TECH | Jan 4, 2019

Hackathons also in 2019?

Twenty years after its birth, the hackathon is still the most used event for gathering ideas and talents. Here is how and why it is organized

Looking at the coming year, I am convinced that one of the most used words will be hackathon. Recently I followed the organization of the TIMBoxHackathon in Orvieto and from several sides I was asked to help people understand what these events are and how to organize them. I read up and discovered that coming June 4 will mark exactly twenty years since the birth of the first hackathon.

In 1999, the first programming event that takes this name was organized by the OpenBSD community in Calgary, Canada, to accelerate development of IPV6 and IPSEC stacks in the operating system. Since then events of this kind (meetings of programmers to develop and explore new ideas in a given context) have had increasingly evident success.

How many hackathons are there in the world?

The site, which has been promoting hackathons all over the world since 2010, recorded a total of 5,636 meetings last year, confirming a constant interest in this type of event. This growth will not stop in 2019 either, when several hundreds of hackathons are already scheduled between the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Germany, Canada and France (just to mention the Top Six of 2018). Last year 3 hackathons out of 4 were open to the public, mainly promoted by technological, manufacturing or transport companies: from being events in a small community where participation was “by invitation”, hackathons have become tools used to search for talent, collaboration with start-ups or the launch of new services and products.

What types of hackathons are possible?

A distinction can be made between external and internal hackathons. The former are aimed at discovering new solutions, evangelizing developers and start-ups, making a brand known and recruiting talent. The latter are used to launch “disruptive” services, train staff, stimulate team building and create a group of entrepreneurs.

Particularly interesting is the use of this type of event for the gathering of new ideas: the company opens up to external contributions for innovating. There is talk of Open Innovation, a model opposed to the idea of secrecy and isolation of the places devoted to the realization of new solutions. It is no coincidence that many hackathons lead to investment in start-ups like Twitter, born in 2006 from an attempt to revive a start-up in difficulty.

There are also forms of online hackathons, where the element of co-presence is canceled, but the concept of going to find the solution to a problem outside company walls is also exploited. With its competition, Kaggle can be considered the most successful example: thousands of data scientists have been challenged on its platform to solve a problem on a given dataset, giving away various kinds of economic incentive. In the last 9 years, Kaggle has run almost 300 competitions (twenty active ones): the tool has also had considerable success in the training of data scientists, having backed more than 4,800 competitions for students.

How is a hackathon organized?

If you want to organize a hackathon, the first thing to do is understand the purpose and the type of competition. Once these aspects have been established, work can start on the organization. Over time, hackathons have assumed a very precise connotation, evoking an event with unique characteristics: time useful for developing the code sufficient to demonstrate an idea, a team-mix suitable for realizing the idea in all its aspects, an informal and collaborative environment in which to discuss and plan, but also to sleep and refresh (obviously not valid for those online).

Operationally speaking implementation time is a couple of months, during which much of the work goes to communication aspects and creating the mood around the event.

First of all, the right place must be chosen (large and comfortable spaces, areas for developing, discussing, relaxing and sleeping, eating and having fun) and possibly also evocative of the hackathon theme: in a period building for a citizen hackathon, in a conference room annexed to a hospital for solutions in a healthcare context, in a museum for new models of enjoying culture, and so on.

Much of the success of the event depends on the usability and characterization of the place chosen. Attention must be paid to the spaces (cleaning, functionality and ease of use, reachability also from outside the city), the availability of food and drinks (finger food, energy drinks, “comfort” food), and the presence of the necessary equipment (Internet with sufficient bandwidth, forklifts and emergency solutions for teams and organizers, screens and projectors, microphones and amplification system, tables and chairs, blackboards, markers and post-its, etc.).

All of this can turn out to be a barely profitable investment if the number and quality of teams participating does not match expectations, so it is essential to carry out an awareness campaign that picks out the ideal candidates (brilliant students, potential start-uppers, technology and/or domain experts). The starting point is certainly the creation of expectation, selecting the right prize to be won (prize money, potential recruitment, financing of the idea/innovation). With the prize, it is good practice to define the award criteria and communicate the names of the judges (if already available). Therefore a communication plan must be defined to inform and convince expected candidates (presence at collateral events, announcements on the appropriate media, direct or indirect invitation through professional associations and others). In this plan, particular attention must be given to the follow-up phase: not all those who “do not win” are “to be thrown away”; on the contrary, it often happens that the second or third classified bring elements of interest to the company, perhaps to be realized after appropriate improvements, directing them through mentoring to new events or opportunities.

Like any other tool, a hackathon has investment costs that can be largely covered by results only if its organization is implemented down to the last detail. There are also various organizations which operate on behalf of companies in the preparation of successful hackathons.

Whether you want to unearth ideas for the new start-up or want to find new talent to join your team or stimulate your team to generate new solutions, the hackathon is the ideal tool for generating value and innovation. 2019 will be the right year to make it happen.

Andrea Manieri