Hackathons Are Far More Than a Big Tech Indulgence

Written by

Beanie chairs, nap pods, free food, and jellybean dispensers – even playground slides between floors. The excess of some Silicon Valley offices is something that has mostly been consigned to history, replaced with a real focus on employee wellbeing over gimmicks, especially as working patterns have changed.

Hackathons can seem like they belong to large corporations or companies awash with venture capital funds. A mega event, whereby for a short period – usually 24-48 hours – developers focus on solving a particular problem, or on building a new prototype product. The idea is that by focusing so many resources in a short timeframe, breakthroughs will be made, and new concepts will be created by bringing together people who don’t normally work together.

These time-constrained collaborative events have often resulted in high-profile products – Twitter automation tool Zapier and Singaporean marketplace Carousell were all born out of hackathons. But with tightened budgets and an increase in remote workforces, are they still viable? 

The Case for Hackathons

Continuous development at a responsible pace is the normal and predictable way of working, but that doesn’t mean concentrated bursts of thinking and working are not worthwhile. Also, it’s not limited to people in a single site or geography. Nor is it limited to big corporations and events with big sponsors.

The idea is about bringing smart people together in a room (or a virtual room) to solve problems and come up with new ideas. Offering people the freedom to work in a different way is a good way to get rid of restrictions that come with their day job and get them to think differently. Hackathons serve as a valuable lens through which to view emerging technologies and technological challenges. They are a hotbed of innovation and provide a unique platform for learning, skill development, problem solving and groundbreaking solutions.

Even though modern working practices are designed to encourage a certain level of creative thinking (Scrum, for example, is designed to be flexible enough to incorporate changes in requirements as the scope or nature of a product shifts), the short sprints of development towards a goal can still be restrictive. This isn’t a bad thing of course – without everyone moving towards a common goal we would achieve very little. However, it does mean that there is room for times where people can tackle problems in a different way, separate from their usual way of working.

Here’s another brilliant thing. Hackathons promote collaboration and networking among individuals and organizations. They have the potential to create networks of people, breaking down the natural silos no workplace can really avoid. They can focus on a problem or a set of problems that are ignored in favor of day-to-day concerns. They can also let people share their pet projects for wider input.

But the process is applicable to both larger organizations as well as smaller IT businesses. The key is focusing on specific business issues, providing teams with the right environment to experiment and learn, and getting people engaged to take these challenges and think outside the box.

What Good is a Hackathon to an MSP?

While hackathons are traditionally for developers, there’s no rule that you must be able to code to get involved. Identifying the right issues to be solved is a major part of creating one, and the ideas don’t have to be by a developer, even if they are ultimately implemented by one. The ideas can relate to changes to internal processes, finding the right things to automate, even looking at how a business does sales and marketing.

Even the smallest of IT teams or businesses should think about arranging a hackathon. The planning may be the most important part – by spending time identifying issues that need to be solved, there is a good chance that this introspection will give businesses a far better insight into what can be improved, whether that’s by automating processes, changing what teams are involved, or removing bottlenecks. Sometimes the solution will be code-driven, sometimes it will be process-driven, sometimes a combination.

Brainstorming sessions are often seen as a good way to bring together smart people to solve problems, but they have their limitations: people can find it difficult to contribute and groupthink can take over. Hackathons, by creating smaller groups that tackle a problem over a bounded period, sidesteps some of these issues. While not the solution to every issue, businesses of all sizes should consider hackathons as part of their problem-solving toolkit. If managed right, they could be the next big thing for the MSP community.

Image credit: Krysja/Shutterstock.com

What’s hot on Infosecurity Magazine?