Have you ever been to a hackathon?
If you saw one from the outside, it kind of looks like a party. There's usually a lot of food, a ton of people, and a buzz of excitement in the air.
But it's more than just a party. In a successful hackathon, teams channel the energy and momentum of the event (they're usually 24-48 hours) to disrupt company challenges from the inside. Quite simply, a hackathon helps a company keep its competitive edge in the market while giving employees the opportunities to hone their skill sets as innovators (plus—if they win—some bragging rights and prizes).
A lot of companies have their own unique version of these events, and there's a good reason why. Not only are they fun, they're an awesome way to cultivate intrapreneurship (you know, acting like an entrepreneur even though you might have a boss) across an organization.
First Thing to Know: You Don't Have to Be a Techie
An important note: Hackathons aren't just for engineers and developers.
The best events pull in employees from every department, from designers to salespeople to strategists, to work together to solve immediate problems for the business. Annalisa Recio, a Lead UX Mobile Architect at Cox Automotive, collaborated with seven team members, not all of them in tech roles, during the 2017 Cox Enterprise Hackathon. Together, they originated and developed a product from scratch in 24 hours.
Their idea, Inspector Gadget, automated inspections and condition reports for incoming cars at auctions. Instead of manually filling in details for each vehicle—which is tedious at best—the mobile Android app combined 360-degree photography with language processing to save Cox Automotive employees time.
Pretty cool, huh?
Their idea blew away the panel of judges because it offered clear value to the organization. Annalisa and her team took home the grand prize of wrestling belts and cash rewards. The app is now in production, and Cox Automotive will no doubt benefit from it in the coming years.
Second Thing to Know: You Can Create Meaningful Change
If there's one way we'd describe a hackathon, it's the ultimate way to get your innovation on.
Ed Wagner, Director of Enterprise Architecture at Cox Enterprises, agrees.
“It's really about building relationships between some technology folks. We give them the opportunity to learn from their peers and ask questions. Second, it's about creating a platform for innovation. It really helps people learn how to innovate."
Hackathons offer a clear way to innovate outside of your 9-to-5 role (because we all need a little time to get creative outside of our normal desk gigs).
Annalisa agrees that every hackathon she has participated in (four and counting) has helped her be a better collaborator, and better at her job. “Hackathons are a great way to teach designers and engineers how to quickly create a product that solves a real problem, in a short amount of time," she says.
Annalisa works on a remote team, so getting to problem solve in person was a great experience. “It made our group a little bit closer because sometimes you just talk on the phone or over video, and it's not the same as working face-to-face."
Don't Have a Hackathon at Your Company? Here's How to Make It Happen
Ok, so you know a hackathon is good for you, it's good for your company, and you'll probably make some new friends and score some great snacks, but how do you make one happen? Here are some ways to build a killer hackathon from the ground up:
Make it Well-Designed
Any event planner will tell you that the magic is in the details, so build planning into each team's responsibilities. By giving employees the resources and time they need to create the hackathon, you increase the likelihood that it's an awesome day and everyone wants to attend.
As crazy as it sounds, for an organization-wide event at a corporation like Cox, you need at least nine months to find a suitable space, secure a date, and spread the word through internal marketing. Small to medium-sized companies can get away with a shorter runway of three-to-six months. The most important thing is to hype up the event internally. Give that job to an experienced marketer, and they can apply those talents to internal promotion.
Set Clear Rules
There are a lot of different rules you can develop for hackathons based on the size and structure of the event. That said, there are a few essential guidelines that create the framework for a successful contest. Take some time at the beginning of the hackathon to walk contestants through these rules:
Outline a specific time frame and space for the event. Typically, hackathons last between 24 and 48 hours within a designated building or campus. Remind contestants that only registered teams (and team members) can participate—no outside help allowed.
Create a theme in advance and share it with competitors when the contest begins. The topic can be as broad or as specific as you want. Cox, for example, asked contestants to create a product for their customers, which was extremely open-ended. If you have a specific problem you need to solve—like a difficult employee process or a client pain point—you can make that the theme. No matter what, wait to share the topic until the contest starts. You want everyone to start from scratch when the whistle blows.
Develop clear expectations for a viable product. The product shouldn't be an idea but a functioning prototype that you can demo for the panel. The more specific you are about expectations, the more likely you are to have some stiff competition between the teams.
Share a code of conduct. Teams need to know that disrespectful behavior toward teammates or competitors results in their disqualification. Code for DC outlines three principles on this note that you can incorporate into your own guidelines.
Supply Unlimited Food and Caffeine
When employees set aside a day or two to hack a new product, you need to take care of them. Build excitement by offering free perks, particularly unlimited coffee, energy drinks, and food. And to give the event a local spin, book food trucks and local vendors for the event.
Get Leadership Buy-In
You need leadership buy-in for a successful hackathon, so make sure to get executives involved. Cox appointed C-suite executives to the judging panel. Participants like Annalisa loved sharing their ideas with leaders and mingling with them at social events. Plus, executives benefit from an on-the-ground look at top talent.
Here's a simple way to ask leaders at your organization to participate on the panel:
This year, the ____ office will host our first inaugural hackathon. This company-wide event gives teams of employees the opportunity to solve our most challenging organizational problems.
We're involving everybody—not just developers—in the process. I'm reaching out to ask you if you would be willing to participate in this event on __ . We would love to include you on our panel of judges because of your unique insights and leadership role in the organization.
Serving on the panel would give you an opportunity to decide which innovations we invest in moving forward. You would also get the chance to scout the best talent from across the company.
We know that involving executives in the hackathon is essential to its success, and so we hope you say, "Yes!" If you are interested in participating, please let me know, and I will send along more details.
Thank you for your consideration.
Offer (Big) Rewards
Nothing replaces a really enticing reward. It ensures that every participant brings their A-game to the contest. Remember that cash is king. Cox Enterprises gave each member of the winning team $1,000. "Honestly, the recognition and visibility from the company means a lot," says Annalisa. When you offer substantial rewards, you show participants how much your organization values their ideas. If you don't want to offer monetary prizes, think about doling out extra vacation days, or offering free lunch for a week.
Hackathons give you a fun reason to break out of your routine and collaborate with colleagues on something totally different. Even though this short sprint toward innovation only lasts a day or two, you will feel the positive effects when you go back to your regular job. And if you're lucky, you'll bring back a prize, too.
Sponsored by Cox Enterprises
Cox Enterprises is a story about entrepreneurship, diversification, and not being afraid to try new things and compete. It’s also a story of staying true to values that have been around for more than a century. With revenues of $18 billion and approximately 60,000 employees, Cox Enterprises is a leading communications, media, and automotive services company. Learn more about working at Cox Enterprises, and check out open jobs.