A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the PCMA Hackathon with Jamie Murdock

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In a profession that tends to favor those who pay close attention to the slightest details and plan for almost every contingency, the defining principle of a hackathon is probably frightening: beautiful chaos.

It really is the perfect descriptor to sum up what a hackathon truly is: a sprint-like event where teams are formed and must work together to find innovative solutions to common industry problems.

The bonds that are formed within the teams and the creativity that flows is the beauty; it’s the path to these points that is the chaos.

Check out this in-depth interview where Donna Kastner and Jamie Murdock break down their recent hackathon at PCMA Convening Leaders.

Hackathon: Beautiful Chaos

As a self-described Type-A perfectionist, Jamie Murdock is one of the unlikeliest people you would think of to champion the practice. However, in the past few years, he’s led more than a dozen hackathons and has plenty more in the works.

“It’s a safe space for you to blow up what is current state,” Murdock, Vice President of Sales at Experient, said. “You’ve got this precious amount of time to think outside of normal practices and break it. If you’re not in that mindset, it’s not going to work.”

Murdock and Donna Kastner, founder of Retirepreneur, have been tapped by PCMA to lead multiple hackathons in the past two years, and each one has created more momentum and desire for more hacking.

Question Everything

Most recently, at PCMA Convening Leaders in Pittsburgh, Murdock and Kastner added a new element to the mix: the question burst.

An idea he picked up from Hal Gregorson, author of Better Brainstorming: Why Questions Matter More Than Answers, the Question Burst forces each member of the team to compile a list of 15 questions about the challenge before any ideas are brainstormed.

The goal is to spark an idea or thought process regarding the issue at hand that might otherwise be buried by potential solutions.

“People will immediately try to solve a problem. You need to start by asking questions and putting your mind in a curiosity state.”

Jamie Murdock

“People will immediately try to solve a problem. You need to start by asking questions and putting your mind in a curiosity state.”

And while curiosity is encouraged, time is of the essence. While some can go for days, many of the Hackathons Murdock has led only provide a few hours for teams to brainstorm the challenge, determine their solution and perfect their pitch to the panel of judges.

I find that a condensed, pressurized time constraint will fuel creativity faster,” Murdock said. “I like that time compression. Sometimes, within that pressure, the best ideas come out when you say ‘We have nothing to lose, let’s go!’”

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The Hackers’ Network

Most people attend events for two reasons: to learn new industry-based content and to network with fellow professionals.

“If you can get peer-to-peer learning–which is exactly what hackathons do–you are checking off both of those boxes. It’s in a very informal, fun, chaotic environment that people may not expect because it’s not your traditional meeting where everything is ordered and set to go and in classroom style. So we change it up.”

They accomplished this goal by creating teams in a more diverse fashion, based on their career and industry focus. This is done to avoid “group think,” where participants tend to go with what they already know.

This element of diversity can help each person not only view the specific challenge from a different lens, it can help them view their industry in a whole new way.

“It’s almost a transformation that they go through from the time they enter to when they leave,” Kastner said. “Every time I looked around [during Convening Leaders], I saw a group of hackers walking together. They now have some new friends.”


Curious to see how a Hackathon could be used to improve your event experience? Email Jamie Murdock to find out more or download the free Hackathon Design Playbook: Gathering Brilliant Minds to Reveal Breakthrough Ideas.

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