The workspace is alive with the sound of typing. The collective clatter of keys dancing to the beat of discovery. A hive mind buzzing with the thrum of creativity. That sound you hear is a hackathon: people pulling together in search of a common goal.
Sounds... interesting. But what actually is a hackathon?
A hackathon is an event undertaken to solve problems and create fresh ideas. It’s a collective of busy minds coming together for long sessions of bouncing around ideas, wrapped in the language of computer programming, or just “coding” for short.
Starting out in the early nineties, dedicated coders would collaborate on projects seeking to fix bugs and develop new programs and software. These innovation sessions typically take at least a day: an intense cram of competitive coding.
That Facebook “Like” button you enjoy clicking? That was born during a hackathon.
Originally starting exclusively within the software industry, the hackathon’s creative ethos has spread beyond just coding. It’s now a force for discovery that has transcended the programming world and caught on with businesses outside the tech industry.
Yes, software brands such as Foursquare, Apple and Facebook might be those most readily associated with the idea. Yet hackathons are now utilised by financial services, car manufacturers and even breweries: corporate employers willing to invest time and energy into building and expanding their brand via a short burst of intense collective effort.
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So how does a hackathon work?
Events are headed up by a meeting, lining out the aims of the exercise. Big ideas are formed, goals are set and worked towards by all attendees over the course of the next 24 hours plus. Groups are typically set into teams and pitted against one another. After all, there’s nothing like a competitive element to aid concentration, diligence and creative ideas. That near tangible taste of tantalising victory has driven many a hackathon to success. Over the course of the initiative, energy drinks are consumed and fast food delivered, giving a hackathon something of an informal sleepover vibe. Which, of course, it kind of is.
That all sounds great, but how much do they really deliver?
Nic Rutterford, a Software Development Manager at Amazon, shared his experience:
“Those who haven't been directly involved in a hackathon may think that they're a waste of precious company time. After all, why should employees be paid to work on anything they want rather than focusing on operational improvements or roadmap deliverables which have been identified through careful analysis as company revenue or profit generators?
- They're motivating, improving team morale which improves productivity and reduces staff turnover.
- It's a platform for people who may not usually have the opportunity or confidence to share their fantastic ideas.
- Some of the ideas generated during a hackathon are truly innovative and unique; things you'd never usually consider or dream of.
- Although a shippable product is very unlikely to be delivered next day from a hackathon, everyone will have a much clearer understanding of how feasible the idea is to implement.”
However, it’s important to consider that hackathons – like any event – don’t just happen by magic. They require careful planning to make sure the participants and wider organisation benefit. As Nic continued:
“In addition to successful hackathon projects, I’ve seen examples that haven't worked. Sometimes knowing that something is more complex to deliver than anticipated, and what those complexities are, is as important as knowing that something is easy to implement.
The key to a successful hackathon is true buy-in from management (if managers don't believe in investing in a hackathon, their teams won't be truly motivated to participate), a good theme (a completely blank canvas can be too daunting for some, while an overly restrictive theme can suffocate creativity), and to expect the unexpected!”
Who’s taking part in hackathons?
As discussed above, the hackathon is no longer the sole preserve of the technology industry. It’s increasingly used as a successful business practice for progress as well as a fertile seedbed for recruitment. Yes, recruitment. You don’t need to have your foot in the door to open your laptop and get cracking. In fact, the hackathon can be a great way to get on the payroll.
See, a lot of hackathons aren’t just in-house affairs. With an open-door policy on many, there’s a great opportunity to impress. There’s a small but growing trend for businesses to use hackathons as a means of attracting new talent, which has been a boon for staff diversity. Universities, charities and industry are embracing the hackathon. It’s the community effort that’s driving faster innovation and exploring the boundaries of possibility.
It’s not just big companies over the pond, either: Exeter is home to EXHACK, and there’s more events scattered across the South West and beyond.
Charge your battery and get involved.