Hackathons may not be the biggest invention since sliced bread, but they're pretty darn close when you consider their impact (or potential impact).
The basic idea of a hackathon is deceptively simple—a bunch of developers come together for a specified amount of time, generally 24-48 hours, and build something cool. It could be around a particular platform or maybe around a specific language or framework. Or it could be one of those "code sprints" that are especially popular for open source projects. But the real deal are the hackathons that are all about solving real-world problems—better governance, smart cities, deep science, world peace. You get the drift.
The real deal are the hackathons that are all about solving real-world problems—better governance, smart cities, deep science, world peace. You get the drift.
Of course, hackathons have come in for their fair share of criticism, some of which is totally justified. We all know about those hackathons that are really glorified sleepovers; where the actual goal takes a backseat as the partying becomes the main agenda. Like with everything else, the quality of the event has a lot of bearing on the experience as well as the outcome.
All things considered, hackathons do deliver, if designed well. One needs to be clear on the focus of the event as well as expected outcome. Here are some reasons why hackathons are right on the money.
1. They leave you with lasting ideas, and some great products
Did you know that Facebook's "instant verification on Android" feature, "like" button and "tagging in comments" functionality were all outcomes of their internal hackathons? The hackathon format lends itself superbly to the idea of creating useful, albeit crazy solutions in a timebound fashion. An app that helps you to keep count of the number of times Trump says "fake news"? Sure, why not?
There are a ton of examples of projects that were born out of hackathons and went on to become real-world products. Hackathons can be great way to tackle business issues where solutions are often marred by an overly structured approach, and where fresh, blue-sky thinking is necessary.
2. Time pressure can breed innovation
Because hackathons are time-bound, they force everyone to focus their efforts on addressing the problem statement instead of being distracted by long-term planning and management. There is a certain magic that occurs when a group of people come together to solve a problem in a finite amount of time. (Sort of like when you're trying to agree on toppings for a large pizza.)
In a sense, a hackathon is like going through the entire startup process, from ideation to execution, but in a highly-compressed timescale. It's about coming together and creating something new—whether it's a new application, a new product or a new feature—and doing the demo within the designated time frame.
Of course, it won't be perfect, but, seriously, it isn't meant to be! It's more like the start of the journey rather than the entire journey.
3. Community building
The end goal of a good hackathon is not just about generating those cool ideas during the hackathon. Rather, it is also about building a long-term community of like-minded individuals who share common interests. There is a real opportunity there for organisations to make it count—engage regularly with these developers, update them on new developments and enable them to continue working on your software or platform or domain. You are opening new streams of innovation by inviting external parties into the fold, in addition to your employees.
4. A great hiring platform
It is not at all surprising that hackathons see an intense amount of hiring activity. These days, we see recruiters and VCs alike making a beeline for hackathons to find prospective employees because it is such a great platform to observe developers at work. Meeting such a large group of talented people who are pursuing their passions in an environment that's relaxed, yet serious, is possible only at a (good) hackathon.
5. Great learning tool
Above all, hackathons are a simply brilliant tool to promote learning and break away from closeted ways of thinking. It brings together a diverse group of people who may not have a chance to interact regularly, even if they happen to work for the same organisation. It provides a great setting for finding solutions to problems that aren't apparent unless you step back and see things from a different perspective, which is exactly what a hackathon sets out to do.
We may have new challenges, find new technology platforms or undergo a complete transformation in our processes, but hackathons are definitely here to stay!