How To

Step-by-step: Host an External Hackathon

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Some large organizations host external hackathons in which they invite non-employees to participate in a competition to introduce bold new customer features, apps, product elements and processes. One of America’s oldest toy companies, Hasbro, for example, recently held a hackathon where 150 developers came and developed 45 products—the equivalent of billions of dollars in traditional R&D.For businesses interested in hosting their own external hackathon, here are five key steps to consider.

Step 1: Make it interesting

To attract the right caliber of people, hackathons have to be more than a glammed up Town Hall event with lots of corporate speak. They need to be bold, challenging and fun. When NASA and IBM collaborated on a joint hackathon earlier this year, for instance, competition categories included “wearable fashion for astronauts,” “3-D food printing” and panoramic photography aimed at “capturing the best pictures of the universe.” The event attracted enormous interest in both organizations and beyond. Talented professionals from across the country flocked to give up a weekend of their time to participate. That creates a buzz and interest level that pays dividends beyond the processes and prototypes invented.

Step 2: Lay the groundwork in advance

External hackathons are exciting and often exceedingly productive events, but capturing those benefits requires thoughtful advance planning. In addition to having a crystal clear innovation brief— focused on a specific customer-facing product, process or journey — organizers need to map out what corporate, customer and product data they are willing to put outside the ring-fence, clarify intellectual property rights around winning designs, and lay out any relevant regulatory, IT and brand criteria. Sabeen Ali, founder of the event organizing group Angelhack, says, “We try to create some constraint that still lets the enterprise and corporate client keep their IT and make sure not too much of the data is getting out into other hands, but at the same time give attendees enough information to create relevant solution for the corporate client.”

And because the hackathons are short, it pays to do some legwork ahead of time. For example, Pedram Keyani hosted more than 40 hackathons while at Facebook. Before each, he set up a wiki page or shared document to allow people to post ideas and list the skills their teams were seeking.

Step 3: Invite the right people

One of the things that make hackathons so rewarding and stimulating is their ability to fuse many disparate skills and experience sets. Seasoned developers at large organizations get to mix it up with energetic young coders and digital talent from the startup community. Outside talent, in turn, gets a chance to see what make top brands tick, as well as how to make iconic products even better and more contemporary. At the Hasbro event, development teams from inside and outside the company experimented with dissecting Elmo and incorporating it with the Operation game. As the Peter Hinssen told IBM, “You need to blend cultures by taking people out of their domains and getting them to work together. Proximity is beneficial to having a really good working relationship between disciplines.”

Step 4: Mine talent opportunities

Hackathons are fast-becoming a new channel for sourcing talent at every level. Joanne Selinski, a computer science professor at John Hopkins, told Business Insider, “There’s a moment where companies started to realize that the best students aren’t necessarily at the career fair. They’re at these hackathons… and they’re intrinsically motivated to get something done.”

Human resource professionals should be a fixture at every corporate-sponsored hackathon. These events allow recruiting staff to observe an array of qualities, from technical skill to how well an individual partners and collaborates, to how they communicate and document ideas, all in a high pressure situation. Those insights can provide a richer, more authentic picture than the traditional interview.

Step 5: Reverse engineer a digital culture

Hackathons give managers and others the ability to “try on” radically new and improved ways of serving high value customer needs. Large organizations are hosting hackathons to reverse engineer the types of innovative working practices that have become increasingly essential for effective digital transformation. Far from being one-off events, the most effective hackathons ensure the momentum is sustained long after the session ends.

 


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