The rise of the hackathon
Let’s get one thing straight. You don’t have to be a “hacker” to participate in a hackathon. These events are nothing to do with that dubious practice. Instead, they bring together technical professionals, split them into teams and pitch these teams against one another for one or two intense days. The main aim is to create something new, or solve a tricky problem in a unique and inventive manner. It could be an app, a robot or a new business model. The sky’s the limit.
Once the domain of the start-up culture, hackathons are now very much storming into the mainstream as businesses clamour to find more innovative ideas, create new and exciting products, and even find and recruit digital tech talent. And these big businesses are also prepared to stump up serious amounts of cash.
Hackathons are taking the corporate world by storm, More than 1,000 companies ran 3,450 hackathons in 2016 and these events attracted a diverse crowd. More than two-fifths of attendees are digital tech professionals (including developers, designers and programmers), 20 per cent were students, 19 per cent were independents, 10 per cent were entrepreneurs and 8 per cent were job seekers. Many are also hackathon newbies looking to build their skills and expand their network in a fun environment.
How do businesses benefit from hackathons?
Predictably, one-third of last year’s hackathons took place in the tech industry. In fact, some of technology’s biggest players host regular hackathons – IBM uses them as a portal for digital professionals to start new projects and work with interesting data, and Dropbox runs a yearly hack week where employees can work on anything they want.
However, as new technologies are continuously re-defining business models and ways of working, hackathons are now no longer just the domain of tech companies, which I think is a really interesting trend. For example, P&G are running a Lady Problem Global Hackathon Series to address the lack of women in technology and Unilever runs a regular Re.Hack sustainability hackathon to highlight some of the challenges its business and retail partners face. In fact, Hays’ partners, Manchester City recently ran two hackathons in collaboration with Google to discover new ways to digitally engage with their fans.
Hackathons bring a wide range of benefits to businesses large and small, and across all industries. The variety of the people who attend brings diversity of thought, and as a result, innovative prototypes and ideas are often generated. If it wasn’t for hackathons, the Facebook “like” button and “chat” functionality would not exist and neither would the GroupMe messaging app, which was acquired by Skype for a rumoured $43 million. Manchester City’s recent hackathon generated the idea for a wearable “City Band” to connect fans digitally and physically with an armband that would link to the Club’s City App, where global fans can connect with local supporters to set up an authentic Manchester City match day experience.
Diego Gigliani, SVP for Media and Innovation at City Football Group, said: “From our first hackathon to our co-created website, among many other activities, we’ve witnessed first-hand that great ideas can come from anywhere. By engaging in open conversation with a diverse and passionate community, we’ve been able to uncover new paths to explore together.
We hope to replicate this during our hackathons – by engaging with our community and coming up with creative ways to employ new technologies or digital means that create a sense of belonging among our global fan base.”
Hackathons are also a wonderful way for companies to test and get feedback on any new products or services, providing valuable insights into the business from an outsider’s perspective. They increase brand awareness and further build a community around a specific technology or market. Plus, as I said earlier, they are a valuable source for companies looking to identify and recruit the brightest technical minds.
However, businesses must exercise a degree of caution when organising hackathons. In the past, many have been criticised for their exploitative nature as Eze Vidra, head of Campus at Google said, “You do not want them to feel like you are exploiting them [attendees] to do R&D on the cheap.”
7 ways attending a hackathon will boost your employability
Now that we’ve looked at what the advantages of running hackathons are from a business perspective, I wanted to share with you the reasons why I think tech jobseekers should consider attending a hackathon, and how this can ultimately boost your CV, build skill set and improve your employability.
1. You will learn in a low-risk environment
It’s much easier to get involved in “riskier” projects through a hackathon. In this environment, you are free to try a completely different approach to a problem that you may not want to risk in the real world. After all, you don’t have the pressure of a line manager breathing down your neck – it’s only your own pride (and potentially a cool prize) that’s on the line.
2. You are guaranteed to learn new technical skills and enhance your soft skills
A hackathon is a safe environment to experiment with new technologies and tools. Workshops and mentors are often available to help you build any new technical skills, and you will also have the opportunity to brush up on those all-important softer skills such as presentation, communication and collaboration skills in a safe environment. Ultimately, a hackathon is also a social event and working in such an intense environment is a great bonding experience for any team. You will therefore fine-tune your team working and leadership skills – assets all employers are always looking for in new their recruits.
3. You will gain experience in turning concepts into actions
Most hackathons are focused on one core concept – and teams are judged on their ability to transform this concept into a working prototype or deliverable action. For those that only work at one stage of the product lifestyle in their day jobs, hackathons are a great way to get involved and understand every stage – from design to deployment.
4. You will build your network
Hackathons are a networking goldmine. From connecting with like-minded individuals in your team and during breakout sessions, to finding out about any career opportunities with the companies that are supporting the event, there are many different ways to get noticed.
5. You will build experience in different industries
You’ll have the opportunity to see how different industries tackle issues and develop ideas through a hackathon. You can learn about different technologies and platforms used, or even learn a new coding language.
6. You will improve your problem-solving skills
A hackathon is an intense experience during which your problem-solving skills will be stretched to the limit. You’ll need to learn to work fast and focus on what’s important to get the job done, you will also learn to be adaptable and flexible in your approach, however pre-defined your ideas are before you attend. Lastly, you will get the unique opportunity to really drill down and understand one issue to its very core.
7. You could get external recognition
If you’re a coding maestro, then it can be difficult to get the recognition you think you deserve. A hackathon can help you demonstrate your skills and stand out to the wider tech community. Some technical professionals are even making a living from hackathons.
Every hackathon is different – some are aimed at new developers, others at seasoned coding pros and most run over a couple of days. The thought of attending one of these events for the first time may feel a little daunting. But don’t panic. Hackathons are relaxed, fun events and you do not need to be a coding expert to take part. Many hackathons focus on welcoming newcomers and helping individuals harness new skills and relationships.
There really is no way to learn faster than by attending a hackathon. By attending these events you will keep your skills sharp and relevant for the future. By adding your hackathon experience to your CV, you really are setting yourself about from the competition. It is a clear indicator to any recruiter or potential employer that you are willing to go above and beyond, take your work seriously and are extremely passionate about your area of expertise, and about developing your career in technology. Simply put, hackathons will hack your career in tech.