Hackathon State of Mind

What comes to mind when you see the word Hackathon?

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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?

Last January, I was in Las Vegas for the New Media Conference. Over the couple of days I was there, I noticed on the Palms marquee a Welcome for the AT&T Developers Conference & Hackathon. Our conference was being held across the street at the Rio. One evening, while sharing a cocktail with other attendees, I struck up a conversation with a couple of guys who were obviously discussing their Hackathon strategy. I could not help but ask them if they were part of the event over at the Palms. What I found out kind of changed my mindset. This was a not a bunch of people trying to get my Credit Card data from Target (although I’m sure they could have). This was a serious competition with some serious rewards!

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.
Back in Milwaukee, after the NMX conference, I had filed my brush with Hackers in the back of my head. One evening in Mid April, I was attending a work event, afterwards we stopped at a small bar in Milwaukee called “Fire on Water” for a cocktail. It was a slow evening in the place with only a couple of patrons around the bar watching the early season Brewers game on TV. Around 8 pm, the placed instantly filled to Standing Room Only. Being curious, I struck up a conversation with some of the people who had just come in with the group to find out what brought them in. They had been attending a rollout presentation for the Milwaukee Hardware Hackathon to be held April 25-27. They would have 54 hours to create and pitch their ideas for a new physical product. There was so much energy in the room from this bunch, I offered to sponsor a couple of guys that said they did not have the entrance fee, I also jumped into the whole experience for the weekend, to see what this Mindset was all about (definitely the oldest guy on any team). The Team I was on ended up winning the thing! The experience changed my outlook. I was hooked on the concept and culture of he Startup.
The other day, I noticed an article in the New York Times called ” How We Use ‘Hackathons’ to Generate Big Ideas” by Robert J. Moore. Looking over the article, I was drawn in by this line.
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.
I thought, this is a common issue for any business. I remember Jay Baer of Convince and Convert saying at the Content Marketing World 2013 conference…”Creativity Does Not Respond to Meeting Notices
It appears in the article that Robert Moore had the same problem at RJMetrics.
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!
Sounds very familiar. In fact I hear this at a lot of the operations that I come in contact with on a daily basis. but they decided to bite the bullet and take a chance on change by holding an internal Hackathon. An actual commitment of Time and Money!
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

And it appears as if I’m not the only one who had an incorrect vision of what a Hackathon had to be.
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.
And more importantly act on the outcome, which RJMetrics appears to have covered.
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.

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