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Hackathons: not just for folks who code

A few weeks back, my colleague Sarah Allen asked me to volunteer at GovTechHack, a hackathon in promotion of civic good. Stoked on lending a hand, I agreed, but I harbored secret concerns about the extent to which I’d be able to contribute. I’m not, after all, a developer.

Confession time: Prior to this event, I held the unfortunate prejudice that less-than-techy folk like myself couldn’t make a substantial contribution at a hackathon. Fortunately, I was wrong.

When organized conscientiously, hackathons aren’t just for folks who code — and they’re more impactful as a result. Hack-event organizers everywhere would do well to recognize that encouraging a diversity of skills at their events benefits not just project or team leads, but volunteers and their larger communities. When people with diverse talents contribute to a unified cause, the outcome is more complex — and more likely to succeed.

Getting started

My first night at the two-day event, I demoed Midas and Open Opportunities to interested parties. (For context, Midas is a crowdsourcing platform that fosters cross-team and cross-agency collaboration worldwide, and Open Opportunities is a task-based network that allows federal employees to collaborate across agencies.) Having written content for both projects, I’m familiar with the platforms and can walk potential users through the basic task flows. Earlier that day, Sarah had reassured me that people wouldn’t ask me technical questions. “They’ll mostly want to see the platforms and how they work,” she said.

Most people were interested in the projects in a high-level sense, but some of them were curious about topics I couldn’t speak to — what sorts of development needs the project had, for instance. Unable to answer these questions with the precision I’d prefer, I referred the inquirers to folks who could answer. Still, my confidence was rattled.

As we left the event, my colleague Raphy Villas asked how my night had gone. I confided to him that, happy though I was to be volunteering, I was afraid I wasn’t offering that much. “Now, if anyone had any content needs,” I said, trailing off and looking meaningfully into the distance.

“Content needs?” Raphy confirmed. “We’ve got ‘em. Come to the Communicart table tomorrow and we’ll get you set up. We’d love it if you worked with our team.”

Like that, I’d found a way I could participate in the way I do best — by creating content.

Increase involvement

The next morning, coffee in hand, I wandered over to the Communicart station. Raphy paired me up with Brad, a sales rep for a major CRM company. Together, we did a quick critique of the current Communicart front page, identifying elements that were working well and those that could use improvement (or total redesign).

Keeping in mind our intended audience (people involved in the acquisition and procurement processes) and desired tone (professional, reassuring, and a hair more casual than formal), we set to work crafting the copy for a new front page. Tough though it can be to wield the metaphorical red pen, we kept only the text elements that would contribute to the front page’s purpose: to communicate Communicart’s unique benefits and inspire the visitor to try it out.

One of the most invigorating aspects of content design is to take an idea — half-baked or fully formed — and, with that idea as inspiration, rapidly generate an entire body of copy. Be that text a new front page for a government procurement tool or the draft of a prose poem, the thrill exists unfettered. As Brad and I put the finishing touches on our call to action, we stepped back from the monitor and smiled. Working together and channeling the positive, competitive energy of the group, we’d made a meaningful contribution to Communicart — and, by extension, the government.

Replicate the good vibes

Perhaps my favorite part of this anecdote is that Brad’s and my experience is far from unique: Everywhere you go, you’ll find talented salespeople, marketers, and content designers and strategists eager to lend their skills to the cause of civic good. The primary hurdles hackathon organizers face are recruiting these folks and making them feel at home. Fortunately, these hurdles are easily cleared with the right mindset and approach.

The benefits of such inclusivity are mighty. Yes, your featured projects will benefit from fuller-spectrum development, speeding production. This inclusivity also strengthens the symbolic bond between developers and folks in other areas, stressing the interconnectedness of all elements of a project, and growing stronger civic hacking communities. It follows that a person who feels welcomed to and included in an event would be far likelier to invite their talented friends to the next such event.

A few members of the 18F team recently published an excellent guide on welcoming new coders to civic hackathons. In the same vein, we’d like to offer a list of strategies for including non-technical folks in your hackathons. We’d like to thank Leah Bannon, a product lead at 18F, for generating this list of strategies.

The following are our tips on including non-coders to your next hackathon.

Tips for hackathon organizers

Before promoting your event through all the typical channels (and to your typical audience of developers), first reach out to content designers, visual designers, marketers, sales reps — anyone you’d like to include who might not ordinarily be looking for hackathons to attend.

Advertising to non-developers first will ensure you have time to answer questions before the event, put these folks in touch with previous hackathon participants, and forward any training materials they might find helpful.

Send lots of actual emails to individual people

On the topic of event promotion, send lots of personalized emails to people you know. Yes, it’s high-touch — and that’s why it works.

People who don’t consider themselves part of the hackathon community are already at a bit of a disadvantage: They don’t identify as your target audience, which means they have a greater cognitive burden to overcome in order to feel comfortable participating in your event.

Help them overcome that burden. Email them directly and let them know what to expect and why you’d like them to participate — what unique skills they can share and what they may take away from the experience.

Explain how the day will work

Familiarity encourages comfort. In many cases, newcomers’ fear of the unknown might dissuade them from participating in your hackathon. Help new participants scale this hurdle by letting them know how the hackathon will play out.

An easy (and effective) way to do this is to distribute a schedule before the event. Not only will this give participants a handle on what’s to come, but it will also help them identify the sessions (activities?) that appeal most to them, letting them make the best use of their time.

Include contact info for questions

On that note, make yourself available to answer questions. Include your contact information in pre-event communications, and respond to inquiries promptly.

Draw parallels between the hackathon and your team

Leah Bannon highly recommends this strategy. “I like to talk about how the goal of a hackathon or hack night is to build a website or digital service — the same goal that many companies have,” Leah says. “In the real world, the creation of these products takes the effort of whole teams: developers, designers, comms people, UX testers, and so on, and the same is true at hackathons.”

State repeatedly that newbies are welcome

Want to know a great way to help newcomers feel welcome at your hackathon? Tell them. Make it a point to approach and engage people who look adrift or aren’t participating. Ask them about their background, what brought them to the event, and what they’d love to accomplish there. Kindness and communication go a long way in helping folks feel like they’re integral to a team.

Offer training concurrent to the hackathon

One way to entice unlikely participants to your hackathon is to offer training sessions during the event. Providing channels for participants to learn new skills — or develop existing ones — is a great way to promote your event’s attendance.

Case in point: Brad spent part of Saturday afternoon learning the basics of Git. With those under his belt, he bootstrapped a new responsive front-page design by the end of the afternoon.

Follow up after the event to see what you could have done differently

Even the most conscientious hackathon organizers have room for improvement. As soon as possible after your event, send a satisfaction survey to participants. As concisely as you can, ask them what worked well, what didn’t, whether they’d recommend your event to a friend, and what changes they’d like to see in future events. More importantly, act on this feedback — simply collecting it isn’t enough.

For more tips and tricks, check out these links.

Have additional tips to add to the list? We’d love to hear them.

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