Organize a hackathon that stimulates developer innovation
Key points to remember
- Here are some tips for organizing a successful hackathon in your company
- Hackathons can boost morale, foster collaboration, and create a more engaged workforce
- Projects built during hackathons can have real impact
- Hackathons drive digital transformation, especially in traditional non-tech companies
- It is very useful to bring developers closer to business problems
We live in a hyper-digital world. Companies that prioritize agility and adopt new technologies early are the ones that will not only gain a competitive advantage, but stay in business. For tech-native companies, this is nothing new. But for traditional non-tech companies that have long resisted digital transformation for one reason or another, it’s a bigger challenge.
Over the past few years, my company, Twilio, has discovered a unique way to drive digital innovation. It’s about bringing a mainstay of the developer community – the hackathon – to big, traditional companies. We call them Enterprise Hackathons.
At these hackathons, company employees and software developers come together for a day of brainstorming and creating digital solutions to solve real business problems. Participants do not need to have deep technical expertise – anyone involved in the business challenge, regardless of team or department, is welcome to participate. We aim to make these events as diverse and dynamic as possible. Ultimately, the solutions developed by the team are pitched Shark Tank style and many of them are eventually implemented within the organization.
Hackathons bring company employees into the minds of software developers. We all know that developers are usually more productive when they have to solve a higher level problem rather than a simple task. Hackathons address the problem and provide the freedom, inspiration, and creativity needed to find an innovative solution. We’ve seen the Enterprise Hackathon approach improve business results and instill a collaborative work culture where developers and non-technical employees can learn from each other.
Do it yourself: Hackathon best practices to consider
Hackathons can be effective for businesses of all sizes and in all industries. We’ve been successful in hosting hackathons in highly regulated industries like healthcare and finance, showing how traditional industries need to innovate to gain a competitive edge. Where we currently see the need for urgent transformation is within traditional businesses and hackathons are a great first step to adopting new practices that embrace innovation.
Here are some recommendations for organizing a hackathon in your company:
- Carefully consider the goals of the hackathon before doing any planning. What business problems do you hope to tackle? What is the top priority? What do you want participants to take away? Taking the time to establish these criteria in advance can be a lot of work, but it makes it easier to get started on the day of the event.
- Hackathons are no small feat. Give yourself plenty of time to organize the event and set up a clear structure for the day, so everyone in attendance knows what to expect and can prepare accordingly. You want everyone to be in the right mindset for creativity and collaboration, so preparation beforehand is essential.
- Be inclusive, transparent and encourage open dialogue. Remember that anyone with an interest in the business should be invited to participate in the hackathon, technical or not. The most successful hackathons break down silos and bring together ideas from diverse teams.
- Freedom and flexibility are essential. Again, developers thrive when they have a problem to solve rather than a mission. Approach attendees with respect and provide autonomy during the event
- Even if a prototype isn’t fully developed by the end of the hackathon, give everyone a platform to show off what they’ve been working on. Encourage repetition to build confidence and give feedback afterward for continued learning.
- Stay adaptable – no two hackathons are the same. Be sure to tailor the agenda and content to the specific group of attendees, but if something doesn’t resonate with the group, be prepared to pivot.
- Hackathons should be fun and revolve around creativity and learning – not all hackathons require tangible results. Offering an exciting theme or fun prizes is a great way to build excitement and foster friendly competition.
- Hackathons can operate both in person and virtually. Nowadays, digital fatigue must be taken into account when organizing a virtual hackathon to guarantee innovation and engagement. Make sure people have a few breaks between sessions to recharge and spark their creativity. Breaking into small groups is also a good way to ensure everyone stays engaged.
- In terms of structuring the event, consider a brief kick-off to set the scene and welcome attendees. This will get attendees excited and you will have the opportunity to answer any questions or concerns they may have. You can make the launch fun and interactive by including a demo that will inspire your builders.
- When building teams, we have found that 3-5 participants is the sweet spot in terms of team size. If you’re building cross-functional teams, we recommend that you include at least one developer on each team.
- Choose a panel of judges who will review the demos fairly and objectively. It is common for hackathon judges to have extensive technical experience. While the judges are deliberating among themselves, take the time to ask hackathon attendees for their input. You have a captive audience and the event is fresh in their minds. This feedback will help you evaluate what worked and what didn’t so you can make improvements to your future hackathons.
- Keep in mind that there is always a risk of unexpected issues during live events. At a recent hackathon, a team struggled to set up their development environment. Although they eventually fixed the issue, the setback ate away at their hacking time, which prevented the team from creating a full demo. As a workaround, the team modified their Demo Ceremony presentation to include the lessons they learned and examples of what they would have built with more time. To avoid these types of issues, provide explicit logistical instructions before the event and follow up with each team to ensure they have completed any preparatory work.
Developers are often kinesthetic learners and learn by doing. Hackathons provide an opportunity for everyone involved to break out of typical day-to-day work and try something new. Remember that the outcome of a hackathon is not just the code written, it is what is learned and applied in the future.
Bringing developers closer to business problems – and inspiring solutions
Hackathons are more than a fun day of problem solving and team building. They offer developers a closer connection to customer issues, and as a result, can drive real, tangible business and even social impact.
For example, at a recent hackathon, an all-female team of developers from a major insurance company created software that uses drone footage of natural disasters to notify homeowners if their home has been affected by the disaster. and offer help with next steps.
We also saw humanitarian technology as a priority for hackathon attendees at Lionbridge. Lionbridge enables global organizations to communicate with their customers and staff in more than 350 languages. At a Twilio hackathon, they began integrating Twilio’s Flex Contact Center with Lionbridge Language Cloud. Today, this translation tool is fully produced and ready to be deployed and easily used by businesses, governments and non-profit customers around the world. It’s easy to imagine how powerful this technology will be in the context of relief efforts.
Another success story we’ve seen first-hand involves EnlivenHealth’s engineering organization. EnlivenHealth builds advanced patient engagement, clinical and financial solutions that are used by more than 50,000 pharmacies nationwide. During a hackathon, they built a custom SVI prototype using artificial intelligence. Today, their personalized IVR experience not only saves providers time, but also leads to greater patient satisfaction and better patient health outcomes.
And a few months after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, a prestigious cancer center spent two and a half days building telemedicine prototypes. The final result ? A platform that has enabled cancer patients to continue to receive life-saving medical care, even during lockdown.
Two years later, telemedicine services are here to stay. Today, individuals around the world are benefiting from advances in telehealth technology because it is convenient for doctors and patients, reduces costs, and improves patient outcomes.
The benefits of hosting an internal hackathon don’t end with developing a new product or solving a business problem. Hackathons are a disruption of normal work life that brings your innovation community together to help solve a problem immediately. At best, hackathons boost team morale and foster collaboration across cross-functional teams, which can lead to lateral thinking and innovative ideas. Involving developers in business issues from the start and involving them in implemented solutions creates a more engaged workforce. And building a project that moves the needle on business metrics is a milestone in anyone’s career, technical or otherwise.
Unleashing developer creativity generates real business impact
Developers are essential to any business that wants to keep pace with the digital age, and hackathons are a way to create space to unleash developer creativity within a business. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to hosting a hackathon, but understanding your goals and staying true to your company values will not only make the event a success, but also have a tangible business impact.