I must have attended more than 20 hackathons over the last few years and more recently find myself helping run more and more of them. And there is a good reason for that.
Hackathons are a blank canvas for our imaginations
The blank canvas..
If they have the right set of skills, software developers can create almost anything they can imagine. That is not an exaggeration, no one will argue that software is eating/has eaten the world.
Hackathons are about providing a fertile space where the seeds of our ideas can be planted and grown. Nurturing and encouraging that creativity in people is a worthwhile endeavour that almost always returns a fruitful bounty of innovation.
Too often we create what we are told to create, not what we want to create
Continual learning & experimentation
Do you remember as a child mixing things together to see what would happen? What happens if I mix the yellow and green paint?.. how hard can I squeeze this egg before it.. oh..
As adults it is far too easy to lose that innate sense of exploration and discovery.
Hackathons provide an opportunity to practice creativity, try something new or in new and different ways.
They are a great opportunity to experiment with and learn about new and emerging technologies such as blockchain, mixed reality and artificial intelligence that perhaps you wouldn't normally get exposure to.
As well as the metaphorical blank canvas, hackathons are a fabulous way of focussing the aforementioned creativity and talent to achieve specific goals.
By putting specific societal or business problems under the microscope, and encouraging talented problem solvers to tackle them, hackathons become a fantastic mechanism for problem solving.
A word of warning about making hackathon challenges too specific though.. The more prescriptive you are, the more you suffocate the very thing you hope to encourage.. creativity.
Crowdsourcing problems & solutions
I have seen hackathons used to fantastic effect to crowdsource solutions to social, environmental and business problems.
By sponsoring a hackathon and setting a challenge, businesses can get access to 100's of person hours of effort to prototype novel solutions to problems.
I once compared the cost of sponsoring a hackathon and setting a business related challenge to how much contractor costs would be for the same amount of time.. while it is not a like for like comparison, I was shocked at the value sponsors get for sponsoring and setting challenges.
Another benefit of crowdsourcing problems is introducing diverse approaches and perspectives to address problems in new and novel ways.
The best hackathons I have seen have clear incentives for why participants should give up their free time to participate, whether it is to help the world, win a prize such as voucher or cash or set down an interesting challenge to solve.
I would recommend hackathon organisers think hard about how to incentivise participation. It is not a case of "If you build it, they will come".
For balance, I feel it important to briefly mention some of the reasons why people dislike hackathons because.. I get it, I really do.
Some people believe that the work gone into hackathon projects is rarely used after the hackathon and is a waste of resources. I have sometimes shared this view when I've seen "silly challenges" attract more participation than challenges tackling real-world problems.
Only when the goals of hackathons are unclear, do I believe there is scope to question the benefits of hackathons. Rubbish in = Rubbish out.
At the end of the day, you need to set expectations around the why of the hackathon, what are you hoping to achieve by running a hackathon? If you are clear about the goals of the event, and it is executed correctly, it will be a success by any measure you decided on while planning.
Team building and co-operation
By participating in hackathons people may find themselves working with new people. Working in teams and with new people helps participants develop new, diverse ways of thinking and approaches.
We could all do with continually networking, improving our teamworking and communication skills.
Personal career development
Personally, one of the things I love to see when I am reviewing CV's is extra curricular projects such as hackathon participation. Whilst I believe that being a developer 9-5 Monday to Friday is completely normal and acceptable, I find that those with a passion for technology and creativity search for additional ways and opportunities to explore their passion just as they would a hobby.
To me, passion leaps off the page more so than skills and experience. The latter can always be learned and earned. Passion is a valuable outlook and mindset.
This is a pre-requisite for me. Life is too short to not do what you enjoy!
Having fun is one of the main reasons people attend hackathons. As well as the coding and challenges, i've been to hackathons with retro video games, cup stacking challenges, dress up contests and more!
Hopefully, there will be no doubt in your mind, the benefits of Hackathons for both organisers and attendees and this is why I love them.
For me there is no greater way of encouraging and demonstrating someone's passion for technology and providing people with opportunities to leverage their skillset to help make the world a better place.
If you are looking to find a hackathon to get involved with, have a look at TechCommunityCalendar.com and to get the most out of your next hackathon check out HackathonTips.com