Yahoo, google, Facebook, BBC, NASA, AT&T have one thing in common — they all have hackathon regularly. A hackathon is not only for weekends and can be incorporated as part of your company’s DNA.

What is a hackathon?

(also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest) a hackathon is an event, in which computer programmers and others involved in software development and hardware development (graphic designers, interface designers and project managers) collaborate intensively on software projects in competition with other teams.[1] Occasionally, there is a hardware component as well. Hackathons typically last between a day to a week. in many cases the goal is to create usable software. Hackathons tend to have a specific focus, which can include the programming language used, the operating system, an application, an API, or the subject and the demographic group of the programmers. In other cases, there is no restriction on the type of software being created. 

Even though hackathon are tend to concentrate around tech events, it does not have to only be tech related. Hackathon is an event where you group people together around one task/competition and give them the freedom to innovate and find solutions for that.

When we started working at RBI, we decided to dedicate our first week to a hackathon. We thought it would be a good idea to start by “thinking outside-of-the-box”, create a fun working environment and encourage learning and innovation.

Do it right

in order to have a successful hackathon there are few key items you must have:

  • Goal — The goal should be simple to understand and interesting enough to achieve. “We should build x or we should have y”.
    Timeline — You should know when the hack starts, when it ends and if you have any major checkpoints along the way. A 3-days hack is usually the most common hack length since it can fit into a weekend or not take too much resource from the company if it’s during the week. Less than that could be too short to develop anything noticeable and more than a week could be too much effort. 
    Judging Criteria — It’s very motivating to choose winners. You can choose more than one and have different categories. However, people should know what the criteria(s) is, that way they can aim towards a specific goal.
  • Voting — Usually a selected group of people that specialize in each category can select the winners. If you do it at work, I suggest to let the employees vote for one another. Perhaps let them choose a discrete vote so that office-politics will not affect the decisions. 
    Be Creative — People normally tend to stick to solving problem in the most familiar way. The whole idea behind a hackathon is to get outside of yourself and approach a problem from a different angle. For example, at our hack week we had one rule — you cannot work with technology you already know. This way even if you didn’t win, at least you learned something new. Sometimes “forcing” to learn will cause you to think in a new way that you’re not use to.
  • Prizes — Fact, people will work harder than usual to win. The prize should be related to the contest and the contesters. more important than the actual prize is the value of winning. It’s not unusual to see people stay up late (sometimes even sleep in) during the hackathon. They do exhaust themselves because they want to win. Its not the prize that drives them, its the recognition. That alone is a main motivation for them to work hard and come out with a game changing innovation.
  • Collaborate — Having a competition does not mean isolation. It’s a good idea to encourage collaboration between the teammates. Helping each other can help the general group culture later on when they face “Real World” problems. Make the hackathon a learning experience. Hackers want to flex their creative muscles and learn new skills. You want the developers, designers and product people to come out of the hackathon feeling as though they’ve learned something together.

Hack your culture

From the taxi app EasyTaxi to Facebook’s like button — a lot of products started as crazy hackathon ideas. However, some of them diverge into a actual product and gain massive traction.
Hackathons give people the freedom to explore new paths, something that not possible during their daily routine. Sometimes this new path can lead to great discovery that can affect the entire company. 
By maintaining a hackathon culture in your workplace you’ll keep your employees happy, encourage innovation, eagerness to learn new things. Who know, you may find your next great product.