Every year all of IRESS across the globe participates in a event which sees our staff forming teams around a problem or idea with the goal of collaboratively designing and building a unique solution from scratch. It's a high-energy 24 hour period that highlights just how passionate our people are. In the 'tech space' these events are commonly referred to as 'hackathons' (a portmanteau of the words "hack" and 'marathon") and provide a venue for self-expression and creativity. Notable examples of a hackathon “hack” was Facebook's “Like” button and 'Facebook Chat'. This year's event will see a number of the prototypes developed refined and released into our core solutions.
Our experience highlights that hackathons deliver a myriad of benefits which need not be limited to software businesses. Hackathons:
- often break down traditional work silos,
- encourages staff to explore new methods and approaches,
- lifts staff enthusiasm, happiness and retention,
- identifies talent,
- fosters client focused innovation, and
- can future proof your business
Inspired? Below IRESS Chief Technology Officer, Andrew Todd, shares the secrets to making your hackathon a success.
1. KNOW WHAT YOU WANTWhy do you want to run a hackathon and what do you want to get out of it? The point of a hackathon is to generate creative solutions to real problems – usually something that will make a difference to your clients; your business; your people – or all three. Be clear on what you want to gain from it.
Also determine how you will measure success. Our aim was to get more people from outside our development team involved in our hackathon (we did it, with a 121% increase in the number of cross-functional teams from the year before). But you could also base it on the number of ideas generated, or how many projects make it to market.
2. TIME IT WELL
3. BANG THE DRUM (AND NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF SWAG)
Get engaged, enthusiastic people to be involved and help lead it from the outset. You’ll want to recruit the best socially networked people in the office and your brand champions (you know the ones) who can bang the drum, spread the word and motivate people to get involved. They’ll be critical in keeping the energy and spirits high throughout. Branded apparel and giveaways like hackathon survival kits are a sure-fire way to get people interested and make everyone feel part of something special. The IRESS Global Hackathon tees have become something of a collectors’ item year on year. Never underestimate the power of swag.
4. BRING OUT THE BIG GUNS
Get your leaders on board. Having their visible support and energy sends a strong message to your business about the importance you place on innovation and the role each person has to play in it. They can also help remove any blockers that could get in the way of you running a successful event. Make sure they’re involved - put them on the judging panel and send out internal communications like blogs and videos (we set up a dedicated Slack channel) to build excitement and ensure everyone feels enabled to take part.
Which brings me onto my next point, be inclusive. Hackathons aren’t just for developers. Invite everyone to get involved, irrespective of role, experience, expertise, or location. It’s a great way to get people collaborating with others they might not have met or worked with before. Put them together and see what magic they make.
5. BE ADVENTUROUS
A hackathon is a chance to create out-of-the-box ideas in a low-risk environment. It’s not often you get the chance to do that so why not have fun with it?
No idea should be off-limits, that said, you may want to keep things focused to ensure you get valuable outcomes. Offer a few categories or themes for people to work around and let them get creative.
Yes, there will be fails and you’ll probably get some inappropriate ideas too - you can offer prizes for those. ‘Bring Back the Biscuits’ (a campaign to reinstate a particular brand of biscuits in our Sydney office) was a tongue-in-cheek idea put forward in our 2016 hackathon, it didn’t technically meet our hackathon criteria but we had to recognise it because it got people engaged and talking, and that’s all part of the fun. For every ‘Bring Back the Biscuits’ idea there will also be a gem of an idea which could turn out to be a game changer for you or your clients.
6. GET COLLABORATING
Let’s be clear, a hackathon is not just about having the coolest ideas – some of the best outcomes I’ve seen have come from teams that work cross-functionally together, sometimes even across borders and time zones. Encouraging and enabling collaborative working using tools like Slack and appear.in, is something that can continue long after the Hackathon has ended.
7. KEEP THE ENERGY LEVELS UP
Ah, an important one this. Hackathon is not only a test of creativity, but also one of endurance and stamina and what every successful hackathon needs is pizza. Yes, hackathons and pizza go hand in hand as do energy drinks and coffee (one in each preferably). Celebrate the milestones throughout your hackathon accordingly with a well-timed pizza delivery, coffee round, morning-after breakfast and the occasional beer.