The 'very' beginner's guide to hackathons

We’ve got a hackathon coming up. What happens, what’s the point, and have you tried one?  

When the invite for a Simply Business hackathon came round, I wasn’t really thinking about fake banks, ATMs and hoodwinking HR. Apparently, though, that can be the form. So with our ‘pitch day’ – ours puns on a certain ’97 track from The Prodigy – just around the corner, plus two full on days of hackathon madness clearing out my diary for next week, I thought I’d better look into what I’m in for, so to speak.

Hackathons, for a dummy

Tech companies have used hackathons pretty publically for a while now, but until I got to Simply Business I’d never heard of them. Shamefully – it seems. They’re designed to help businesses and developers build and code new products and solutions quickly, often with a management-approved boycott on normal work practices. Basically, if you’re running a hackathon prepare to find meeting rooms staked out by people swigging coffee and blistering through post-its.

The focus for the duration of your hackathon will be to bring together your collective talent, fixing on a shared bugbear or a genius new product. And to learn a bit more about that lad or lass from tech who you’ve never spoken to before. You’ll learn about their skills, their creativity and how they are to work with. And you’ll probably find that working with them for real is ten times more productive, after sweating the small stuff together, during the hackathon.

Can non-techs hold hackathons?

From what I’ve seen, definitely.

Hackathons are historically the property of companies with a tech or development resource. But I’d argue that they can and should be used by pretty much any business. Call it an ‘away day’ if you like, invite coders in to help you out or do a mockathon (my word) and use yours to sort out a shop-floor problem. Why shouldn’t you steal the term and work out a brilliant solution for lost income while you refurbish? Or put together a thorough brief for your website redesign, when the one you’ve got is a bit rubbish?

The same principle applies – a hackathon uses talent, innovation and resources to achieve all sorts. From queuing systems and safety alerts to a brand new app, if you want to come up with solutions and see the results of focused teamwork, a day or two of hacking away at the problem can yield incredible and long-lasting results. Reference Wired for great examples of how to re-think what the hack is for.

Intensive hacking

For a sense of what’s possible – and just how intense a hackathon can get – look no further than the recent goings on at Symantec, reported this week by Alice Truong. Breaking into a ‘fictitious bank’, encouraging the hackers to be ‘a little underhanded’ and dealing in fake, if real-smelling, money may not seem like the domain of a leading IT security firm. But all this and more came together to form a three day-long anti-hackathon for the company. It was the final leg of Symantec’s Cyber WarGames, hosted ahead of the RSA security conference with the aim of getting employees to think like criminals and help their company to stay ‘one step ahead of the bad guys’.

The Simply Business way

I’ve never taken part in a hackathon. And, our tech team tell me, that’s ok. That’s the whole point, even. I come from a much more mainstream marketing background – spoon-fed on tech being tech, and copy being copy. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in my time at Simply Business, it’s that putting shared innovation in the front brain of every team gets you places. Whether it’s your HR team working with marketing, or tech syncing up with customer services, there’s expertise in every corner of your company to filter, stream, blend and bottle. Bunking down together for – say – 48 hours, throwing out the rulebook and chipping away at a product puzzle can only be a good thing.

So, like I said, we’ve got pitch day on Thursday and then the hackathon starts in earnest next Monday – ending Wednesday and, I imagine, with us creeping out into the sunshine, blinking like moles with a proper sense of having done something both cathartic, and invaluable. Because no matter what we create, deep in the Simply Business hive, I’m already convinced that sharing your expertise and dedicating a bit of brain space to innovation is worth reshuffling a meeting room for, and getting the pizza in.

We’ll report back on our hackathon next week. In the meantime, tell us what you think. Have you tried holding one?