What’s the deal with Hackathons?

We’ve all heard the term Hackathon and some of us have likely been to one. They are the stuff of legend – 48 hour coding sessions fuelled by pizza and energy drinks. Events which have spawned long lists of multi-million dollar success stories such as Carousell and GroupME. But what are they, and how do you get your manager to agree to running one?

Let’s think about Jeff

Jeff? Let me introduce you to Jeff. Jeff has been working at BigCorp now for several years. He’s a talented mid-level engineer working on a long running piece of enterprise software. You know the kind of software we’re talking about here. The kind of software that was designed by a plethora of contractors who have long since left. The kind of software that started life as a Winforms app, spun out as a Service, switched to MVVM, implemented several different UX frameworks and now resembles Sloth from The Goonies.

As you can imagine, Jeff is fairly dissatisfied at work. If you were to ask him why, well he’d have a list longer than his arm. The tech is archaic – all his friends are playing with the latest .js library and he’s merely keeping the life support running. This means he is not getting opportunity to learn, develop and challenge himself. He also works alone and feels abandoned on this project. This has led to him no longer believing in the mission of the team or the values of BigCorp.

But wait, he’s got a light bulb

Now having people like Jeff, talented but demotivated, is no good thing. In fact research has shown that if people don’t believe in the culture, they are likely to quit.

a third of British employees quit due to bad workplace culture

What’s even more baffling is that Jeff has light bulb ideas. In fact looking through the data that the ailing software has produced, he thinks he may have the next big product in the making if we could sprinkle some Machine Learning over it. If only we could change the BigCorp culture and allow Jeff to spread his wings, to blossom and ultimately be more productive. Enter, the Hackathon…

So how do I setup one of these Hackathons?

A Hackathon, in essence, is getting a group of people together to focus on designing and building a solution to a defined problem. In order to setup and run a Hackathon, we want to sprinkle a few key ingredients together:

  • Participants: we need Jeff, along with some other willing developers and optionally related disciplines, such as Business Analysts or UX specialists
  • Time: we need to block out some time for Jeff and the team to, erm, hack. That means commitment from BigCorp that he won’t be delivering any sprint points or answering support calls for the next few days
  • Goal: what are we trying to achieve and how will we measure this? Jeff has a dream of a React based ML tool so let’s commit to that. He’ll present back what he built at the end of the Hackathon

And that’s it. Optionally you may want to feed and water the guys but let’s not run before we can walk.

Sounds great, but what should Jeff put in his business case?

Putting all of this together, Jeff will need to present some advantages to BigCorp as to why they would allow him to spend time on this. Here is a little cheat sheet I prepared earlier:

  • Learning: Jeff and the team will have chance to learn new technology and domain knowledge away from their day to day jobs. This in turn may lead to better software as a whole, along with improving the morale of the team
  • Community: By mixing the teams, it will allow Jeff to meet employees from departments he never knew existed. They can share knowledge and help spread culture throughout the organisation
  • Innovation: nothing sells like cold hard cash. And the results of a hackathon could well be the next BigCorp product
  • Brand: If we open these events externally by inviting people or blogging about what we did, it will improve the brand of BigCorp tech no end. This in turn helps with both recruitment of staff and client recognition

So what are you waiting for? If you are keen to improve your company culture, team morale and support innovation then you should think about running Hackathons. Just remember to invite Jeff.