5 ways to optimize a hackathon

Department-wide hackathons help break down silos by promoting collaboration and innovation in organizations.

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While employees look at paychecks and benefits when applying to companies, the majority of employees are trading cash for culture: Three out of four professionals said they are more interested in a company's work environment than in a high salary, Glassdoor's 2019 Mission & Culture survey found. 

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Many organizations turn to team-building activities as a way to bring employees together. However, these activities end up being expensive and a waste of time and a better option is a hackathon, according to Hunter Yaw, vice president of product and business development at Loadsmart. 

"Who the hell wants to do trust falls or go paintballing? For me, it's the dumbest thing in the world," Yaw said. 

Team outings might be fun, but at the end of the day they aren't promoting collaboration or benefitting the business. One activity, however, manages to accomplish both: Hackathons. 

"Hackathons are extremely valuable for organizations to think outside the box and allow staff to be creative beyond their traditional job," said Joseph Carson, chief security scientist at  Thycotic. 

These events bring together teams that don't normally work together, giving them a common  goal and a prize at the end, Yaw said.

How hackathons are constructed 

Hackathons are internal company competitions in which the staff is mixed together to create various teams. The teams work together to create a solution or solve a problem, competing to be crowned the winner.  

Some hackathons involve more than one company, but Yaw said that this practice can sometimes take away from the initial intent. 

"When you introduce the further complexity of other companies, I think that it adds a little bit too much in terms of coordination costs and people being too conservative because they're worried less about the hackathon and more about how their company is perceived," Yaw said.

Yaw also said that some of the best hackathons are those that provide the most freedom to competitors. 

"In the past we've tried the problem-focused approach, and what we find is that that's actually limiting. Instead of giving specific problems, what we generally give is more high level guidance," Yaw said. "Ultimately, if you give too specific a problem, everybody just ends up stepping on each other's toes and having solutions that aren't that different from each other."

Carson suggested Hackathons be no longer than 48 hours, as working nonstop for longer could result in burnout or exhaustion.  

"The goal should be to build a working prototype, no work distractions, have access to mentors and prospects who can provide immediate feedback with the goal is to bring ideas and dreams to reality," Carson said. 

"Approach hackathons as if nothing can stop you, then you can shoot for the moon and beyond," Carson said. "It is about allowing people to be human, facilitate creativity, endorse diversity and have fun along the journey."

Benefits of a hackathon

The main benefits of hackathons are collaboration and innovation, Yaw said. 

Within organizations, the way engineering resources are deployed is typically controlled by the product team. This means that teams who aren't directly  in product or engineering end up feeling removed in determining what gets built, Yaw said. 

"The advantage of a hackathon is that you basically remove the product team; you remove the senior management; and you remove the use of the engineering leadership, effectively allowing engineers to connect directly with different teams within the company," Yaw noted. 

"The collaboration element really comes from breaking down walls and breaking down barriers, allowing people who otherwise would not have the chance to work together directly the opportunity to do that," Yaw added. 

Innovation is the other benefit. Team building activities like going ziplining or having lunches don't directly help the company's operations. With hackathons, teams come together to create innovative solutions in a short amount of time, Yaw said.

"Agile, problem-solving technical staff don't just appear out of thin air; they're rigorously trained and allowed to flex their creative muscles from time to time," said Rui Lopes, engineering and technical support director of Panda Security. 

"Hackathons allow an organization's technical team to branch out from their day-to-day routines and tackle new problems with unique approaches, which can often lead to valuable, new techniques, processes and even new software solutions," Lopes said. 

How to optimize a hackathon 

To help host a successful and productive event, Yaw offered five best practices for optimizing  your company's hackathon. 

1. Commit to implementation

To get the best hackathon submissions, the projects must be implementable. Someone may spend 60% of their time coming up with a groundbreaking plan, but no presentation on how to implement it, which doesn't add any value at the end of the day. 
"We have a very simple rule: If your hackathon project is not in production, if it can't actually be used by an external user by the end of the hackathon, then it isn't eligible for any prizes," Yaw said. 

"By making it very clear that if it isn't actually usable by the end of the hackathon, it isn't eligible for the prize, you tie that implementation to the prize itself," he said. "Immediately, people get much more practical about the scope of what they go after. That's really important."

2. Amplify when seeking talent

Hackathons can also be great PR opportunities for organizations, especially when attracting new hires. 

"We have used the video that our marketing team internally produced about the hackathon for conferences, for events and for recruiting," he said. It's gotten a lot of engagement and people have seemed super interested in it."

When looking at hackathons, organizations have engineers, salespeople, operations professionals, and people from different offices all in one space. That diversity and energy make people look at the company and say, "Wow, that's a place I want to work," according to Yaw. 

3. Move beyond team borders
Moving beyond team borders can be true in both a physical and figurative sense, Yaw said.

For example, some organizations might have a lot of remote workers or employees located at offices around the world. A hackathon gives the organization an opportunity to have all of their employees working together under one roof. 

"We believe in the power of remote work and the opportunities that remote work creates both for people individually and for the company to recruit the best talent and have that flexibility," he said. "But, there's still nothing like having everybody in the same place at least for some period of time."

On the figurative side, hackathons also remove the borders between teams, allowing ideas and thoughts to flow freely across departments, Yaw added.
4. Let the hackathon be the face of the company

"For senior people in the company, a lot of it is about actually stepping back and shutting up for two weeks, letting people show what they can do themselves," Yaw said.

This team building opportunity allows employees to dive into their work, rather than step away from it, which can be a great face for a brand. 

"Showing how the hackathon is a living, breathing example of the company putting its money where its mouth is, in terms of opportunity, openness, collaboration, creativity, growth; and in terms of letting people have new professional experiences, express their creativity, their ideas, make those ideas a reality, and work with people they wouldn't normally work with," he said.

5. Incentive, incentive, incentive

Hackathons are a lot less fun if there isn't a sense of competition, and with competition comes incentive. 

It's better if the reward isn't about money, however.

"You almost don't want it to be the monetary reward, because then I think it becomes less about the spirit of the thing and more about the cash," Yaw said. "There should be a prize that people are going to be happy to win. You want people to feel competitive but you want it to be about the pride of building the best thing more than about the monetary or other rewards that are on the table."

For more, check out IBM announces the finalists of Call for Code 2019 on TechRepublic. 

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