Product School

Everything Product Managers Need to Know about Hackathons

Ellen Merryweather

Ellen Merryweather

January 09, 2023 - 6 min read

Updated: January 24, 2024 - 6 min read

Hackathons, also called hackfests or sometimes codefests, are events for software developers to come up with a demonstrable MVP in a short time based on a particular theme or addressing a certain problem.

But I’m a Product Manager, what does this have to do with me?

Hackathons can actually be great ways to add to your PM portfolio and get some experience with building Products. If you’re a PM with some technical knowledge, or a techie looking to get some PM experience, there’s ways to use hackathons to your advantage.

Let’s take a look at what Product Managers need to know about hackathons in 2022:

The Basics

When did hackathons start?

Technically the first hackathon took place in 1999, held by OpenBSD in Calgary. Ten developers joined forces to avoid legal problems caused by export regulations of cryptographic software from the United States, according to Wikipedia.

Since then, the phenomenon has grown wildly. In 2016 there were an estimated 3,450 hackathons organized worldwide!

Who goes to hackathons?

You’ll find lots of different people at hackathons, from students to veterans! Depending on the intensity of the event, you might find hardcore professionals or people who have been learning to code in their free time. In terms of ‘official’ job roles, you’ll find graphic designers, UX designers, project managers, software developers, interface designers, computer programmers, and other techies.

What’s the structure?

People start arriving early in the morning, and are usually given a presentation by the organizers of the event. Participants may already arrive in teams with an idea prepared, or you are given the morning to come up with your idea.

Hackathons can last for a few hours or a few days, depending on the event. Hackathons have their own culture, especially if they last longer than 24 hours. People bring sleeping bags and take shifts to get the work done, often living on a diet of junk food and energy drinks. Pizza is a particular favorite.

The atmosphere is lively, competitive, and adrenaline-fuelled. While they can be stressful, there’s a real rush to create a project on a tight deadline just for fun.

Check out this video from Armando Ferreira to get an idea of the vibe:

What are the themes?

With so many events happening every year, you can bet there’s a huge variety of themes!

Hackathons can be set up for government initiative, charity, particular industries, for younger school students, and for global issues.

For example NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge, has challenges ranging from ocean cleanup, to orbital debris collection, to mitigating lunar dust.


TechCrunch’s Disrupt, taking place in Berlin and San Francisco, has changing themes each year depending on who is sponsoring the prizes. For example, at the 2019 San Francisco event, one of the challenges was to create a prototype mobile app, website, or video game for Humana, a MedTech company.

What Product Managers Can Bring to a Hackathon

With such a strict deadline it’s vital to keep everyone on track. As a Product Manager, your role will be to create a structure for the team to stick to. Making sure everyone is in-sync and working as efficiently as possible will be the key to success in your marathon!

One of the biggest pitfalls a hackathon team can fall into is siloed working. In such a chaotic environment, it seems most pragmatic to knuckle down and focus on what you’re doing to get the job done on time.

While focused work is definitely a good way to go, people are in danger of veering off course and losing focus on the overall project. With some of the bigger cash prizes coming to thousands of dollars, there’s a lot at stake!

With your Product Management skills, you’ll be the glue that holds the team together.

Your storytelling ability will also be absolutely key to selling the judges on your product. There’s no time to bring in a marketing team during a hackathon! Your team will need a Why, and that’s what a Product Manager can provide.

Even an MVP needs to have customers. While there isn’t time to do any research or conduct interviews, your ability to create customer personas and your deep understanding of buyer habits will be key for the teams.

Finally, teams need leadership. When there’s a disagreement between teammates on what features should or shouldn’t be included, or how the UI should be, you’ll be in a position to mediate. On such a tight timeline, choices will need to be made, and it can help to have a decision-maker in the room!

What Hackathons Can Do for Product Managers

While the internet makes it easier and more accessible to find quality Product Management education, many people find it very difficult to get experience.

Firstly, a Hackathon will be a great experience of leadership without authority. As we’ve previously discussed, you’ll be taking charge of your team, but as none of you have a boss, you have no official position over your teammates. You can’t formally tell them what to do, but you can guide them towards making the right decision, which is exactly what happens in Product Management.

You’ll also be able to boast about being involved in the creation of an MVP, which will be a great advantage when you start interviewing for companies. It’s a great addition to your CV, as side projects show your passion and willingness to try new things.

If you’re already a Product Manager, a hackathon could be a great way to get unstuck if you feel yourself falling into the same old routines. It’ll also help level-up your tech skills just to be involved, and if you’ve been meaning to learn more about the technical side of Product, it’ll be a great environment to inspire you.

How to Find the Right Hackathon

There are some really great websites out there specifically designed for the task of helping you find your nearest hackathon. For example:

  • Hackalist: Has filters for events that offer travel reimbursement, have prizes, accept high schoolers, and are free.

  • The map feature makes it extremely easy to find events based on location.

  • Major League Hacking: They do amazing stuff for anyone who goes to hackathons, wants to, or even plans hackathons.

  • Hackworks: Easy to filter by industry/challenge theme.

Updated: January 24, 2024

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