The hackathon - steeped in the zeitgiesty language of tech with the promise of energy, solutions and new ways of doing things - holds huge appeal for futuristically-minded corporations. The coming together of bright minds, varied disciplines and diverse skills to solve problems in competitive teams has proved a winning formula in the tech world.
From the established HackZurich (where the winning innovation in 2019 shows app users the carbon impact of their transportation in the city and how to reduce it) to the recent Hack the Crisis events focused on solving coronavirus challenges (ideas included a social distancing app for public transport users and a Covid-19 financial assistance navigator), hacks have inspired minds, imagined the future and launched start-ups.
Ambitious corporations are right to harness the power of these events. But internal corporate hackathons have specific aims that differ from a traditional hackathon - as well as solving business problems, they also serve to disrupt, to expose employees to a new way of working and to catalyse bonding and team-building. A corporation is also, of course, a very different setting to an open hack and it requires an approach and a level of adaption.
Corporate hacks are successful when they are created by working with, rather than against the environment, energy and goals of a corporation. This piece, based on the writer’s recent and historic experience, is a guide to unleashing the power of open source solutions to company problems, ensuring that the hack is an exhilarating and galvanising experience to be part of while delivering cold, hard value.
Unlike a traditional hack, you may find that many of your corporate hack participants will have neither attended nor heard of a hackathon. This is a good thing as it presents the opportunity to truly work in a different way. Laying the foundations of knowledge to ensure an inclusive hack where everyone feels welcome and assured their contributions are wanted is key.
These steps have served me well in bringing people from a place of zero hack knowledge to fully hack-tivated:
1. Invest time in the concept and the bigger picture. Hacks are fascinating! The all-nighters and free food synonymous with hacks are mere window dressing to the boundary-pushing innovations they have created from health-tech to transforming cities to designing a new product that you can sell direct-to-consumer. Initiate your group to this exciting world to get them engaged.
Creating and communicating a range of roles ensures people understand the value they bring to the hack and participate fully and unreservedly. Many people worry that, as non-coders or non-technical people, their contribution will be secondary. The narrative here is that big, transformative ideas do not emerge from a single person, but from the power of the group.
Each hack team will need in addition to a programmer and data engineers, at a minimum, a UX designer, project manager, front-end developer and domain expert(s). There is plenty to do during a hack - writing, researching, presenting, etc. Roles can be crafted to ensure each person’s skills are being used fully.
2. Once the groundwork has been laid, a comprehensive schedule of preparation sessions in the two weeks preceding the hack will get everyone aligned and prepared and ready to do battle. An initial workshop covering all aspects of the hack is advisable as a starting point, with key focus areas being domain area overview (as not all participants will be familiar with the landscape) and a detailed walkthrough of the datasets that will be used.
Hack fundamentals such as the teams, problem statements, etc, should also be covered, as well as introductions and demos of any technology or tools that will be used. This is the foundational session and can be followed up over the next two weeks with a mix of data deep dives, interviews with key users, personas, etc, and the hack teams should be encouraged to meet separately as well. Hack drinks, remote or in-person, the evening before the event will also break the ice and build anticipation for the event.
3. Stakeholder management and support for the hackathon at senior levels of the organisation lends weight and momentum to the event. Take the time to familiarise senior stakeholders with the hack and be clear on what it will achieve and how it benefits them (more on that later below).
Even better - involve them in the hack. Invite C-suite stakeholders to be on the judging panel and ask heads of department to be part of the speaking schedule at the hack to introduce and kick off the event.
Expectation setting is important here. People new to hacks will often feel sceptical when they are not certain of the output. Equally, hackers may not want to commit ahead of the hack. A good way forward is allowing stakeholders to conceptualise what will be produced - for example, make it clear that each team will produce a working prototype that will address the problem statement. Stakeholders can then conceptualise outputs without prescribing what the teams will go on to create.
Hacks are exploratory by nature and can be killed by over-planning or being too prescriptive. They thrive on the energy of the group and the momentum of the moment. A team can ideate and develop an amazing solution which they then completely scrap at lunchtime on the last day because of what they’ve discovered on the journey. (I once participated in a hack where our initial prototype chatbot to relieve building congestion became an app by the evening, morphed to a drone by the next morning and was back to a bot for final submission).
Corporations thrive on being organised and building on certainty - pretty much the exact opposite of a hackathon. The free-flowing nature of a hack can therefore be very much outside the comfort zone of the average professional who is likely to have had “plan and prepare for any scenario” drilled into them. This divergence of approaches can also be seen when it comes to data, with data scientists preferring to have an ideal dataset template created in advance of the event and data engineers preferring to wrangle the data on the day.
There are ways to ways to strike a balance here. Carefully-crafted problem statements, reviewed and socialised before the event will keep teams focused on their goal. Similarly, being clear on the outputs of the hack prevents teams from wandering too far off course.
Your outputs could be defined as, for example, a working piece of software per team with prototype user interface. You may also wish to define if the prototype is based on real, dummy or simulated data. A structured template for the final presentation will also keep things real in the depths of creative flow, for example, you may require teams to present back on their prototype, ROI and value, plus the next steps for three months and six months ahead. (Should’ve done that for my buildings congestion hack!)
For a hackathon truly to have meaning and impact in a company setting, it needs to deliver something of value, tied to the company’s goals. This is a consideration unique to internal hacks and needs to be kept front and centre of hack planning. However, a corporate hack also offers advantages over a traditional hack. Through trial, error and anecdote, I’ve compiled five key principles to create amazing corporate hacks:
The innovation explosion that is a hackathon can be adapted to corporate aims with hugely positive outcomes. Investing time to engage people in the business and showing them the value of this kind of collaboration will set your hack up for success.
People at all levels of the organisation stand to gain when we put ideas, data and bright people effectively into a crucible. So lay the groundwork by getting people ready and stakeholders supportive and curious. Keep the unbridled creativity focused with meticulously-created problem statements (rules help control the fun!). Make sure they address actual company problems. Then go to town getting business input and senior support.
Encourage participation, dive into the discovery, enjoy the experience. Hack to the max, my friends!
Jane Smith is data product director at GSK Consumer Healthcare