Hackathons: Where Discovery & Networking Blend Beautifully

hackathonPost authored by Jamie Murdock, VP, Sales

Per Wikipedia, a “hackathon” is a “sprint-like event in which programmers, designers and others… collaborate intensively to advance projects.”

To make one thing clear, I don’t typically cite Wikipedia for professional references; however, the dictionary definition refers to cyber hacking, and that’s definitely not what we’re talking about today. 

While that type of “hackathon” is designed to tear down, what we are referring to builds up and creates new ideas and opportunities for a brighter future.

This idea of a hackathon reminds me of the “Braintrust” concept shared by Ed Catmull in Creativity, Inc.  At Pixar, the Braintrust was born from studying the behaviors of the five people who led the production of Toy Story. Ultimately, when you bring different-minded brains together to solve a problem, the outcomes can be powerful.  In the case at Pixar, it has helped them score over 14 box office hits in a row.


Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull. Credit: Amazon.com

So, this got me thinking. There are quite a few similarities between the hackathon and braintrust models. How can we apply these capable collaboration concepts that originated in tech circles to solve industry issues that we all struggle with? 

Hackathons are now gaining traction across tech and non-tech industries alike. Typically, hackathons last a day or more, as innovation chats get richer and more fruitful with each passing hour. They also tend to be more problem-centric, with hacking more focused on a single challenge or a short list of problems.

Here are a few recent examples:

  • Disrupt Hackathon – Last month, 63 teams of developers and engineers took part in a 24-hour hacking endurance test in London. Teams collaborated to build new products which were pitched to judges. Disrupt hackathons are hosted by TechCrunch in major cities throughout the year. Past winner GroupMe managed to flip a hackathon win quickly, starting up a company that was acquired by Skype for $80M the following year.
  • Cleveland Medical Hackathon – Doctors, nurses, researchers, public health workers plus IT professionals converged at the Global Health Innovation Center in Cleveland to hack solutions to transform healthcare. With the Annual Medical Innovation Summit following on the heels of this competition, hackathon teams were invited to discuss their findings at the summit.
  • Energy Hackathon – Last November, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hosted their annual Energy Hackathon, where participants had to solve eight key challenges for the energy sector. Essentially, this hackathon created a platform for energy companies and individuals (students or professionals) to study energy challenges together.

Hackathons Feed Two Event Guest Cravings

Education and networking are the top two reasons why people attend professional conferences. A well-designed hackathon amplifies outcomes on both counts:

  1. More purposeful networking exchanges – This is especially appealing for the introverts attending your conference.
  2. More vibrant peer-to-peer learning chats – Countless studies show that when learning is paired with meaningful discussion among peers, comprehension and retention skyrockets.

hackathonsIf you’re thinking about hosting a hackathon at one of your events, here are a few quick tips for you, the organizer:

  • Identify problems that matter
    There’s no shortage of challenges in today’s change-charged and fragile business environment. Identify a short list of problems that matter most to your audience and invite them to gather and hack away.
  • Don’t skimp on planning
    A common misconception about hackathons is that they magically happen. Don’t wing it—you’ll need time to map out your process and messaging leading up to the hackathon. Room sets are also important, as you strive to create the ideal climate for brainstorming brilliance. You’ll want a room where there are clusters of seats for hacking teams to congregate, plus plenty of “white space” so participants can move about and ponder what was discussed.
  • Set reasonable expectations
    It likely took years for these problems to emerge. Solving them in a single day isn’t realistic, but fleshing out potential solutions is. Help your participants to see (and celebrate) the mini-progressions they’ve achieved, so they can gain some sense of fulfillment as they move through each hurdle.
  • Recruit diverse participants
    Recruiting a diverse group of participants is crucial.  While most are drawn to network with like-minded people, when we corral different-minded people into these exchanges, the idea output multiplies. Ultimately, the group will benefit from a few people with different backgrounds and perspectives. 
  • Recognize and reward top hackers
    There’s nothing like some healthy competition to ratchet up the hacking. Think through specific categories and assemble a panel of judges to select winners. Wrapping up the hackathon with an awards ceremony will ensure this experience is remembered and treasured. Don’t miss opportunities to link prizes back to your organization. Prizes might include free registration at your next conference or some coveted membership perk. Be sure to recognize winners across all social channels. People love stories about rising star innovators who are making a difference.
  • Seek out sponsors
    This concept of hacking for solutions is loaded with experiential elements. There are likely quite a few sponsors who would be eager to fund all or a portion of this hackathon. Be sure to have your sponsors join in on the hacking, as they’ll bring a completely new perspective to the table.

Additionally, expectations must be set for participants for this concept to work well.  It’s helpful to map out a timeline for the entire hackathon, adding smaller “wins” throughout the span of the hackathon.  Convening the larger community periodically for debriefs will inspire everyone to persevere and push harder to find breakthrough solutions.

Attitude & Mindset Matter Most of All

Using what I have learned from Ed Catmull in Creativity, Inc., attitude and mindset can make or break the success of any hackathon. These four essential behaviors must be present to foster more vibrant and productive solution hacking: 

  • Vulnerability
  • No Authority
  • Absolute Candor
  • Trust

Join Us at the PCMA Convening Leaders Mini-Hackathon

On Tuesday, Jan. 10, I’ll be leading a mini-hackathon session at PCMA Convening Leaders in Austin, Texas. If you’ll be attending this conference, why not join us at 10:45 a.m. to road test this concept together? Granted, with just one hour to hack, it’s a taste of what’s possible, but you’re sure to emerge with new thoughts for introducing this highly interactive, problem-solving model to your audience.

Has there been any discussion about hosting a hackathon for your members or event guests? What hurdles (internal or external) will you need to tackle to make this happen?

This entry was posted in Data and Technology, Event Design and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Hackathons: Where Discovery & Networking Blend Beautifully

  1. Diana Voto says:

    Awesome. Look forward to it

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.