like the digital waiting room and feasibility emerged. The hackathon was carried out exclusively digitally and showed what potential there is in the implementation of a hackathon for solving social problems. If you are interested in the results of the hackathon, you can read the final report. You can also find upcoming events on Update Germany.

Advantages of a hackathon from a company perspective

In contrast to the daily work in the office, a hackathon is characterized by an informal atmosphere. In addition to this “feel good” aspect, your company benefits on three levels.

New ideas and innovations

First, hackathons offer your company the chance to really give innovation space. Because in normal everyday work there is usually not enough time to check new ideas for feasibility, the necessary skills are not available or employees are not heard. Many good ideas die in Powerpoint or are compressed into incremental innovations. At a hackathon, your employees not only get time, but can also network with other creative minds in order to present their jointly developed ideas on a big stage.

Hackathons overcome silos

The second advantage of a hackathon from your company's point of view is the cross-departmental and, above all, interdisciplinary cooperation. This means that employees who have little to do with each other in their normal everyday work work closely together and benefit from mutual knowledge. In this way, the bond remains even after the hackathon and the respective employees can better empathize with the work of the other departments. A hackathon strengthens your corporate culture.

Learn and attract new talent

After all, a hackathon is an ideal platform for your company to network with external knowledge carriers and new talents. Not only can you make great new contacts, you can also network your internal and external expertise. Employees learn completely new skills through external impulses. In addition, a hackathon often serves as a job fair to attract new talent.

Planning your hackathon

Good planning creates the necessary conditions for a successful hackathon. The following steps will help you prepare a hackathon for your company.

What is your goal?

First, you should clarify what you expect from your hackathon. Do you want to solve ideas for specific problems, promote cross-departmental collaboration or attract new talent? These goals do not have to be mutually exclusive, the only important thing is an understanding of how the hackathon can enrich your company. Second, you should formulate a topic for your hackathon. A good topic and task is specific enough that the solutions have added value for your company. At the same time, the briefing is generic enough so that there is enough space for creative solutions and that there is also a chance to think “outside the box”.

Participants: Public vs Internal

Based on your goals, it is relatively obvious whether you are setting an internal or a public hackathon, to which you also invite external talent. Because especially in the course of the digital transformation, it makes sense for companies to gain access to digital competence via a hackathon in order to create holistic digital solutions. Above all, however, an unbiased view from outsiders helps when employees can no longer see the forest for the trees or limit themselves too much by beliefs such as “this doesn't work for us”. Such an external impulse can be the door opener for groundbreaking innovations.

How do you proceed with results?

The third important point to consider when planning your hackathon is how you want to deal with the results. Because your hackathon shouldn't be an end in itself or just a nice marketing gimmick. Rather, you should develop a plan of how you want to continue working with the project. Do the best teams get the time and budget to further develop their solution? Or maybe prizes such as an innovation coach who accompanies the teams in further development? Regardless of how you reward solutions, it is only important that you develop concepts for how you can move forward with the best ideas.

Equipment and materials

In order for teams to present presentable results, the acquisition of the required equipment is an important planning step. While computers and a secure, stable and fast WLAN are a matter of course, the additional equipment depends primarily on your context and the goals of your hackathon. Specific materials and production processes such as 3D printers can be an important enrichment for the success of your hackathon.

Time, spaces and locations

Finally, we come to the very practical aspects of your planning, at least as long as you are planning an “offline” hackathon.

Space for undisturbed work

First of all, every team should have enough space and peace to work undisturbed. In addition to a work surface, paper and pens, you provide break-out rooms and retreats. Many events have chill-out areas where participants can relax and take a breather.

Catering: "You are what you eat"

Since it is difficult to think and work on an empty stomach, you should ensure that you have adequate food. This allows participants to spend the entire time on site and work together intensively. While fast food may come to mind first, please keep in mind that fatty foods make not only the body sluggish, but also the mind. Healthy and high-energy foods, sufficient “brain food”, help everyone involved to stick with it.


As different as the participants in a hackathon are, their need for rest and sleep is just as different. Some people are particularly creative in the evening or at night. On the other hand, others need their sleep in order to be able to take off fully. That means, if your hackathon is designed for several days, you as the organizer will of course also provide overnight accommodation in or in the immediate vicinity of the event location. This eliminates travel times and the participants can invest more time in developing their ideas.

Conclusion - Hackathons as an indispensable innovation format

Hackathons are a source of inspiration. Because in a hackathon people with different skills and strengths work on solving a common task. In this way you create a platform on which collaboration takes place on an equal footing, networking and innovations arise. Hackathons are therefore not only suitable for companies and economic issues. Above all, hackathons are a stylistic device for working with many clever minds on important social issues and problems.

Good luck with that.

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