Does your company use hackathons? If you think that they are just for software companies and tech nerds then think again. Today every company has to be a software company and every innovator has to find new ways to meet customer needs.
The principle is simple. Teams are given a broad challenge and over 24 to 48 hours they come up with clever ideas and then construct working prototypes of their solutions. These often take the form of an application which clients or staff might use. The teams are bright, diverse and enthusiastic. They are provided with technical resources, coffee and pizza (lots of). They pitch their ideas in a contest and the winners get some appealing prizes. The judges are the organizers and sponsors.
The Facebook Like button and Facebook Chat both emerged from hackathons. The group messaging app company Groupme came from a hackathon. It was acquired by Skype for $85m. Initially these events were run by software and high-tech firms but now all sorts of organisations use them to generate innovative ideas. Hackathons have become popular in pharmaceutical companies, banks and government agencies. Recently a British railway company held a 48 hour hackathon on board a train. One of the winning ideas was an app which scanned carriages and alerted passengers to the location of empty seats.
Disney hold four internal hackathons a year. Dropbox runs a ‘hack week’ where employees can develop any app they like. Mastercard, the credit card company, holds at least 12 hackathons a year.
The big new trend in hackathons is external events. These are often used as overt or covert recruitment operations. A company invites outsiders, including undergraduates and recent graduates, to participate in the session and the teams generate great ideas. The hackathon is a PR event to boost the image of the company and it enables the firm to identify and recruit the best presenters, most imaginative innovators and nimblest coders from the crowd.
Student hackathons have become widespread and competitive. Major League Hacking runs around 150 events a year where students show off their technical skills. Over 50,000 students participate across Europe and North America. Any student or recent graduate can join in even if they have no programming skills. Participants are encouraged to bring a sleeping bag and a pillow! The word hackathon comes from hack and marathon – and many of events are tests of endurance. However, the contributors seem to love them and often view them as social and learning opportunities.
Do you need to recruit top notch technical people? Do you need to get more innovative ideas implemented more quickly? Why not try a hackathon?
Paul is a professional keynote conference speaker and expert facilitator on innovation and lateral thinking. He helps companies improve idea generation and creative leadership. His workshops transform innovation leadership skills and generate great ideas for business issues. His recent clients include Airbus, Microsoft, Unilever, Nike, Novartis and Swarovski. He has published 30 books on lateral thinking puzzles, innovation, leadership and problem solving (with over 2 million copies sold). He also acts as link presenter at conferences and facilitator at high level meetings such as a corporate advisory board. He has acted as host or MC at Awards Dinners. Previously, he was CEO of Monactive, VP International of MathSoft and UK MD of Ashton-Tate. He recently launched a series of podcast interviews entitled Insights from Successful People.