A Hackathon: Not Just for the Software Industry

This is a two-part series on hackathons. In the last column of my recent series on Innovation, I mentioned hosting a hackathon as a way to create an environment of innovation. In this series, I’ll cover what a hackathon is and how to host one at your company.

So what is a hackathon and why do you want to host one? Basically, a hackathon is an event that pulls together people from different departments into small teams for a limited time, generally with a specific purpose in mind.

Although hackathons originated in the software world, their purpose can be anything you’d like, and as large or small as you’d like. Maybe you’re looking for a new slogan or angle for a marketing campaign.

Shutterstock, a website for stock photos and music tracks, hosts a company-wide 24-hour hackathon ever year “to imagine, design and implement an idea they think can provide value to the company.” It awards prizes to employees for best ideas in categories like Biggest Customer Impact and Game Changer. According to the website, “the real prize is the passion and excitement that hackathons themselves evoke.”

Winners also get the opportunity to work on their hacks, perhaps developing it into a product for the company.

In a larger version of the event, AT&T is hosting its first hackathon at CTIA’s Super Mobility Week in Las Vegas next week. The theme of the two-day event is Code for Car and the Home. The purpose of the hackathon is to match developers with technical experts and give them access to a roster of sponsors.

As an incentive, the company is giving away $100,000 in cash and prizes. For example, Volvo is giving away $5,000 for the best app focused on car safety and Samsung is also giving away $5,000 for the best use of Samsung gear. Finalists are invited to stay an extra night and have the opportunity to show their app to industry professionals.

Many companies open up their hackathons to the public to encourage outside opinions and ideas. Having outside participants can also be beneficial for recruiting future employees.

Paypal is hosting a global competition in a series of “BattleHacks” this year held in 14 cities across the world. The challenge is to create code that solves a local problem and become the “Ultimate Hacker for Good.” The World Finals will be in November in San Jose, CA and finalists will compete for $100,000 grand prize and an awesome looking axe trophy.

In addition to creating excitement and possibly new products, campaigns or solutions to problems for your company, hackathons give people from different departments the chance to interact in ways their day-to-day jobs don’t provide.

One of the biggest benefits is that it allows employees the time to focus solely on one thing, harnessing the collection brainpower of several of your employees at once.

In my next column, I’ll cover the basics of how to host a hackathon to benefit your company and generate excitement among your employees. Oh, and no need to award large cash prizes either. Many hackathons are fueled solely with pizza and caffeine.

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