Application development

Why Hackathons Drive Innovation

Why Hackathons Drive Innovation


Leaves gradually getting their fall colors. Crisp morning air. Pumpkin spice everything. Hacktoberfest.

As the temperatures drop, our minds start shifting more and more toward the holidays, time off, family, and side projects.

It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when your developers are going to start drifting and their performance dropping. It’s not their fault, it comes with the season.

This is the time of year when we need to start getting creative to keep our development teams actively engaged. Time to get creative and have fun. Time for a hackathon.

A hackathon is a short event, typically ranging from 1 to 3 days, that focuses on building a creative solution to a known problem. Developers group together, come up with a plan, and hack something together in a short amount of time all in the spirit of competition.

The result is often a set of astonishingly innovative proof of concepts that never would have seen the light of day had you not set aside time for them.

But why? If it only took one or two days, why couldn’t these POCs just fit into the standard development schedule? We all could use a little jolt of innovation now and then.

The answer lies in the event itself. A hackathon provides an opportunity that some developers wouldn’t normally see. An opportunity to flex their creativity in ways their day to day doesn’t allow.

How so? Great question.

Image by Colin Behrens from Pixabay Image by Colin Behrens from Pixabay

Creative Constraints

Whether they know it or not, developers are creative people. All they do all day is create.

A hackathon typically has a theme to provide a challenge. The theme could be as simple as “pumpkin spice”, but it could also be something like “use a programming language you’ve never used before.”

Whatever the theme is, it’s going to force all the developers out of their comfort zone. They are going to be approaching problems differently than they normally would to make it fit the theme.

You will hear “I never thought of doing it that way” and “what if instead we do it like…” over and over throughout the course of the event. And do you know what that is? Innovation.

Image by REDioACTIVE from Pixabay Image by REDioACTIVE from Pixabay

No “Red Tape”

A hackathon is typically a greenfield project that goes from start to finish in just a handful of hours. This means that you cannot follow standard development procedures, practices, and sign offs.

This is an opportunity to hack something together in as short amount of time as possible. Get it working. Solve the problem. Don’t worry about doing it “the right way.”

Removing all the red tape that comes with standard day to day development opens up opportunities to try new things. If there isn’t a barrier to development, why not try to build something like this? If it doesn’t work, throw it out and try a different way.

From a leadership point of view, what you’re doing here is providing the opportunity for your developers to learn. Let them try out a new pattern, or a different programming language, or skip an entire development process altogether.

Hopefully they will find something they love and ask to bring it into the daily routine to improve productivity. That is the objective of a hackathon after all: creating opportunity.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Shortened Timeline

When you have a deadline, creative solutions tend to surface themselves as you inch closer and closer to the end. The work has to be done, but you don’t have much time to complete it.

“I will always choose a lazy person to do a difficult job because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.” - Bill Gates

People tend to get clever in crunch time. When the clock is ticking and you’re not done, you find ways of making it work. Necessity spurs innovation. So when you’re given 2 days to hack together a complete solution, get ready to see some innovative answers to your problem.

If you’re thinking about starting a hackathon, keep in mind that you can make an event too short to where it’s stressful instead of light pressure. Keep it balanced.

Image by joannafotograf from Pixabay Image by joannafotograf from Pixabay

Try Out Something New

With a hackathon, you could be anything you want. Give team members the opportunity to try out roles they wouldn’t normally try in their day job. Let a developer be the manager. Give that QA an opportunity to do some graphic design. Maybe let the analyst try their hand at coding!

You’d be surprised at what people can do if given the opportunity. Who knows, it could even awaken something inside of them and help point them to the next steps in their career!

Providing someone an outside opportunity by mixing up the roles is a great way to drive innovation by getting a fresh perspective. They don’t know how things operate in this role, so they might try something out of the box. Likely they will approach the problem in a simpler way than an experience veteran, which is a good thing!

A diverse approach to a problem will yield great results.

Encourage a role mix-up. Help the team get refreshed by turning their normal responsibilities on their head.

Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

Competitive Edge

Not everyone is motivated by competition, but those that are tend to be extremists. I can speak to this from experience.

There’s something about a little friendly competition that gets me more motivated than anything else. And after the event, I’m still riding on that motivation for at least a week, trying out all the new things I learned.

If you have people on your team or in your company that like a little competition, encourage them to participate in a hackathon. Teams competing against one another to come up with the best solution in a short amount of time… I’m going to have to organize one now just writing that sentence.

Competition can bring out the best in someone. Creativity, leadership, and drive all flourish, which of course leads to innovative solutions.

How to Start

If I’ve convinced you to run a hackathon, great! Your developers and company will thank you for it. Here are some of the steps you will have to take to get organized.

  • Decide on the event length
    • Is this during work hours? How many work days?
  • Come up with a theme
    • Should it be related to work? Maybe it should just be fun for the first one.
  • Find a partner
    • Sometimes partnering with another company will help with ideas and a creative niche.
  • Decide on a prize
    • Keep those developers motivated! Have a prize for the winner.
  • Set the date
    • Put it on the calendar, but don’t leak any details!

As an organizer, you’re looking to help people learn and grow. You don’t have to use all the projects that get created in production. You want to get the gears of innovation turning in the heads of all who participate. Help them operate at the next level.

Whether you start a hackathon or choose to participate in one, there’s one outcome that is guaranteed to happen: you will have fun. So get out there and start innovating!

It’s not too late to sign up for Hacktoberfest, a month long hackathon encouraging users to contribute to open source communities. Remember, the best time to start something new was yesterday. The second best time is today.

Allen Helton

About Allen

Allen is an AWS Serverless Hero passionate about educating others about the cloud, serverless, and APIs. He is the host of the Ready, Set, Cloud podcast and creator of this website. More about Allen.

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