3Hack - the unusual hackathon What to watch out for when organising Hackathons
Published Mar 21 2019 06:14 AM 596 Views
First published on MSDN on Jul 28, 2017

Last month I wrote this quick overview blog on setting up successful hackathons https://blogs.msdn.microsoft.com/uk_faculty_connection/2017/06/19/hosting-and-performing-hackat...

This blog is a Guest blog by Polena Lilyanova Microsoft Student Partner at Imperial College


Hackathons are probably one of the greatest things about being involved in the IT field! Without any doubt, I can say that this is a must-try thing! Maybe not everyone will do it a second time, but I am sure everyone will agree that it is an interesting experience! Hackathons are about concentrating skills and lots of creative power in a short amount of time to come up with something fun and unique!

But are hackathons only for programmers? Is coding the only way I can contribute to my team? Nope, not really, and this is what 3Hack is for - a hackathon which was organised at Imperial sponsored by Microsoft beginning of March 2017.

3Hack stands for 3 sets of skills: Entrepreneurs, Programmers and Designers, hence the name 3Hack.

So, how did we manage to get 3Hack organised in less than 2 weeks and achieve over 60 participants and success? Well, we did not do anything too extraordinary, apart from having extraordinary dedication! ;) But here are few tips to get you started if you decide to do 3Hack! Note that the tips are not ordered in terms of priority.

The 3Hack idea and spirit

Something important to mention here is that 3Hack is unique hackathon because it involves unusual participants. The idea of 3Hack came up because some of us really wanted to organise a hackathon during our time as MSP and because I, at least, really miss the cross-departmental events and getting to know people from other fields who, trust me, have a different and interesting view from programmers. The idea was to have teams which are kind of like small start-ups (the tech guy, the business guy and the artist guy). Eventually this idea was brought on a higher level, and that was to have the winning teams participating in Imagine Cup because the idea of a mini-start up is what Imagine Cup is seeking. Therefore, the hackathon was quite different to other hackathons of how the ideas were pitched and how different elements were put together. It was very interesting to see that.

Don’t organise a hackathon a week before that! Give it at least a month!

Actually, we did manage to do our organisation in a week despite other engagements we had, but it was in exchange of lots of dedication, sleep-deprivation and complete neglection of our main studies’ responsibilities. It was bearable, but not desirable and we believe given that we had more time, we could have done even better. So, in conclusion, start planning the hackathon maybe 4-5 months in advance (like hackathon theme, sponsorship, venue, etc.) and start taking action 2 to 2.5 months before the actual event.

Dedicated people and managing people

That is certainly something you need not only for hackathons but for any events you organise. We believe this was the main reason we managed to set up a hackathon in such a short time. Make sure that:

  • whoever is taking part of the organisation is easy to get in touch with (email, Facebook, phone), interested in helping and proactive (meaning that they do what you ask and offer to do even more)

  • you set reasonable deadlines for the tasks and you check occasionally how people are doing so far. Note that not everyone always realises how important their task is, so sometimes they need a gentle push


One of the things that you should sort out first. If you don’t have a venue, you can’t really gather people together. Also, have plan B in case something happens with the venue - which actually happened in our case. Keep in mind that usually venues cost a huge amount of money (luckily, ours was free), should be booked early in advance (because there might other parties interested) and for their usage there might be further conditions (in our case we had to hire a guard for the whole day of the hackathon which was also an expense to be considered).

The inside of the venue

Few important things to look out for when picking a venue:

  • make sure there are enough tables and chairs for all participants + the organisers, as well as place to put the food!

  • consider having some space where participants can present their implementations which also can be used for the opening ceremony of the hackathon (room with multimedia)

  • it is good for the venue to be open, so people can interact freely but at the same time to allow (maybe using ‘fake’ walls or by having few separate rooms) some privacy in case the teams would like to discuss something confidential

  • make sure there is enough electrical appliance for everyone to charge their laptops and maybe, if you have the chance to provide further technical appliance such as mouses, earphones, etc..

  • decoration - it might sound cheesy, but it is good to make the atmosphere to feel like the theme of the hackathon, but no need to overdo it. Just make sure all the sponsors are mentioned, and there is like a spot with the hackathon’s name where participants can take pictures

Hackathon access

In our case, since the hackathon was open to Imperial students only, we did not have to consider issues with people entering the university building during the weekend. However, if you have external students, it is good to consider someone being of charge of letting them in.

We used Office forms for signup. The Office form produced a nice spreadsheet which we used for registration.

Another thing to mention is to have a way to recognise who is part of the hackathon and who is not and to have a way to recognise participants from organisers. In our case we did not use anything fancy - we bought from amazon colourful stickers and markers, so people can write down their name on the stickers. The stickers were in four colours - one for organisers and three for participants (different colour per each field). The tags were nothing fancy but they usually end up in trash anyway, so consider spending as less money on that as possible.

Hackathon marketing

This is really, really, really crucial part of hackathons - to make sure many people hear about the hackathon and to make sure you got their interests. It involves two parts - spreading the word, and spreading it well.

Let me remind you that 3Hack is not only for programmers, but for designers and entrepreneurs as well. This is why promoting 3Hack is actually more challenging than promoting any ‘usual’ hackathon because you are targeting 3 groups of people with different knowledge and experiences and you need to account for their specifics.


Getting programmers for a hackathon is usually not hard - they know what hackathons are, they get excited hearing big companies’ names involved in hackathons, they are usually convinced that hackathons are good for their CVs and skills, and overall, programmers are easy to get involved in such events because they have knowledge about them (most of them).

Usually, first years are really easy to get interested in hackathons because they lack experience so they are open to try anything. Second years are usually much busier but if you pick the right dates, they usually are interested in attending as well. Third and fourth year students are more picky about what hackathons they attend - so you have to make sure your hackathon stands out from others and to emphasise the good qualities. For them emphases on the really good first prizes they can get and on the fact that 3Hack welcomes any kind of skills, not only programming. Put emphasis on networking as well - let them know that when they can come and meet people with different views!

What could be the obstacles with getting programmers interested? Usually from my experience programmers don’t attend hackathons for 2 main reasons:

    • They just attended a hackathon a week ago or even 2 weeks ago, or will be attending a hackathon a week after or 2 weeks later and they need to catch up with sleep and studies. So be aware of potential competition and other hacks when planning the date of your hack.

    • They have exams coming!

    • They want to sleep! 2-days hackathon and no sleep is tiring (usually this would be the ‘older’ generation of programmers)!

    • They are interested in coding but they don’t have an idea what product to come up with.

To tackle the first 3 just make a research and pick a good date for the hackathon and duration. The last point could be quite tricky. One way to overcome is to have a special prize if some team uses Microsoft’s technologies in an interesting way - by limiting the scope a bit, people can become more creative. Another idea is to have a pre-hackathon event where participants gather to share ideas and even form teams.

Designers and entrepreneurs who are not programmers

The biggest problem with getting such people involved is that they have no idea what hackathons are (most of the time). Hackathons are not that common in non-IT fields so if people do not know what that is, they won’t attend.

So the first thing here is to explain in good way what hackathons are (so you don’t leave them sceptical) and prove them how their skills can come in handy and that programmers are not the only people who can participate. Since we already have done a 3Hack event, a good thing to do is to use it as an example of how people without any programming knowledge contributed and how well the teams managed to work together. Probably making a video of 3Hack from previous years and maybe interviewing the previous year's winners is a good start.

The other important thing here is to find people who are falling into this category and ask them what they think would intrigue them to take part. Don’t assume you know everything and that your programmer’s point of view is what designers and entrepreneurs have - not at all! You will be surprised how different the mind-sets could be and how good that is.

What all target groups have in common is that they are all interested in:

    • Free food

    • Big companies which can recruit them

Make sure those two things are mentioned in your marketing!

So far it was about how to spread the word successfully. Some words about how the spreading process happens:

  • Do a research about what societies have member of the targeted groups and contact them to tell their members

  • Make a Facebook page early in advance and have someone in charge who updates frequently to trigger interests

  • Posters! - really important, have someone design good posters! Also make sure you put them on good places, think about how other poster are put and what has made impression on you

  • ‘Spam’ with emails - first of all, confirm with your college whether you can send an email to all students (we had to ask for permission) and do it a few times because people see the email and then they forget (confirmed by some of the participants).

  • Share with your friends and ask them to share as well. Use your network to target any years (1st, 2nd..). What happened in our case is that we asked friends from 1st and 2nd year (we were 3d years) to post in the Facebook group for their year and we even asked a girl from 4th year we did not knew before to post in the 4th years’ group. this is really important and Facebook is the golden weapon for spreading the word. Don’t be shy to ask people to share and talk about 3Hack. Just in 2 days after we ambitiously started our marketing campaign we managed to get 100 participants signing up - our efforts gave results. Given that we had started earlier we possibly could have had even more.

  • Make a website and share it as well. Check out our 3Hack website: http://3hack.co.uk

  • Come up with a good pitch for emails and Facebook:

Working with 3rd parties

By 3rd parties it is meant societies (or if you are welcoming external students, it could be also different universities). What we did is that immediately after starting the organisation we researched about societies that could potentially have members which are part of any of our targets groups. We then got into contact with them (email and Facebook) and made a gathering with all the presidents of the societies (we even had cookies!). Some important things we noticed during the meeting:

  • Most of them did not know what hackathon is so make sure you can explain that.

  • It is important to be clear about what responsibilities they will have if they take part. We had the following categories for which they could help: marketing, sponsorship, mentoring, on-a-day physical presence, prizes.

  • We had to convince some of them that what they are doing is meaningful for their society. We emphasized that it is a great opportunity to think of this as an external society event and that if they contribute a lot, they will have their name spread around the campus and can mention they did this to new members next year.

  • Check what sponsors the societies have (like one society was sponsored by Cobra - a beer company) and see whether they can get in touch with them and ask for a sponsorship.

  • Of course, make sure you keep in touch with those people, ask them to send emails to their members and to post in their Facebook group.

Things to look out for when dealing with 3rd parties:

  • Usually societies are not as dedicated as you to the hackathon, so you have to make sure that they will have to do minimal effort for whatever they agreed. E.g. if they agreed on marketing send them your 3Hack pitch they can immediately use in their emails, if they agreed on sponsorship, send them your sponsorship template.


Another very important and crucial thing. Obviously, Microsoft should be one of the main sponsors, but the more sponsors you have, the posher your hackathon can be.

Things to look out for:

  • Time. Find sponsors very early cause they need some technical time respond.

  • Negotiations. Convince that their sponsorship is worth it.

  • No need to ask for money only. You can be sponsored with anything - maybe the company e.g. a beer company can provide beers instead of giving you money in cash. Maybe the company can provide not only money but send mentors or give you goodies that they have. Maybe the company is happy to give you the material prizes instead of cash that you would use the buy the prices. Countless of possibilities, think carefully.


It is important to have a transparent judging process - participants will appreciate that and it will be helpful for them to get feedback on what they could have done better to become winners. Mind you that judging is never objective, and the worst thing to happen is to have some authorities who will voice their opinion about who the winner should be and rest will follow because they are afraid to speak up. Make sure you don’t fall in such situation.

  • To do that come up with any, even a very simple objective marking system for the projects. We were marking the following aspects (1 to 10 points) for each project: viability, technical difficulty and good design score, having technical difficulty weighing twice as much as viability and design. Let the number speak for themselves!

  • Make sure that anyone who has participated in the organisation (even from societies and sponsors) have equal rights to be a jury and decide on jury early and fairly.

  • When picking a jury make sure they have a qualification to judge and for each category you have decided what to give as a prize.

Judging might sound like an easy thing but trust me, it can leave you frustrated (you and the participants) and maybe dissatisfied if it does not go as smoothly.


Things to look out:

  • Decide for what categories participants are ‘fighting’ for and what prizes the most suitable for each category (note that each team can have up to 5 people and each person should get the same prize)

  • Keep a list of what prizes went to whom in case your sponsor would like to get back what is left and needs to make sure it is not lost

  • Give certificates (so people can truly prove they were there and they won)

Stickers & posters & logo

What is a hackathon without stickers and posters and logo?

Important thing to mention here is that you need to have a designer for these two things and to have sorted out the sponsors in advance because their names should appear on both stickers and posters. Also lookout for Microsoft branding rules when putting Microsoft’s name on the sticker.

Good things to do:

  • Decide on prize categories if you are making prize specific stickers in advance.

  • Order stickers at least one week in advance taking into consideration number of participants, organisers and few extra just in case.

Check out the stickers from the last year’s 3Hack (thanks to our graphics designer Alan Du): http://alandu.deviantart.com/art/3Hack-Stickers-667530818

The place where we ordered the stickers were Camaloon.co.uk and DigitalPrinting.co.uk

Check out the posters from last year:

Check out the logo:


Deciding on what food you are getting is really important because food is one of the main reasons why people attend hackathons. Also, mind the expenses for it.

    • Drinks you should definitely have: water (unlimited would be very good), coffee, tea, coke, juice, milk (for the coffee and the tea).

    • You should also have variety of salty and savoury snacks but don’t overdo it. When you pick snacks make sure they have lots of quantity in them.

  • Fruits are very essential to have! Bananas, mandarins and apples are quite popular!

  • If people are coming in the morning, have some croissants and sandwiches for breakfast as well. Check if your university offers some food delivery.

  • Pizza…. In general many people enjoy pizza, but we had some feedback that some people would prefer ‘healthier food’. Given more time, I wanted to also have something a bit different than pizza, maybe some small dishes of rice and chicken or similar. Either case make sure you order the pizza in advance (a week might be enough) and don’t forget vegetarians!

  • Btw we ordered wine for the participants to have while we were judging them which is a nice idea to account for! (Confirm with your venue if alcohol is allowed)

Having an ice-breaker

Ice breaker is not something usual for hackathons but for a hackathon as 3Hack where people from different background gather we think it is really good to have one or more. We actually had lots of feedback confirming that people found the ice-breaker challenge very useful to form teams. Our ice-breaker challenge was the following:

  • Everyone gets paper and pen (which means you need to prepare this in advance) and for 1 minute they need to write down on the paper name of a person, their university major, their 3Hack category (whether they are designers, programmers or entrepreneurs), something they like, something they want to do in the future and describe each of these with one word only (so they don’t spend all their time writing what one person likes). The winner is whoever gets the most names and gets their prize at the prize ceremony.

Mini games

Not essential but it is nice to have some mini games throughout the hackathon. Usually if it is related to posting on Facebook and twitter it gives more marketing for the hackathon as well. In our case the game was who will have the most fun twitter photo from 3Hack and we also had the lucky game which basically was just picking a random name and giving a prize for it (that can be done better).

Other ideas are to have teams solve some ‘mathematical’ problem, be creative about that section. In general those mini games should not take much time to organise and should also not take much time of the participants’ time.

Sign-up form

  • Let people know when the signing up form is closing

  • Ask them if they are vegetarians

  • Ask for a CV/LinkedIn

  • Let people know whether signing up guarantees them a space or not.

  • For 3Hack it is essential to know what field a participant is going to use his skills and what is their level of proficiency

  • Email is obviously essential, good to send confirmation if people have been confirmed a place on the hackathon maybe a week in advance and let them know that it would be nice to tell you if they are not going to attend.

After the hack

Send a feedback form, post photos of the event (with the 3Hack logo on it), thank everyone who took part of the organisation (show them your appreciation), the participants and the sponsors as well.

Planning the day

Make a reasonable schedule about how the day would proceed. Keep in mind when the venue closes, how much time each team will have to present, time for judging and for announcing prizes. Follow the schedule strictly so you do not have to rush anything (you can see the schedule we had on the 3hack website).


What 3Hack had as a nice feature was people who were experienced in any of the 3Hack’s fields and they were going around helping teams to do things in a more efficient way. Mentors can be experienced students or employees working in sponsorship companies or maybe even friends you have who are interested in doing that. Make sure you account them for food as well and to also give them a small gift (we gave them bags with fancy wine) as an appreciation for being a mentor.

Charge of photographs

You need to have someone with good eye and camera to take pictures during the event (or video if you have this opportunity). Photoshop was used to batch watermark the 3Hack photos, but there are online tools that do similar things but are not as powerful or aren’t free.

Dates and duration

Picking a date for the hackathon is very important and probably also one of the first things to do! You need to consider your target groups and account when they have exams or busier time of the semester. This could be very different from one university to another, as well as departments within same university. Also, make sure you do not clash with a hackathon which might be a strong competitor (usually a well-established hackathon or hackathon of another big company) and that 3Hack is not happening right after or before such hackathons. Usually summer term is more chill, or early autumn and winter term.

Further ideas we had

Another idea we had to spice things a bit was to borrow some clothes and masks and decoration from the drama society at Imperial and make something like a photo spot where participants can take funny pictures, and tag themselves or post on twitter. Unfortunately, the drama society was happy to give us the tools but we did not have enough time to fetch them and organise the process (also some of the tools we had to pay for). But it is an interesting idea! Or if you can come up with any demo spot where some Microsoft product can be presented that would be cool as well


Map to the venue

Even if you do not have external university participants it is good to have a map of where the venue is and possibly signs on the day of the event how to get there from different popular entrances.

Deciding on the level and ratio of participants

This is really crucial for a hackathon as 3Hack because it is targeting 3 different kind of fields. We needed to make sure there is going to be a balance between all the fields (so equal number of people from different fields) and to also balance the power (we had to make sure we have equal percent of experienced and beginners in each field).

Of course, we had to decide in advance how many people there would be in a team and make sure that there is going to be at least one person from each field in a team (which we did tell the participants).

Also, it should be noted that, despite how unusual 3Hack is as a theme, programmers are crucial for the hackathon. If there is no programmer in the team, a product can hardly be done (although entrepreneurial idea was taken into consideration regardless of whether there was a really working product or not). So you should make sure there are many programmers! Maybe at least 2 per team. So if you have too many people and you to select some of them, our advice is to get more programmers than designers or entrepreneurs (harsh truth).

Having present view of the hackathon

What I found really helpful for the hackathon was writing a document before that in which I wrote down my vision about what the hackathon would feel like from entering the venue until the very end.

It is a good practice for anything you are planning (even if it is a software product that you are not sure where to start from).


Although this is at the end, it is something to consider very early. Before asking sponsors for money you need to decide on what expenses you are going to have and ask them for the minimal + a bit more.

Some of the expenses to consider:

  • Venue (usually the biggest expense. Luckily ours was free but if you need to hire a guard, he needs to be paid)

  • Food (obviously)

  • Prizes

  • Posters and stickers

  • Website hosting (if you are having one)

  • Goodies

  • Utilities (sockets, pens, paper)

  • Name tags

I hope what you read so far will help you organising 3Hack or even any hackathon you attempt to do. I believe it is important to know what to expect, in order to make it well. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me. Happy 3Hack organising!

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