A Tale Of Two Hackathons

Hackathons are all the rage. Lock a bunch of smart people together with a problem to solve and enough food and drink to keep them fuelled and reap the whirlwind of creativity. But not all hackathons deliver instant value

Over the years I’ve reported on lots of hackathons. I remember writing about one before they even had a name - just the best equipped people in one company, locked away for a weekend to solve a specific set of problems.

This week, I read about a recently held hackathon. I won’t name names as what I’ll share isn’t terribly complimentary.

The two day event involved 100 people organised into five-person teams. They were given a set of data and asked to look for ways to solve issues for travellers. That was it - no specific problem. Just look at a bunch of data and see what you can do.

When I asked for what actionable outcomes came from the exercise, I was told the results weren’t going to result in anything directly usable. Rather, the information would be shared as it delivered some interesting insights.

I’m all for research just to see what comes but I think hackathons are different to R&D.

In contrast, another hackathon I covered a while ago put people together for a weekend with the specific brief of developing a usable app from a pool of data.

At the end of that exercise, the winner had created an app that could be used by emergency services to locate lost campers and fishermen.

Although the organisers of both events saw their activities as successful, there’s a world of difference in the delivered outcomes. One was a bunch of analysis that might lead to to something while the other delivered the solution to a problem.

Gartner’s Mark O'Neill, recently said “If the purpose is too explicit and structured, it may diminish innovation, while at the other extreme, hackathons that are overly social may fail to deliver because the event has no shape or form. A challenge-based hackathon will help to avoid low-quality and unfocused ideas."

In my view, the first hackathon I discussed went too far down the unstructured road

I’ve never participated in a hackathon so I’m looking at this as an outsider. Am I missing something? Is there an optimal hackathon format?


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