How To Run A Great Business Hackathon

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Hackathons are all the rage. Lots of companies run them as a way of engaging staff, kickstarting innovation and breaking the monotony of every day routines. Seek has now run a number of internal hackathons, scheduling one every six months as a way of kickstarting innovation in system design, business process improvement and finding new ways to work with customers.

I spoke with Seek's managing director Michael Ilczynski and Glen Cameron, the company's head of delivery about business hackathones. Here are some of his tips.

Ilczynski said the company started running two-day hackathons but now spreads them over three days.

"Teams were getting started early, getting running starts at it. So, we felt it was better to acknowledge that. We do quite a lot of lead up work now. That's one of the big learnings. It takes about five months to plan one. Once we finish one, we start preparing for the next one".

The process starts with a "pitch pulpit". People come up with ideas and share them across the company, seeking input to refine the idea and to recruit potential team members. The company also runs some upskilling sessions to prepare people and ensure they get the most from the hackathon.

At their last hackathon, Seek had about 60 teams and 250 people participating - about half the entire Melbourne office.

Each hackathon has a theme but that's not about limiting what types of projects people can engage in. Themes are about injecting some fun into the activity. Teams then work from the kickoff on a Wednesday morning through till the middle of Friday. Seek's hackathons mainly involve internal staff although Ilczynski said there is cooperation with other companies who send personnel to Seek's hackathons and open theirs to Seek.

Part of the final day involves setting up a marketplace in Seek's social hub area so teams can show off their ideas to the rest of the business and there's a "Shark Tank" style for each team to present their ideas to judges.

Ilczynski said the company offers several different awards.

"We try to make the hack as unconstrained as possible," said Ilczynski. "We trust people to hack whatever their idea is".

An important element of Seek's approach to hackathons is that they are not limited to application development. Teams can internally or externally focussed. It can be a new business idea, an administrative improvement, an internal innovation, a new business concept or technology-focussed.

Cameron said "Because we have a number of different types of awards, people can decide what they're going to go for and what level they're going to get to".

Lessons from the early days

The first hackathons Seek carried out, while valuable, did give them some lessons.

"In the early days, people needed a lot of nurturing and support so they knew what they were doing and resources to let them do what they wanted to do," said Ilczynski.

Another improvement made following the first couple of events was to make them more inclusive. It isn't just about getting the IT team involve but bringing in the sales team, marketing, HR and others. The company invested in itnernal communications to bring more people in.

"We focussed on whole business inclusion and it made a hell of a difference," he said. "The participation rate went through the roof".

Another issue was having workspaces established to facilitate how the teams worked. And the awards process evolved as well.

Cameron added that "It was important to note that a hack doesn't need to be a hack in the technical sense. A hack can be a business model pitch. We have a Business Disruptor Award. That doesn't need anyone with coding skills. A hack, as we've defined it, is very inclusive".

Ongoing benefits

Such a massive investment of time and resources means the company is looking for a return on the investment.

Ilczynski said "We've had a number of hacks make their way ito production - some directly from the Ship It Award [one of the awards given at the conclusion of a hackathon]".

One of the key hacks, from one of the early events, was looking at AWS and how it would work with the compnay's business. That was key event in the company moving to cloud infrastructure.

The company records all the hack ideas and follows them up to ensure good ideas aren't lost. Over 25 hacks have made their way into production systems and processes.

Hackathon dos and dont's

I asked Cameron and Ilczynski for the hackathons dos and don'ts. Here's what they said.

The Don'ts

  1. Don't constrain creativity: Don't put too many rules or set limiting themes
  2. Don't let everything stop after the hackathon: Follow up and keep developing and exploring good ideas
  3. Don't run out of food

The Dos

  1. Inclusion: The more people, the more diversity of ideas, the better your outcomes
  2. Good ideas can be hacks: Be open in what you are prepared to explore
  3. Set the time aside: When people are engaged in the hackathon, they are excused from normal operational tasks

One of the things Ilczynski and Cameron are trying to do is foster the energy and creativity that is unleashed during Seek's half-yearly hackathons during the periods between each event. There is such a hugely positive feeling that the company is looking for how the work practices that make their hackathons successful can be introduced into normal work periods without burning people out.

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