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The developers at my organization where I work as a system administrator are a tightly unified, unique bunch. They work hard and engage in fun events both business-related and outside the organization for recreation (well, before COVID-19).

SEE: Top 5 programming languages for systems admins to learn (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The pandemic doesn’t have to curtail or eliminate everything fun or productive involving group activities. One example is a virtual hackathon, which allows developers to test and hone their skills by engaging in “white hat” competitions for fame, prizes, fortune or the best result: Professional advancement.

I chatted about virtual hackathons with Mark Kinsella, VP of engineering at Opendoor, an online real estate platform, and Meira Primes, CMO at threat intelligence organization Sixgill. Sixgill conducted a virtual hackathon with cash prizes in August, with the goal, “to create a playbook based on IOCs from Sixgill Darkfeed, an intelligence stream of deep and dark web-based IOCs which is consumed and actioned via Cortex XSOAR. Contestants will get access to Darkfeed, which features unmatched, fully automated unique threat intelligence in real-time—and will have to create a playbook, to tackle a specific use case.”

Scott Matteson: What are the benefits of a hackathon?

Mark Kinsella: Hackathons are the ultimate team-bonding experience. It’s a chance to strengthen relationships with existing coworkers and develop new ones with people outside of your department. Together, you’ll work through challenging problems and find innovative solutions with more diverse perspectives. This unlocks a new level of creativity that forces people to think outside of the box. It’s easy to get stuck in the daily grind and hackathons are a great way to reset. You can free your mind to focus on new challenges outside of your typical day-to-day and learn new parts of the business.

Meira Primes: Hackathons offer the opportunity for companies to connect directly with a key technical audience. Further, it creates an opportunity for companies to see how IT and security practitioners and analysts attack a problem with a certain set of tools, resulting in lessons on how professionals use a product or technology to solve real challenges. A hackathon can also be a key marketing tool in creating broad recognition and visibility. A hackathon creates a platform for brands to showcase their offerings, product benefits, and applications all while receiving feedback and facilitating usage from potential users.

SEE: 5 ways to optimize a hackathon (TechRepublic)

Scott Matteson: Who should participate?

Mark Kinsella: Everyone! It’s important that hackathons include every employee in all departments—from engineers, product managers, and designers to workplace managers, customer experience representatives, and researchers. Sometimes the best ideas come from the most unexpected sources.

Meira Primes: Companies host hackathons often because they are looking to build exposure with practitioners while also gaining feedback from this important audience. Participants in hackathons typically consist of IT and cybersecurity analysts, practitioners, developers, and other professionals.

Scott Matteson: Should there be teams involved? If so, how to establish these?

Mark Kinsella: Absolutely. Even virtually, “hack teams” should be formed. But the key element here is to form groups with folks you don’t typically work with. Hackathon teams are self-assembled around an idea. Anyone can propose an idea, via email or another collaboration tool, to find others who are interested in working on it. The core of hackathons is centered around inclusivity, and the stronger more impactful hacks are usually a result of cross-functional and diverse teams.

Meira Primes: Typically, hackathons are individual competitions, but it is possible for the sponsors and hosts to create team exercises. In this case, the teams could be formed by the participants prior to the competition or by the sponsors.

Scott Matteson: What are the goals?

Mark Kinsella: There may be a misconception that hackathons are only about hacking things or inventing something new. While that certainly is one aspect, the emphasis should be on collaboration, having fun, and learning new skills. The goal of hackathons should be rooted in energizing individuals through building new tools, tackling ambitious projects, and solving problems in an innovative way.

Meira Primes: For sponsors, hackathons create credibility and awareness with a core audience of potential customers. It also creates an opportunity to see a product being used in real scenarios and receive feedback from professionals on its benefits, usability, shortcomings, applications, and more.

SEE: 3 biggest hackathon mistakes businesses should avoid (TechRepublic)

Scott Matteson: What should the incentives entail?

Mark Kinsella: With a virtual event, you have to be even more intentional about the reward. Gift certificates are one option, but I found teammates also appreciate personalized incentives. For example, I suggest sending everyone who participates a custom T-shirt with the hackathon theme and year.

Meira Primes: Many hackathons involve cash prizes, but there are also opportunities to incentivize industry recognition. For example, is there a particular judge or expert at a sponsoring company that is particularly well-recognized in the industry? If so, the prize could be an hour long video call with this expert as a sort of mentoring introduction.

Another way to incentivize the competition is to give the winners the opportunity to show off their application to the entirety of the competition. This type of reward goes beyond a cash prize and offers participants and winners the opportunity to raise their profile, make meaningful connections, and gain industry experience and recognition.

Scott Matteson: What should companies expect to learn from this?

Mark Kinsella: Hackathons, whether virtual or not, present a unique way to involve everyone in the company. From creativity to new learnings, it’s a prime opportunity for cross-collaboration and innovation. As a company, you’ll learn how teammates work best together and discover impactful ideas that might not have been previously prioritized on the roadmap. Who knows? You could find the next best update or feature for your product.

Meira Primes: By hosting or sponsoring a hackathon, companies can expect to receive clear feedback from practitioners including innovative ways an analyst would use a tool or product in the real world to solve an IT or security problem.

SEE: COVID-19 hackathons bringing innovation to relief and recovery efforts (TechRepublic)

Scott Matteson: How should the hackathons be conducted virtually?

Mark Kinsella: While virtual hackathons have been planned and executed in the past, we hosted Opendoor’s first virtual hackathon in October. And the key, I learned, is to be incredibly organized from the start. Collect ideas and form teams asynchronously using collaboration tools. Then, host a kickoff virtual meeting, where you can highlight ideas and outline the process and timeline. During the actual hack week, conduct regular check-ins with teams and ask questions about the progress of projects.

By the end of the week, teams should record a three-minute video showing off their hack and submit it to the hackathon organizers. Finally, on the last day of the hackathon, you can host a “showcase” virtual meeting where each hack video is played along with some light commentary about each hack from a panel of experts. The entire company should be encouraged to vote for the winner, and finally, announce the results in a company-wide meeting.

Meira Primes: The pandemic has made organizing and running a hackathon more challenging. In the past, hackathons were often tied to a physical event and you could entice attendees of a larger event to join the hackathon. Now they are being run virtually.

It’s important to put a focus on the promotion and marketing of the event ahead of time. Because you likely don’t have a larger in-person event to tie the hackathon to, it’s a bit more difficult to break into people’s schedules when the hackathon is remote. A virtual hackathon should be treated like any industry event. It’s important to lay the groundwork to promote it and encourage attendance. Better incentives and prizes can also help in drawing a larger crowd to a virtual hackathon.