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“Reinventing The Wheel” — How To Organize an Awesome Data Science Hackathon!

If you’re an avid reader of this blog (which we hope you are!), then you probably know that ATD is on a mission to become a reputable analytics and technology company. As part of that mission, we want develop a strong talent pipeline, develop a reputation as a great place to learn and grow, and act as an accelerant to the data science community in the Southeast.

What better way to achieve these goals than organizing a Hackathon that brings together students, professionals, ATD associates and executives from the Charlotte area? This was our thought in Q4 of 2018. But where to begin?

You may have similar questions, so please find below our “hacks” to organizing an awesome hackathon.

Hack #1: Start early and plan ahead

Make sure your event doesn’t overlap with another hackathon, or else you’ll be competing for venues and attendees. Once you have a few dates that might work (start with a Friday evening to accommodate work schedules and make sure you don’t overlap with exam periods or holidays), you’ll want to secure a venue.

We hosted our Hackathon at CenterStage in the NoDa-area of Charlotte. The industrial warehouse charm was up our alley, but brought a host of challenges like inadequate WiFi, electricity, seating, etc. You may also consider venues at hotels, co-working spaces or universities. We finalized our venue about four months before the event — and we were quite late.

Hack #2: Marketing, marketing, marketing

Once you have a date and a venue, you can start recruiting teams. We recommend setting up a website with a registration capability and creating posters that you can share electronically. We realized quickly that word-of-mouth marketing worked best for us — we had each ATD CoE team member reach out to their schools and visit a few local universities and we received close to 500 individual sign-ups.

Because our Hackathon was data-science focused, we did some pre-screening of candidates before selecting participants to fully register their team. Registration closed one month before the event, which is when we reached out to each team to confirm participants, dietary restrictions, etc. To encourage participation, we recommend a high-touch approach. This means effectively communicating with your participants about travel accommodations, what to expect at the event, and more. This will help ensure that all teams attended and are prepared for the event.

Hack #3: Find an awesome (yet solvable) problem

You’ll want to pick a topic that matters to you. It’s really cool to see students dig into something that’s relevant and can be used in your day-to-day. It also makes for a more realistic experience for the participants. We asked students to build a predictive model using ATD sales data, vehicle registration data and a whole host of external data sets. When you define the problem, you’ll want to make sure it can be solved in 24-hours and you’re able to judge it. We brainstormed topics as a team three months before the event and one of our organizers then spent about two months assembling the data sets, testing the problem and building a baseline model.

In order to make judging easier, we recommend provide instant feedback to increase the competitiveness. We custom-built a scoring app for the submitted models (stay tuned for a blog post on how the scoring app was created). It was fun to see the live leaderboard during the event and how all teams kept going for the entire 24-hours. We gave teams a few pointers regarding the nature of the problem before the event so they could prepare. You can view the documents here: “know before you go” and “problem statement”.

Hack #4: Spend money on the little things that matter

You’ll want to make sure participants have a good time. It was important to us that we had food available at all times (who likes to code hungry?), and some fun surprises like a popsicle cart, chair massages in the morning (we had a therapist offer 15-minute slots — everyone LOVED this after staying up all night) and fun games throughout the event with little prizes (who knew that Tire Bowling would be such a big hit).We also recommend having a videographer — the footage makes a great promotional tool!

Hack #5: Broaden your audience

Hackathons aren’t just for hackers. ATD is transforming across the board and we wanted to involve all our associates in this event. Many of us are excited about our transformation and want to be a part of it. With this in mind, we concluded our Hackathon with an award ceremony that featured presentations of the top five teams, a chance to network with sponsors and other analytics companies, confetti cannons and some great prizes. While most of our 200 guests probably didn’t get the intricacies of the solutions, it made for a really fun Saturday evening and was an opportunity for ATD to broaden the reach of this event. And for everyone that was unable to attend, we posted the event on TwitterInstagramFacebook and LinkedIn.

We hope this helps you in organizing your own Hackathon. Ours was a great success and we can’t wait to host an even better one in 2020. Please check out this recap video of the event, the photo gallery on Facebook as well as what the leading tire publications wrote about it.