What Modo Learned from Hosting A Virtual Hackathon

Posted by Modo on May 19, 2020 8:04:41 PM


Modo has always been a semi-remote company. Although we have offices in Dallas, San Francisco, and Columbus, we have remote employees all over the country literally from sea to shining sea. For us, team Zoom calls and working out of home offices weren’t novel when coronavirus hit at the beginning of 2020, and we had a fairly smooth transition to working from home.

Even though Modo was semi-remote before coronavirus, we still enjoyed getting the entire team together a few times a year for an in-person week of work that includes lots of facetime, over-the-top food, and out-of-the-box activities. We call this week “ModoWeek”. Our next in-person ModoWeek was going to be a hackathon involving the entire team.

Though coronavirus didn’t mess with our day-to-day, it certainly did put a damper on our ModoWeek hackathon plans. But, instead of cancelling the week, we decided to make the entire week virtual - the hackathon, the dinners, the events, and all. (We’re going to let you in on a little secret up front - the week was a resounding success)

We wrote this blog to share with you how we planned the week, what our hackathon schedule looked like, and what went well/didn’t go too well.


Our very first step was pulling together a planning team for the hackathon. Taking the team off their projects for a week seemed like a difficult and potentially costly task, so the planning team started the conversation around the hackathon by clearly stating our objectives for the week. Our objectives were focused on solidifying team culture, chipping away at tech debt, and building technology that would be useful to our clients.

Question to ask yourself: What are your objectives for your hackathon?

Next, we brainstormed what kinds of projects we would like to see come from the hackathon. We had a list of suggested projects to work on that we would share with the team to get their creative juices flowing, but also ground them to our objectives. We wanted to be sure the projects that were developed that week could be used long past the hackathon. To further push towards the company’s higher goals, we decided to organize the prizes around different categories. There would be a winner for the hack that saved us the most time, that best reduced our tech debt, that would make our clients smile, and so on. We had five categories in total, and there would be a winner in each category. Creating these categories allowed the planning team to guide the hackathon projects without dictating what the projects needed to be.

Question to ask yourself: What kind of projects would you like to see come out of your hackathon?

Then, we decided on the structure for the hackathon teams. Since we have a smaller team of about 35 employees, we chose to have cross-functional teams. We had Modonauts from marketing, development, product, etc all working on the same hackathon project from different angles. We ended up with 6 different project teams with anywhere from 3 to 10 people on a team. We did not allow Modonauts to be on multiple project teams for a couple of reasons: 1. We wanted them to focus on one project at a time, and 2. Our voting survey would be skewed if they were on more than one team.

Question to ask yourself: How many project teams would you like to have?

After the planning team made our decisions on objectives, winning categories, and project size, we wrote it all down, and shared the virtual hackathon idea with the entire team in a Zoom meeting about six weeks before the start of the hackathon.


Once the hackathon planning team decided we were having a virtual hackathon for ModoWeek, the real fun began.

Six Weeks Before Hackathon:

  • We shared the hackathon plans including the categories they would be able to win, our project suggestions, and the ideal team sizes with the entire team on a Zoom call.
  • We asked the team to come up with their own project ideas to present to the team in two weeks.
  • We got the hackathon week added into our sprint planning schedule.

Four Weeks Before Hackathon:

  • Those who had project ideas shared them with all of Modo on a Zoom call. We asked them all to write out their ideas beforehand to share with the team and then gave each presenter one minute to pitch their idea. We ended up with 15 project ideas.
  • The planning team sent out a survey to the entire team following this meeting asking them which projects they were most interested in. Since we knew we wanted teams of around 5, we had to narrow down the ideas. We also wanted to ensure the ideas were ones that met our objectives for the week. The team had one week to answer the survey.

Three Weeks Before Hackathon:

  • The planning team met to review the survey results and determined which projects were going to be worked on during the hackathon.

Two Weeks Before Hackathon:

  • The project ideas that were found to fit the week’s objectives and were most popular with the team were shared on a Zoom call. Project leaders were assigned to each team. The project leader was usually the person who came up with the hack idea.
  • After the call, Modonauts reached out to project leaders and vice versa to begin forming their project teams.

A Few Days Before the Hackathon:

  • Project teams were finalized and members were recorded.
  • Team leaders set up Slack channels for their teams and ensured they had a Zoom meeting room for their team to use to collaborate virtually for the week.



This is where the virtual aspect of the week really came into play. We had to ensure everyone was focused on and excited about their hackathon projects for the entire week.

We did this by:

  1. Reiterating that the hackathon was their priority for the week. It took a few times saying this for it to really get across to the team.
  2. Setting daily kickoff and recap meetings. Between these 30-minute meetings, everyone worked solely on their hackathon project with their teams. There were no internal meetings, no answering emails from clients, nothing other than hackathon work.
  3. Asking teams to meet on their team Zooms directly after the daily kickoff meeting. By doing this, we further emphasized the fact that they are now in “hackathon mode”. Many teams worked long outside the dedicated hackathon block, but for those who needed a bit more pushing to shake the “normal work week” feeling this really helped.

The week itself began on Monday morning with a 1.5 hour long kickoff meeting and ended on Friday afternoon with demo day. Here is an example of what our week looked like:






10 - 11:30 AM

Kickoff Meeting

10 AM

Kickoff Meeting

10 AM

Kickoff Meeting

10 AM

Kickoff Meeting

10AM - 1PM Demo Day

4 PM

Recap Meeting

4 PM

Recap Meeting

4 PM

Recap Meeting

4 PM

Recap Meeting


5:30 PM

Virtual Dinner

5 PM

Virtual Happy Hour


5 PM

Virtual Event


Demo Day

We blocked off 3 hours for demo day. This included presentations, a short wrap up message, and the announcement of the winners.

Each team had 15 minutes to demo and 10 minutes for Q&A from the rest of the team. We were strict on time because we had 6 teams demoing. 6 teams x 25 minutes = 2.5 hours of demo time out of our 3 hour meeting. We allowed teams to use whatever presentation tools and structure they wanted as long as they stayed within their time.

Once all of the teams finished their demos, we sent out a SurveyMonkey asking each Modonaut to rank the other teams against each of the categories we decided on before the hackathon began. They were not allowed to vote for their own team. Using those survey results, we determined the winner of each of the five categories and announced them to the team.


red hackathon shirtsThe Modonauts in our matching “There’s No Place Like Home” Demo Day shirts. 



At the end of the week, we ended up with six projects that either will be used with clients/prospects, added efficiencies to our processes, or furthered our tech stack. None of this work was throwaway, and we are so proud of our team for all they got done in one week of focused, purposeful work.

We loved how the hackathon turned out, but not everything was smooth sailing. We want to share with you what worked well and didn’t work well throughout the week.

The Good

  • Project leaders. We found that having one person lead each team was invaluable for communication and goal setting. We spoke with this person before the hackathon began to reiterate the expectations of the week, and relied on them to keep their teams on task and communicating throughout the week.
  • Engaging games. To start off each morning kickoff meeting, we began by playing Scattergories (we used this online game specifically). The team looked forward to playing each morning, and it was a great way to begin the day in a fun, lighthearted way. There are lots of virtual games you can play with your teams. Here is an article highlighting some of the most popular ones.
  • Question of the Day. To get the teams to think more creatively and work together, each afternoon on the recap meeting we asked them a question to answer as a team on the following day during the morning kickoff meeting. These questions were things like “What is your team name?”, “What is your team mascot?”, “What are your team colors?”, etc.
  • Matching t-shirts. We sent everyone in the company a bright red t-shirt and asked them to wear it on demo day (pictured above). The tshirts added to the excitement around demo day, and made for a great picture!
  • Physical trophies. Even though we weren’t physically together, we still had physical trophies made for the winners of each category that were presented to the teams. When our offices do open back up, we’ll display them in our office along with the team members on the winning teams.
  • Virtual dinner. We were a bit worried about how this one was going to work out, but it was GREAT. Each Modonaut joined a Zoom call together and had one hour (and yes, it was timed) to cook their version of “comfort food” for dinner. Their families got involved so we got to meet kids and spouses as we cooked together. At the end of the hour, everyone sent in a picture of their food to win 3 prizes: Most Creative, Best Presentation, and Best Overall. Votes were taken in Slack, and the winner was announced! After the competition was over, many Modonauts stayed on the Zoom channel to chat with the other families while eating their dinners.

The Not So Good

  • Voting needs to be simple. Our voting results left us with convoluted data that required us to use weighted averages to determine who the category winners were. Make sure you think through how your team is going to vote in advance so you can explain that to your team.
  • Always have prepared conversation topics. Even if you’re hosting a virtual happy hour, make sure you come with prepared topics of conversation. Because all of these casual conversations are happening digitally, there isn’t a natural “flow” that you get from face-to-face conversations. Sometimes topics of conversation need to be curated so everyone can get involved in the Zoom event. On our Zoom Virtual Happy Hour, our team ended up sharing their backyards with each other.


One last piece of advice from us - follow up is everything. The work that was done during the hackathon was phenomenal, but the real value comes from what comes of those projects after the week is over. Setting those objectives up front when you’re planning the hackathon is going to help you ensure the projects can be continued on past demo day.

We’d be happy to chat with you about how we ran our hackathon, and brainstorm what might work best for your company. Let us know if you have any tips to add to this article once you’ve completed yours! We’d love to hear from you.

Topics: modo, modopayments, modoweek, hackathon