How we ran the first Khan Academy Healthy Hackathon

This weekend was our first hackathon. Despite not knowing WTF we were doing as organizers, I’m calling it a huge success. The creations demo’d yesterday blew me away (more to come on that).

When we started trying to puzzle out the few details that need to be puzzled out when running a tiny, private hackathon, we stole plenty from the shared experiences of others. Figured I’d return the favor in hope of somebody stumbling across this post and finding inspiration of their own.

Since this wasn’t open to the public, our planning, advertising, and rules were all bundled up into one email. It’s copied below, but I’ll start by highlighting the unique parts for you tl;dr’ers.

Our hackathon was healthy.
The whole red bull and no sleep thing (and sometimes alcohol, apparently?) doesn’t really align with Khan Academy’s tradition of investing in employees for the long-term. We shared salmon for dinner and ate the best snackies Whole Foods had to offer. We forced everyone to go get sleep at 11:45pm and re-opened the doors at 9:30.

Our definition of “hack” was not limited to code.
Jessica’s not “officially” a dev, but that didn’t stop her from creating a gorgeous new careers page and more. Others from outside the dev team were hacking on copy, improving the names of our math exercises, building useful spreadsheets, and generally creating anything they could think of. Involving everyone in the company was the most unique part of this weekend, and multiple devs told me it made the experience for them. Anybody can fix anything.

We had one “roaming hacker.”
Ben Alpert designated himself the official roaming hacker, ready to teach anyone. He somehow found time between his creations to help almost every other team. After 1.5 internships and a year of working part-time while at CMU, he knows the codebase as well as anybody, and he was always available for interruption (unlike me…I selfishly seized the opportunity to squirrel away and code). When the bell rang Saturday afternoon, multiple hack teams felt indebted to Ben. Maybe next time we’ll have two.

Everyone had to demo.
Anything hacked together had to be demo’d to everyone else. Share your work.

If you’re actually planning a hackathon soon and looking to get a feel for more of the nitty gritty, our kick-off email follows.

Subject: W-w-wild and crazy hacks

♤✌☭☂♘ (The First) Khan Academy Healthy Hackathon ♘☂☭✌♤

We’re having our first team hackathon at the start of next weekend. It’s open and friendly for *everybody* in the company, regardless of whether or not you currently think you’re a hacker, and kicks off Friday afternoon.

WTF is a hackathon?

Have you ever sat quietly at home and thought to yourself, “I’d really like to make some even nicer social sharing features, but that’s never at the top of our todo list.” No? You’re not Desmond?

How about, “I’d love to experiment with a simple fact recovery exercise for teaching things like multiplication tables, but it’s just not critical.” No, not Jace?

Maybe, “I’d love to make sure all our code has unit tests and docstrings and isn’t filled with ugly circular references and generally appears to be written by semi-competent professionals.” K, you’re not Craig…

This first hackathon is a chance to work on absolutely anything you want that’s connected to Khan Academy. If you have an itch, scratch it. It doesn’t matter how wild or crazy it is. Hence the Omar Gooding-themed email subject.

WTF do I make?

We just covered that. Anything related to Khan Academy. Here are some possibilities cheesily accentuated with exclamation points:

  • Make your first interactive math exercise!
  • Use Khan Academy’s API to integrate with a cool external service like DuckDuckGo via!
  • Make an exercise that teaches people how to use sign language for!
  • Run an A/B test or three on the knowledge map to figure out what wording gets people to start the most suggested exercises!
  • Drastically change the world in less than a day by building a quick landing page for our translated videos!
  • Write a blog post about what you do!
  • Analyze our data and try to figure out if users from a specific non-US country have unique usage patterns, then blog about it!
  • Make a little widget that influencers can drop on their blogs to link back to their public Khan profiles!
  • Learn a new programming language by creating a wrapper for our API in the language of your choosing!
  • Create a better blogging system for our team! (props Jessica)
  • …I’m sure you can think of more that don’t need the cheesy exclamation points to sound cool. They go here:

Do I have to know how to code?

NO. Hacking is about solving a problem and building anything. It’s perfectly fine to treat this as a chance to learn (take a crack at an exercise!) or create something other than code. Khan-like videos, exercise specs, blog posts, beautiful whiteboard murals…as long as you’re creating something that you can show off to the rest of the group, you’re hacking and you’re in.

Ok, so WTF do I do now?

  1. Add your ideas to the Trello board.
  2. Commit to an idea if you’re sold.
  3. Start lobbying others to join your team if you want. Humbly suggest using this as a chance to work with people you don’t work with every day.
  4. Prepare to hack with a mixtape or two blaring in the background. Do not start coding yet. David.

WTF are the rules?

  1. You have to create something connected to Khan Academy.
  2. You have to demo or show off what you’ve created at the end of the hackathon.
  3. You have to act like a healthy hacker (sleep, eat good food).

Details please.

5:30PM on Friday the 6th. Our office. We’ll start by letting idea owners pitch to others and try to convince them to help.

We will be locking everybody out of the office at 11:45pm on Friday. You will go home and get a healthy night’s sleep. We will take your computers if necessary. David. Doors reopen at 9:30am on Saturday.

Coding stops at 5pm on Saturday. Keyboards will be disconnected. Every team will then demo — expect to end around 5:30.

Dinner will be provided Friday night and there’ll be snacks available all day Saturday. Lunch is up to you. Dinner and snacks will have a healthy theme.

We highly encourage hackers to work in teams, but keep the size limited to

The judging rules are secret, but prizes will include a [redacted], a [redacted], a [redacted], and a [redacted] :). Also one or two other things.


No problem. We believe the weekend is your time, and you should use it without hesitation. This is a completely optional healthy hackathon that just happens to instantly make all attendees ridiculously cool and good-looking. The choice is yours.

There will be a next time. We had a blast. Things I’d change? …add another roaming hacker, rethink how prizes are awarded, and consider adding another day to support even more grandiose hacks.

7/8/12 — 8:58pm Permalink