What comes to mind when you see the word Hackathon?
Hackathon?…A bunch of guys in black tee shirts, in a dark room (probably some basement), their eyes glued to a 24″ computer monitor (actually an array of 3 monitors), working the keyboard at a speed that makes your head spin?
Participants will have two days to build and code their mobile app solution with help from a roster of top sponsors and access to top notch technical experts while they compete for their share of over $100K available in cash and prizes.
We could feel ourselves shifting from a proactive innovation engine to a reactive feature mill. We struggled with how to play the short game of pleasing our customers without sacrificing the long game of building innovative products.
We experimented with a similar 20 percent time policy, but everyone was just too busy — most of us opted to spend our 20 percent time on the same things we would have been working on anyway!
We decided to try a different approach: dedicating a 24-hour period every quarter to working on experimental projects. This “hackathon” introduced new ideas that have reshaped our product plans, our market strategy and, most importantly, our sense of what is possible.
Its Not Just for Code Junkies Anymore
Although the word “hackathon” conjures up visions of programmers writing code until the wee hours of the morning, the reality is that opportunities for innovation exist far outside of our engineering team. Even if we weren’t a software company, I would hold hackathons on a regular basis.Some noteworthy non-technical projects over the years have included a new company logo (which we eventually adopted), new sales scripts, new processes to make our support team more efficient, a new office layout that helped us reduce noise, and a prototype booth for trade shows.It’s one thing to say that innovation and creative thinking are core values of our company. It’s another to produce tangible evidence.
Shortly after the hackathon, our product team meets and discusses our near-term road map in light of what we learned. We didn’t always do this, but it has become a critical part of the process. This way, we make sure that the lessons of the hackathon aren’t soon forgotten, and the hard-working participants know that their projects have a real shot of making a difference.
My Challenge to You…
Back to my own mindset, in November, I jumped into another Hackathon of sorts built around the concept of Hacking to create new business ideas. 16 teams formed around a common goal of creating a vision for a new product or service (8 individual ideas and 8 companies with an issue to solve) formed at the Milwaukee Startup Weekend at The Commons. This time, I was not part of a team but a mentor. Again, I met and learned more about many creative and innovative individuals. I also was introduced to companies hungry for new ways to innovate. And all of this was in Milwaukee, where much like the misdirected image we have of a Hacker, we are working on changing the view the world has of our City. Every City has a Hacker Culture, you just have to find it and join in. Go ahead, give it a try, it might just change how you think or how your company operates.