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CodeTheCurve: A Behind the Scenes Look & Checklist for Running any Hackathon

By Melissa Sassi posted Mon April 20, 2020 08:01 PM


We all have different passions in our lives that wake us up in the morning. My excitement for empowering youth, women and girls, underrepresented communities, and early-stage founders through digital skills and tech entrepreneurship is what wakes me up in the morning, and I wake up at a crazy early hour. For weeks, I have been waking up at 4:00 AM to work with UNESCO, SAP, and upward of fifteen collaborators to make one of my dreams become reality – the CodeTheCurve hackathon.

I spent the weekend watching scores and scores of inspiring submission videos from across the planet, leaving me inspired and even more excited than normal to explore the ideas presented by potential participants. Evaluating 200 videos to fight back COVID-19 has been an incredibly difficult task and extremely hard to come to a decision around which 40 should be included.

Now for the exciting news! Who won a place in UNESCO’s CodeTheCurve hackathon?

Check out the blog here with all the amazing winners!

In my next post, I will share my thoughts on each of the themes and highlight what we are seeing through the hackathon journey, but before that….

For those of you wondering how to go through the judging process and tactics behind a large, global hackathon like CodeTheCurve, I thought you might be interested in knowing how we took on such a task in a short amount of time. It’s with this lens that I write the steps the team went through to create this hackathon and how you can replicate virtual hackathons in your corner of the world.

A Rock Star Core Team

Put a core team together to divide and conquer and do not expect your day to begin and end at normal times. Plan to work weekends, mornings, and nights.

Include a Program Manager with project management chops…the person to keep you on track with your plan and hold you to agreed upon dates. Include key collaborators in the planning process to ensure you have another person or people to bounce ideas off and help think through alternatives when things go wrong, as they always do.

Our team consisted of four people, representing the three flagship collaborators: UNESCO, IBM, and SAP. We often had to divide and conquer, while coming together to agree and align. Be open to new ideas when your suggestion might not be the most effective or efficient yet be ready to roll up your sleeves and learn new skills. I, for example, refreshed my V-lookup skills in Excel after needing to pull different data sheets together…something I have not done in a while.

Supportive Leadership

Make sure your leadership is onboard with the mission, vision, audience, goals, and objectives of what you’re trying to achieve with your collaborating companies or people. Ensure this is documented before starting and enlist help from your leadership when and where possible to enable you to enlist support from others when required. You will always find gaps in the planning and understand that some of this may come up at odd hours of the day and night. Be able to reach your leadership team when quick decisions require attention for things that might need an extra set of eyes.


Create a project plan and RACI chart so everyone knows their role and their responsibilities with key dates and communication methods. Store your documents in one, central place. This is especially key when collaborating across organizations and with team members living in other geographies and on different time zones.

Daily Huddles

Make the necessary time to conduct daily meetings with the core team and pull in the necessary resources to those calls when required. We had many early mornings, long weekends, and late nights to be able to pull this all together in a short amount of time.

Skills-Based Volunteerism is Key

Ask for help. No one can pull off any hackathon, virtual or otherwise, without volunteers to help drive the mission forward and ensure your goals, objective, and outcomes are achieved. Be prepared for surprise needs that may arise as you evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, and bandwidths of the core team. Recognize that needs change throughout the planning and execution journey and know when to ask for help from your network and have a back pocket of people who can help pull in others to support your needs. This often happens through relationship building, so always stay in touch with your network of leaders, peers, mentors, mentees, and others. Be prepared to reciprocate the help when your network calls for volunteers during their time of need. When you help others with their volunteer engagements, they will help you. It’s impossible to pull off an online or offline hackathon without diving deep into your network for support. Be prepared to meet new people and invite others to the party.

Don’t forget to provide them with instructions and how to guides that help them better understand what they are being asked to do, and plan to be available when they (PROBABLY EVERYONE) has questions on their role.

Publicize and give recognition for your volunteers through social media tiles that enable them to talk about the work they are doing to help meet the goals and objectives of the hackathon. Most volunteers are there because of a passion for helping others, especially if your hackathon theme or themes are impact driven. Leverage your volunteers to help spread the word about the themes and their role in helping participants bring their ideas to life.


Know how you will automate your processes whenever possible. We might not all have the luxury of leveraging automated and online platforms like iHackOnline and AngelHack – our partners for CodeTheCurve system automation. If you do not, good ole Excel works wonders for scoring; however, for a large hackathon, it can be problematic to pull everything together in time if you are not using an Excel form or other survey tool to score each participant’s submission.

Consider how you will bring the group together via talk, video, and chat. With the iHackOnline platform, these solutions are self-contained; however, if this is not available to you due to budgetary constraints, use the tools available to you, whether that includes Zoom, Skype, TEAMS, WebEx, or other options. Combine that together with Slack or a similar messaging platform so participants have a place to raise their hands for support.

My favorite way of running a virtual hackathon is to leverage a platform like iHackOnline where everything is self-contained.


Plan your training material in a way that is audience first. What do they want to learn and get out of your hackathon, and what are the key learnings they require to be successful in the hackathon? Ask them! I’m a big fan of design thinking and user-centered research. Incorporate feedback from your network and think beyond tech skills. Hackathons typically require professional competencies such as public speaking, design thinking, storytelling, personal branding, conflict management, and managing cross-functional teams. Pitching ideas at the end requires entrepreneurship skills and thinking. Don’t forget that many people attend hackathons for the training aspect, as hackathons provide real-world problem solving and replace the simulated environment people often experience in some formal education programs from across the globe.

Bring in people who are in your network or connected to your network, and don’t be afraid to include up and coming leaders to deliver content to your audience.

Provide the material to participants and incorporate activities that go along with each session to enable collaboration, teaming, and discussion.

Give the speakers shout-outs via social media using social tiles they can customize and leverage to highlight their role; give them bragging rights.


Prepare insightful content with your volunteers and speakers that provide them with the logistical information they require, who to contact if something goes wrong, and how the mentorship schedule will work. Make training available in a variety of formats, including written documents, videos, and/or presentations. Provide templates and how to guides with frequently asked questions. Upload the material into the online solution you plan to use to conduct the hackathon. If you do not have a system, good ole email or access to an online shared folder can be your replacement options


Decide what your overall theme for the hackathon might be and tie it to real-world problems or needs such as we have done with CodeTheCurve, which is all about fighting back COVID-19 through access to learning, information and data, and health and social issues. Themes tied to social good and topical issues draw in participants, as this enables you to crowdsource ideas and empowers participants with practical, real-life, change-the-world opportunities.


Define your scoring matrix in advance and share that matrix with others. CodeTheCurve had two rounds of scoring: (1) initial submission, and (2) final submission. In our hackathon, we could only offer 40 spots, so we crowdsourced ideas based on videos and scored using the AngelHack system to automate the process for scoring.

Our initial submission rubric leveraged a one to five scale and included an evaluation of the problem statement identified in the video, the solution described, team makeup and credibility, feasibility of the solution, relevance to the theme and over-arching topic, and the audience.

Our final submission rubric will also leverage a one to five scale and will include the problem statement, mission, vision, audience, solution, deployment feasibility, quality of pitch, business model, and team credibility.

We had more than 70 judges help to review 200 initial submissions, as it’s incredibly difficult to stay focused watching 200 videos, even for the most amazing ones. Leverage your network of volunteers and ensure you have at least three judges evaluate each submission. We had at least three judges per video for the initial submission period.

Our second-round judging will be completed by theme with experts familiar with the business and technical aspects of the team’s solution. In this case, we have six judges per project multiplied by three themes, so this gets us to eighteen total judges who will be responsible for judging the semi-finals – the top three in each theme.

Our final round judges are our superstars and prominent individuals in the field who will each review nine videos – three videos per theme using the same rubric. This team will be deciding upon the final winner of the hackathon.

Publicize their role via social media tiles that you create and share out. Encourage them to share as well.


Be prepared to offer something to the winners and look for in-kind resources if there is no budget available. If you do not have budget, find in-kind resources that might be more powerful than money or physical prizes. Imagine lunch with an executive or mentorship opportunities.

Publicize these, as many participants take part in hackathons for the prize, even if the intent of the hackathon is to make the world a better place, solve a world problem, gain access to skills, and/or see the idea turn from concept into reality.


Create a communication plan that includes social media and outreach. People need to know about your hackathon. Where can you guest blog? How can you spread the word across your network and the networks of others to encourage participation? Think about your messaging and what resonates with your audience.

The Human Touch

Don’t forget that people want to be emotionally connected to their work and feel like their work matters. Bring out your passion, drive, and excitement for the work and what will be achieved through the hackathon. Excitement and passion are contagious, and many people are often looking for ways to bring purpose and passion into their careers. Be the source of that purpose and enable others to inject their purpose and passion along with you.

Life After the Hack

Many hackathon ideas die on the vine. Don’t be the team that enables your hackathon to be a point in time. Commit to investing your time and the skills of your network to help turn ideas into reality. Solutions have been created through the hackathon -- what can you do to help make these real and sustainable solutions that breathe life into the problem the team is trying to solve?

Have Fun

Finally, have fun. Yes, it’s a lot of work to create a hackathon and run it well but have fun. Remember what you’re trying to achieve and take the failures in stride, as things WILL go wrong. Do your best and understand the lessons learned, document them and move on.


I plan to share all the templates and materials created for the hackathon on the IBM Z Global Student Hub once we complete the hackathon to enable the world to have access to what we have created. As important as it is to me to run a great hackathon, it is just as important to me to share my skills and templates and learnings forward with you.

If you have not checked out the 40 winning teams yet from my prior link, you can check them out here. Prepare to be amazed!

Your Chief Penguin

Melissa Sassi
IBM Z Global Student Hub
IBM Hyper Protect Accelerator