John P. Goetz

24-Hours to Change The Way You Think

Call it a Hack-a-Thon, a Hack-Day, a Solution-a-Thon, a Code-Day, a FedEx Day, or even a Facebook Freak-On. But, as a very famous ad says, “Just do it.” And if done right, it really won’t cost you anything – but a bit of time.

24 hours to be exact. The term ‘Hack-A-Thon’ is a blend word consisting of the words “hack” and “marathon.” The ‘hack’ part refers to its slang meaning of “program alteration” — not to the illegal act of “hacking.” The “marathon” part refers to the duration of the gatherings – hence the aforementioned “24 hours” in the previous paragraph. Hack-A-Thons are also called Hack Days, Hack Fests or Code Fests.

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24-Hours to Change the Way You Think by John Goetz

Although the term was first used in 1999, the origins of gatherings focused on creating something new in the niche that is hosting them, dates back to the 1970’s programming groups. The genesis of both Microsoft and Apple was from a few brilliant minds in a garage — not hundreds of people stranded in Corporate Cubeville looking at the clock waiting to go home.

According to research and advisory firm Gartner, “Hack-A-Thons are a great way to jump-start [innovation]. A recent Gartner survey showed that 35% of enterprises with aggressive innovation strategies use Hack-A-Thons to pursue hot initiatives.”

For the purposes of this article, and to keep things simple, we’ll use the term Hack-A-Thon.

WHAT DO YOU NEED FOR A HACK-A-THON

Getting an event organized is relatively simple – all you really need is commitment. Once you have that, everything else falls into place. You may be thinking that “My organization doesn’t “do” application development!” That’s ok. In that case, call it a Solution-A-Thon and focus on process.

Defining a theme is the building-block of the event. It keeps the Hack-A-Thon focused and streamlines the idea submission. In a recent Hack-A-Thon I held, our theme was “Cutting Operational Expenses.” The theme was broad enough to cover the entire organization yet focused and provided a specific goal. If you are organizing a corporate Hack-A-Thon, try to make it as inclusive as possible. A theme of “Creating a software app to streamline cash counting in the cage on Tuesdays” would not work. However, it might be a valid submission for a Hack-A-Thon with a theme of “Cutting Operational Expenses.”

Hack-A-Thons are open to the entire organization too. Yes, the traditional Hack-A-Thon is software-specific, but even those events need experts in user interface development, software quality assurance, business analysts, SME’s, and (if you are Agile) Scrum Masters or project managers if you are waterfall. Exclude no one.

A typical Hack-A-Thon needs the following:

  • A theme
  • An FAQ site (to outline the rules)
  • A Sharepoint site (or similar tool) for people to submit ideas
  • The same Sharepoint site for participants to define their teams
  • Sponsors
  • Defined work areas for the team
  • Judges
  • A stage
  • Prizes

TYPES OF HACK-A-THONS

The objectives and themes of Hack-A-Thons vary immensely. Some Hack-A-Thons target different groups while others target different subjects. From students to corporate employees through programming language and operating system types to specific niches, purposes and products, Hack-A-Thons are spreading in width and depth nowadays. Here are a few examples of the types of Hack-A-Thons.

Niche

Many Hack-A-Thons are organized as a platform for development of application types such as mobile applications, operating system variations as well as web and video game upgrading. These gatherings are usually niche-oriented. For example, Music Hack Day focuses on software and hardware developments in collaboration with music enthusiasts while Science Hack Day is oriented towards different science-related applications. These kinds of Hack-A-Thons are extremely popular worldwide and attract massive amounts of media attention – and sponsors.

Language or Framework

Some Hack-A-Thons are organized for development of applications in a specified programming language or framework such as Angular, JavaScript or HTML5 while others differ according to usage of particular Application programming interface (API’s). An API is a software component that consists out of specific tools, routines, and protocols for building applications. For example, individual Hack-A-Thons are held by Yahoo, Google, and Lonely Planet according to their corporative API’s.

Single Application

The so-called ‘sprints’ are gatherings organized to improve or upgrade a specific language, operating or management system by the principle of open source programming and are rarely competitive. Some of the renowned Hack-A-Thons of the sort are the annual OpenBSD since 1999 and MediaWiki.

Corporate

Corporate Hack-A-Thons are internal gatherings of employees of individual companies such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. They are organized to promote or develop new products or processes. One of the most notable results from an internal Hack-A-Thon is the Facebook’s Like button.

Demographic

Hack-A-Thons can be held for a specific demographic group such as teenagers, students or women. Many technology universities (UCLA, Princeton, Yale and many others) hold Hack-A-Thons for members of their community as well as students from other universities.

These are usually competitive in type with awards in the form of sponsorship (from HackTX, PennApps, HackMIT and others). Some Hack-A-Thons are oriented toward specific expertise levels of the programmers – most notably CodeDay across the United States. The objective is to advance the knowledge of iOS programming and web development through diverse workshops.

Altruistic

A variety of gatherings of programmers has been organized to promote acts of altruism. These Hack-A-Thons have dealt with issues of politics, transit systems, local economies, education, disasters and crisis as well as psychological health (for example, DementiaHack was focused on improvement of lives of people suffering from dementia).

Corporate

Corporate Hack-A-Thons are internal gatherings of employees of individual companies such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. They are organized to promote or develop new products or processes. One of the most notable results from an internal Hack-A-Thon is the Facebook’s Like button.

Demographic

Hack-A-Thons can be held for a specific demographic group such as teenagers, students or women. Many technology universities (UCLA, Princeton, Yale and many others) hold Hack-A-Thons for members of their community as well as students from other universities.

These are usually competitive in type with awards in the form of sponsorship (from HackTX, PennApps, HackMIT and others). Some Hack-A-Thons are oriented toward specific expertise levels of the programmers – most notably CodeDay across the United States. The objective is to advance the knowledge of iOS programming and web development through diverse workshops.

Altruistic

A variety of gatherings of programmers has been organized to promote acts of altruism. These Hack-A-Thons have dealt with issues of politics, transit systems, local economies, education, disasters and crisis as well as psychological health (for example, DementiaHack was focused on improvement of lives of people suffering from dementia).

Moreover, several Hack-A-Thons were held as homage to Aaron Swartz – the late computer programmer and Internet activist. (Note: Aaron Swartz helped create an early version of RSS and later played a key role in stopping a controversial online piracy bill in Congress, he committed suicide at the age of 26.)

Process Improvement

Hack-A-Thons have evolved. Yes, they started with a focus on developing code, but they are just as effective for internal process improvement. Internal teams know (and often complain about) the inefficiencies of process and procedures. Instead of a Hack-A-Thon, a Solution-A-Thon allows teams to create new, more efficient processes, present them to a team of judges, and demonstrate an ROI.

IMAGES FROM A HACK-A-THON

PRESENTATIONS

The stereotypical software developer does not like to get up in front of people and talk. Put them in a Hack-A-Thon environment though, and they become Game Show Hosts (think Chuck Woolery). Hack-A-Thon presentations are time-based and must provide a functional solution. A team that only presents a Powerpoint presentation about a theoretical solution would be disqualified.

Keep a team’s presentation time-based. I used a ten-minute timeframe. Each team had seven minutes to present their solution, two minutes were allowed for questions from the judges, and the final minute was left for voting. While voting was taking place, the next team was assembling and connecting to the A/V. A timer kept the teams aware of how much time was remaining.

COST

If done right, the cost of a Hack-A-Thon is minimal to the organization. I was able to leverage the support of suppliers to sponsor the event. Sponsors brought in all meals and provided the prizes. I was able to acquire a 60” Smart TV, Xbox, an Apple iPad, an Amazon Kindle, an Amazon Echo, front-row tickets to a Minnesota Wild (our pro hockey team), and more than twenty-five restaurant gift cards. Since a television is impossible to divide by six (the typical size of a team), prizes were given away in a raffle conducted throughout the presentations. Everyone who participated in a team and those who submitted ideas were eligible to win prizes. The sponsors for the larger prizes were called onto the stage and drew the name of the winner. The only dollar-cost to the organization is the $200 cash prize awarded to the winning team.

IN CLOSING

Hack-A-Thons are an innovative proving ground for new ideas. They stimulate the creative juices of participants and foster problem-solving and risk-taking in a casual environment. The diversity of participants guarantees a multitude of perspectives and the time limit on hackathons creates a uniquely productive atmosphere that forces participants to distil their visionary concepts down to actionable solutions. All this increases the chance of finding innovative fixes to persistent problems.

Internal Hack-A-Thons flaunt many of the same benefits as external competitions. Internal events can unshackle some of the corporate bureaucracy that hinders creative thought and help big brands overcome the struggle of accepting innovation within the company. Companywide Hack-A-Thons can solve all kinds of challenges ranging from day-to-day workflow issues to software solutions to customer service concerns or even the creation of new products. Simply put, internal hackathons are a great way to reinvigorate a company’s innovation culture and capabilities.

Give it a try. You will be simply amazed and have fun in the process.

John P. Goetz has worked with Gaming & Leisure since its inception. During the day, he manages a team of thirty software developers. In his non day-job hours, he’s an established author of five novels. His latest, “Dirt” was optioned for film and, if the Gods of Hollywood agree, will be on the big screen. He is currently working on four new novels and three screenplays based on his published work.