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How companies have hacked the hackathon

By Alexis Croswell

At a typical hackathon you’ll see an ocean of computers, cell phones, drinks and other sustenance on crowded tables. Most importantly, you’ll see groups of people working together towards common goals.

The hackathon concept has many definitions and interpretations. Hackathons Anonymous on Medium says, “Hackathons provide a venue for self-expression and creativity through technology. People with technical backgrounds come together, form teams around a problem or idea and collaboratively code a unique solution from scratch — these generally take shape in the form of websites, mobile apps and robots…

To sum it up, at a hackathon, people come together and use technology to transform ideas into reality.

Often there is an element of competition, as teams are formed to work towards their own projects. Generally teams are starting from scratch, and the result can be something they abandon or an idea they will work on together even after the event ends. Hackathons have been around since 1999, when it is generally accepted that OpenBSD held the very first one.

Hacking at the workplace

Lately, this idea of gathering people with similar skills who might not work together on a regular basis seems to be trickling into the world of work. Global education company General Assembly in “Collaboration Meets Competition: The Power of the Hackathon” says that these “...marathon brainstorming sessions are today sponsored by companies, nonprofit groups, universities, and other organizations...People work in teams to come up with and realize an idea, and in the end one concept, app, robot, or website is declared the winner.”

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However, there are some who see a darker side to workplaces adopting the hackathon concept. Techopedia says it has been a subject of much debate as “some view a hackathon as a way to allow development teams to work on chosen projects. Non-proponents view it as a bastardization of the concept, given that a company owns the work results. Such critics view hackathons cynically, as merely a way for a company to get free developer work during a weekend or holiday.” While it may be off-putting if a company owns the work results, typically this style of hackathon takes place during work hours, or there is an understanding that the outcome is related to the business in some way.

Some companies host hackathons as a means to attract technical talent and get innovative ideas. Others have internal hackathons that might break away from tradition by involving employees that don’t have technical backgrounds. These nontraditional hackathons give people an outlet to work on a problem or project that differs from their day-to-day on a team they don’t usually work with. At Culture Amp this is known as “Project Day,” and many other companies like Atlassian, Thoughtworks, and Mashery are taking their own interpretation of the hackathon concept and putting it to work for their employees.

Companies hosting more traditional Hackathons

According to Fast Company in “Why Do Big Companies Do Hackathons” the reasons are many: “...Fortune 500 companies are using hackathons to reap meatier ROI that includes talent retention, product roadmap, and prototyping.” Angelhack founder Sabeen Ali says Fortune 500 companies run hackathons because "it’s decentralizing their IT in favor of a greater collaboration between developers, marketers, and CEOs to create products or simply get ideas flowing outside the typically constrained box.” Companies like Angelhack, Brand Garage and the recently acquired Hacker League, help larger organizations (like Hasbro) open their doors to hackathons as a way to increase brand engagement among developers, find outside sources of innovation and find the best programmers to bring in-house.

Credit card company Capital One even has a Hackathon API named Nessie. The program gives developers access to “a multitude of real public-facing data - such as ATM and bank branch locations - along with mock customer account data.” Anyone can access the API at any time for their own hackathon or smaller project day. Their public hackathon in March 2015, (similar to one hosted by Sears) gave two challenges: engage millennials on mobile and help cool consumer’s fear of personal finance, along with three cash prizes from $5k to $12k. Participants were able to retain ownership of their code while Capital One could access and use all ideas generated.

Capital One also hosts internal hackathons, their second brought together 30 associates to create minimum viable products in 15 hours. They structured the event as such: “Five teams built out four distinct concepts to address real-world personas. Each team of developers, designers, and product managers worked together to solve insights contained in the presented personas.” Managing Vice President of Digital, Tom Poole, provided closing thoughts on why these events are important. He said,  “The problems we face today aren’t certain at all. And so what we’re really doing is harnessing people's creativity and ingenuity to design solutions that map to the chaos of the real world business problems we face.”

How companies are shaping their own hackathons

Many companies are now taking this ultra-collaborative idea internally. Ryan Oglseby, a developer at Thoughtworks, provides an excellent definition of how this idea translates into the workplace in “Hackathons for the Enterprise.” He says, “A hackathon is a period of continuous time (more than one day) in which a team focuses their effort on innovation rather than on their normal day-to-day routine.” Each company has its own take on the hackathon methodology, but overall it involves a level of interdepartmental collaboration that creates new ideas. Whether this collaboration takes place over days, an hour or two, provides a cash prize or has nothing at all to do with work, is up to the company.   

CEO of Likeable Local, Dave Kerpen, gives three reasons why businesses should have internal hackathons: They bring employees together and increase morale, reinforce the right values and leave you with lasting ideas (sometimes even products). His definition of a hackathon is simply an “event whereby people work tirelessly over a defined period of time to build something.” His company hosted three internal “hack mornings” in one quarter, having teams work for only two hours on their ideas. The company then votes on their favorite hack and the winners get a cash prize.

Mada Seghete, Co-Founder of Branch Metrics says hackathons helped build her company to 50 people in 18 months. The experience of attending these events helped her and a small team build prototypes and bond. She says, “Hackathons force you to think about things more deeply and in a different light (and with different viewpoints) than you’d normally get in everyday work. That’s because you’re not focused on your existing projects or KPIs, so you get to form new teams with different people to achieve a different type of task. We believe in this so much that Branch now has started internal hackathons. By having people work together who otherwise never interact, we force new ideas and perspectives that exponentially accelerate the progress of an idea.”

Mashery’s internal hackathon revolved around a simple objective: Pitch something that is new and exciting that we can do as a company. Kyle Riordan, Research Analyst at Mashery says, “The team building and camaraderie that came from people working across different parts of the organization was a great way to strengthen communication and foster that sense of community that comes with being a part of the Mashery family.”

At Atlassian, ShipIt Days have become an integral part of their company culture. It looks like a lot of fun too - check out their ShipIt Day video, and try not to be motivated or inspired. Born out of a hackathon when the company was smaller, this company-wide event follows three simple rules: Work on whatever you want, assemble your crew and make something in 24 hours. It also highlights their company values, “be the change you seek,” “play, as a team,” “build heart and balance.” Projects have ranged from replacing inefficient light bulbs in phone booth rooms to creating a new feature: JIRA Service Desk.

Project Day at Culture Amp is in its infancy, and there’s a lot we like about this concept being applied at different companies. Our process currently involves a Confluence page where people post their ideas. Then on the day-of Project Day, people decide which project they want to work on. We have morning and afternoon sessions and a debrief at the end of the day. There are no cash prizes, but there’s lots of getting to know your team members and generating ideas. Companies have taken the idea of hackathon and made it their own to increase this collaboration and unique idea generation, often requiring a deliverable and a deadline. Will your company hack the hackathon?