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Don’t organize a hackathon if you don’t know why you’re doing it

Dec 20, 2016 by John Karp

John coaching the jury during Louis Vuitton's hackathon, Unlock the Future of Luxury.

A lot of people think of a hackathon as a magic blanket solution that’s guaranteed to elevate your technology or teams to new heights. As one of the founding partners of BeMyApp, I always present a one-day workshop to guide executives in defining the goals they want to fulfill.

Even now, I am surprised to learn that many people hold a hackathon simply because a manager has asked them to, and then come to realize they don’t know why they’re doing it. Having organized upwards of 250 events, I’m constantly telling people to focus on one (and only one) objective in order for your hackathon to be successful. Once this is clear, results are yours for the taking.

A small exercise to get your hackathon off to a good start is to list potential objectives on coloured post-its. Then take a step back and choose one objective to rule them all. Your outcomes will depend on your objective. Some people decide they’re hosting a hackathon to simply meet and interact with different segments of their business – this can work too, but make sure you communicate this to the team. Always make clear what you want to get out of it.

Here are some other useful considerations for those looking to hackathons as a way to move their business forward.

 

Developer outreach

You’ve heard it already, but I’ll say it again: the relationships you foster with developers are important. Embracing developer feedback is important. Their knowledge and, more importantly, distance from your work or project make them invaluable in pointing out what you may have missed or deemed a lower priority. To engage them, host a hackathon, making your APIs or SDK available; have them explore your platform. This will go a long way to building a thriving developer ecosystem around your API or SDK. You’ll also learn, in real time, what works and what doesn’t, which can only result in a stronger product or service.

"A small exercise to get your event off to a good start is to list
potential objectives on coloured post-its." 


Recruitment

More and more, hackathons are being used to recruit top talent. In this highly creative and engaged environment, you’ll get the chance to observe prospective employees by noting their skills, ability to multitask, gauge their cultural fit within your existing team, or simply see how someone performs in a real-life working environment. If it’s an internal hackathon, the same applies. You’ll be poised to spot the best candidates for upcoming roles from directly within your company.

 

Digital transformation

All companies should be prioritising digital innovation, not just those in tech. We live in a digital economy, wherein non-tech businesses are the ones paving the way for digital transformation. Embracing digital can extend your reach, improve management decisions, and speed the development of new products and services. This is where hosting an internal hackathon can help, in that several departments work together to ideate, innovate and collaborate. In a digital transformation hackathon, teams are tasked with using new technologies to disrupt a current business process, i.e. to shake things up, finding more effective practices while they’re at it.

"Remember to get clear on your objectives first and define what your business would like to accomplish, or which problems are to be overcome."


Better engage the people working for you

As recently relayed in Forbes, Professor Alex Edmans of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania discovered that businesses with high levels of employee satisfaction perform better than those without. Hackathons, thus, are a highly engaging activity with the following benefits: effective team building, cross-departmental collaboration, and the potential to transform company mindset. By collaborating, employees stumble upon alternative ways to work. This, in turn, stimulates creativity, engages employees, and initiates the beginning of a much-needed culture shift.

 

Speed up product launches

Let’s face it, getting a new product to market involves a lot of red tape, delays and approvals, particularly when multiple departments are involved. It may take a corporation a few months to come up with the idea, a few months to finalise a prototype, and even more to get things greenlighted by legal. Next, there’s the launching of a go-to-market strategy, and finally a real product is available for purchase. From my experience working with startups at hackathons, we have developed a method to improve to-market product launch timelines. It’s a framework that allows your staff to repeatedly develop and launch products faster than before. Do get in touch if this is something that you’re currently working towards. We’re happy to help.

If your company is thinking about launching its first hackathon, please get in touch. If you’ve already engaged an organiser, remember to get clear on your objectives and define what your business would like to accomplish, or which problems are to be overcome. Perhaps you’d like to positively impact marketing, tech, product development or HR strategy. All these and more are possible with a well-planned hackathon. 

Now that you’ve browsed some potential objectives, getting to work on your hackathon will be that much easier. Good luck!

 

John Karp

If you're ready to host a hackathon or have any questions related to this post, please contact us.