Beyond the hype: all businesses need to think about running or going to a hackathon
Beyond the hype: all businesses need to think about running or going to a hackathon
A view from Jon Busby

Five reasons why everyone, and every business, needs a good Hackathon

Despite becoming a bit of a business buzzword, Jon Busby, digital director of Twogether, believes that the benefits make attending hackathons worth their weight in industry hyperbole.

For businesses and charities, they can make the bottom-line difference between staying static and developing something that could transform the future

There's no question about it - hackathons are in danger of becoming the flavour of the month!  Once a Silicon Valley tech phenomenon, hackathons are increasingly being used by organisations of all sizes to brainstorm new ideas and develop tech innovations.

Last week, for example, the Royal London Society for Blind People (RLSB) hosted its first hackathon in an attempt to develop an app which would help visually-impaired young people improve their social and professional prospects.   

'Hackathon' combines 'Hack' (referring to writing code in an exploratory and fun way) and 'Marathon' and, according to Wikipedia, is "an event when programmers meet to do collaborative computer programming."  

Usually held over a 24-48 hour period, hackathons involve coding towards a common goal or platform in order to build something to demonstrate an idea or launch a product.  And, famously, they usually involve plenty of the life-support systems essential to developers:  pizza, Red Bull and high jinks!

But the hackathon is more than just a trend;  as even the biggest brands are discovering, hackathons can solve real business problems as well as develop and improve relationships with consumers.

So, why should you run one?

It’s a great opportunity to innovate

Startup software businesses are often built on innovation, but somewhere along the way when a business scales, the seriousness of business objectives, customer alignment and budgets take over and the entrepreneurial spirit can get lost.  By taking a day out to experiment, innovation can be fostered and new ideas can prototyped quickly.  Some of the largest products we use today, including Google Maps, have been born out of this "creative" time allowed by companies.

You can learn new skills

We’re all guilty of sitting inside our comfort zones, especially inside our disciplines and departments.  A Hackathon is an opportunity for different teams that would otherwise not worth together to socialise and share processes and skills.  It’s amazing how applying a process from software development, such as Agile, can help improve finance or sales process.  The Government has even applied this software thinking to its own digital contracts, G-cloud.   At Twogether we’ve learnt so much from attending hackathons that they’ve become a monthly fixture, allowing us to shave weeks off projects, and make our work more resilient and secure than ever before.

You can contribute to a greater cause

Having a cause to collaboratively build towards is not only a great way to focus the event, but gives everyone attending a goal and a mission to improve the world around us.   As the RLSB example shows, helping a charity solve a problem through methods that would normally be outside of their reach can be incredibly empowering and rewarding, for both the organisation, and the 'hackers'.  

They’re a lot of fun

Ultimately, they should be a lot of fun (and that’s not just because they often include beer).  Running a hackathon can be a great way to boost company morale and an awesome method of recruiting new talent.  The combination of working quickly, working together and working on something that isn’t our day to day job can help us to remember why we got into development (or marketing, or finance) in the first place.

They're not just for developers

Hackathons are a great way to keep ideas fresh and fluid, and they’re not just for developers.  The Launch 48 weekends, for instance, bring together developers, along with marketing, sales and finance individuals to pitch, build and launch a business in 48 hours.  LinkedIn has recently launched its "festival" inviting attendees to rethink common business challenges, such as HR or sales over the period of a weekend (an event where developers - unusually - are NOT allowed!).

At Twogether we use internal hackathons to help us innovate products and ideas that we otherwise wouldn’t get an opportunity to work with, allowing us to experiment with new concepts that normally wouldn’t get the budget or time to be put forward for a client or internal project.  Some of our own hackathon achievements include an internal application for visitors, a time tracking solution (that the entire office now uses!), and a virtual reality version of our office.   

For time-poor practitioner in today's world of always-on email and smartphones, Hackathons provide a chance to double down and get something done (whilst having fun, of course).   And for businesses and charities, they can make the bottom-line difference between staying static and developing something that could transform the future.