Hackathons - Their Importance in Cultivating New Ideas

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Hackathons - Their Importance in Cultivating New Ideas

Published: Thu 04 August 2016 | by Peter Kinnaird

Conventionally, hackathons are fun, social events at which programmers, and others involved in the software development industry, get together to share ideas, collaborate on a software project and eat pizza. Increasingly however, they are being used by top Silicon Valley companies, such as Netflix and Facebook, to cultivate new ideas outside of the conventional office environment.

Typically, a hackathon presents participants with an open challenge to find innovative solutions to new or existing problems that a company or industry might be facing. The idea behind is that by bringing together lots of talented people, who possess a wide-variety of skills, and allowing them to focus on a clear goal for a set time, results in a creative environment for people to collaborate free from distraction, fostering the development of new ideas.

Hackathons no longer remain solely within the domain of tech companies, nor are they exclusively a gathering of programmers and developers. Companies across the globe are now using hackathons as a way to promote creativity and productivity by replacing formal boardroom sessions with relaxed multiple day events. These events might be for internal staff only, or completely open to the public, whilst often they include a special expert guest or panel.

Glasgow's Hack_Construct event is a recent example of a hackathon, which brought in people from outside of the software development space, with construction managers, surveyors and consultants feeding in their ideas and expertise. In addition to hackathons, events such as game jams brings together a varied mix of industry professionals and digital experts such as artists, designers and musicians.

What happens at a hackathon?

It is usual for a hackathon to follow a theme, with participants being challenged to solve a problem that relates to the theme. However, the projects are normally very flexible and rarely follow any strict format. Teams are typically free to work on what they want and are not stifled by too many rules and regulations, that might otherwise be imposed on their normal daily routine.

Most hackathons will follow a similar process:

  • Guests arrive and socialise over a beer and pizza.
  • The event kicks-off with people pitching their ideas.
  • The best ideas are chosen and participants organise into teams.
  • Each team works on their chosen idea until the deadline.
  • More pizza is consumed ...
  • Final concepts are presented to an expert judging panel.
  • Winners are chosen and prizes distributed.

What are the benefits of attending a hackathon?

Why should you give up your free time? That's a very good question! There are a number of good things that can come from attending a hackathon - apart from the almost obligatory free t-shirt!

Hackathons are a fabulous way to meet new people with different skillsets. Participants might also experience using the latest technology and advanced software, which they may otherwise never or rarely get the opportunity to use.

Doing good feels good! Many hackathons now have the 'environment' as a focus point no matter what tech problem is being solved. So you can know that you hard work has the potential to make a real difference in the world.

Oh - and did we mention the free pizza?

So - what's the catch?

Lack of sleep - some hackathons can be 24 hours long. Some even want you to come back the next day to build or code the idea your team just spent a whole day arguing about brainstorming.

Although attending a hackathon may lead to a new job, if the sole purpose of the event is purely a hidden recruitment exercise, then it may feel like sitting your exams all over again. However, we should stress that such events are few and far between and most hackathon organisers are upfront about any recruitment orientation.

What happens after a hackathon?

It is usual for all things built at a hackathon to be donated back into the developer ecosystem as open source software after the event has ended. It is quite possible that team participants may never see one another again ... or the fruits of a collaboration might be picked up by a university or organisation somewhere in the world and continue to be worked on. Alternatively, participants may want to continue further work on the idea or even commercialise it!

Conclusion

The team at Stream Technologies have attended a variety of hackathon events in London and Glasgow (Amazon UK Hackathon, Hack_Construct, Open Glasgow, Space Apps, DuckDuckGo). From personal experience we can attest to their success in developing and fostering new ideas. In fact you should keep your eyes peeled for an event very close to home in the coming months.

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