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Running a Hackathon That Sparks Developer Innovation

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Key Takeaways

  • There are some tips for hosting a successful hackathon at your company
  • Hackathons can boost morale, foster collaboration and create a more engaged workforce
  • Projects built during hackathons can have real-world impact
  • Hackathons are driving digital transformation, especially within traditional, non-tech enterprises
  • There is great value in bringing developers closer to business problems

We are living in a hyper-digital world. One where the companies that prioritize agility and adopt new technologies early are the companies that will not only gain competitive advantage but stay in business. For tech-native companies, this is nothing new. But for traditional, non-tech enterprises that have long resisted digital transformation for one reason or another, it’s a bigger challenge. 

In the past few years, my company, Twilio, has uncovered a unique way of sparking digital innovation. It involves bringing a developer community mainstay – the hackathon – to large, traditional enterprises. We call them Enterprise Hackathons. 

In these hackathons, enterprise employees and software developers come together for a day of brainstorming and building digital solutions to address real-world business problems. Participants don’t need to have deep technical expertise – anyone involved with the business challenge, regardless of team or department, is invited to take part. We aim to make these events as diverse and dynamic as possible. At the end of the day, the solutions the team develops are presented Shark Tank-style and many of them are eventually implemented within the organization. 

Hackathons bring enterprise employees inside the mind of the software developers. We all know that developers are generally more productive when given a higher-level problem to solve, rather than a simple task. Hackathons lead with the problem and offer the freedom, inspiration, and creativity to find an innovative solution. We’ve seen the Enterprise Hackathon approach improve business outcomes and instill a collaborative workplace culture in which developers and non-tech employees can learn from each other. 

Do it yourself: Hackathon best practices to consider 

Hackathons can be effective for companies of every size, and in every industry. We’ve had success hosting hackathons within highly regulated industries like healthcare and finance, which demonstrates how legacy industries must innovate to gain a competitive edge. Where we currently see the need for urgent transformation is within traditional enterprises and hackathons are a great first step for adopting new practices that embrace innovation. 

Here are a few recommendations for hosting a hackathon at your company:

  • Carefully consider the goals of the hackathon before doing any planning. What business problems are you hoping to tackle? What is top of mind for leaders? What do you want participants to take away? Taking the time to lay out such criteria beforehand can be a lot of work, but it makes it easier to hit the ground running on the day of the event. 
  • Hackathons are no easy feat. Give yourself enough time to organize the event and set up a clear structure for the day, so that all the participants know what to expect and can prepare accordingly. You want everyone in the right mindset for creativity and collaboration, so advance preparation is key.
  • Be inclusive, transparent and encourage open dialogue. Remember that anyone with a stake in the business should be invited to participate in the hackathon, technical or not. The most successful hackathons break down silos and bring together ideas from diverse teams. 
  • Freedom and flexibility are essential. Again, developers thrive when given a problem to solve rather than an assignment. Approach the participants with respect and provide autonomy during the event 
  • Even if a prototype isn’t fully developed at the end of the hackathon, offer everyone a platform to showcase what they have worked on. Encourage rehearsals to boost confidence, and give feedback afterward for continued learning. 
  • Stay adaptable – no two hackathons are the same. Be sure to tailor the agenda and content to the specific group of participants, but if something isn’t resonating with the group, be ready to pivot.
  • Hackathons should be fun and revolve around creativity and learning - not all hackathons require tangible outcomes. Coming up with an exciting theme or fun prizes is a great way to boost enthusiasm and foster friendly competition.
  • Hackathons can work both in-person and virtually. In today’s day and age, digital fatigue must be taken into account when hosting a virtual hackathon to ensure innovation and engagement. Make sure people have a few breaks in between sessions to recharge and boost creativity. Breaking into small groups is also a good way to make sure everyone stays engaged.
  • In terms of structuring the event, consider a brief kickoff to set the stage and welcome the participants. This will get the attendees excited and you will have the opportunity to address any questions or concerns they may have. You can make the kickoff fun and interactive by including a demo that will inspire your builders.
  • When putting teams together, we’ve found that 3-5 participants is the sweet spot in terms of team size. If you’re creating cross-functional teams, we recommend including at least one developer on every team. 
  • Choose a panel of judges that will review demos in a fair and objective manner. It’s common for hackathon judges to have extensive technical backgrounds. While the judges deliberate with each other, take the time to ask for feedback from hackathons participants. You’ve got a captive audience, and the event is fresh in their minds. This feedback will help you assess what worked and what didn’t so that you can make improvements to your future hackathons.  
  • Keep in mind that there’s always potential for unexpected issues during live events. At a recent hackathon, one team struggled to set up their development environment. While they eventually worked through the issue, the setback ate into their hacking time — making it impossible for the team to build a full demo. As a workaround, the team modified their demo ceremony presentation to include the lessons they learned and examples of what they would have built given more time. To prevent these types of issues, provide explicit logistics instructions in advance of the event and follow up with each team to ensure they complete any pre-work.

Developers are often kinesthetic learners and learn by doing. Hackathons offer an opportunity for everyone involved to step outside of the typical day-to-day work and try something new. Remember that the outcome of a hackathon isn’t just the code written, it's what’s learned and applied in the future.

Bringing developers closer to business problems – and inspiring solutions

Hackathons are much more than a fun day of problem-solving and team bonding. They give developers a closer connection to customer problems and, as a result, can drive real, tangible business and even social impact. 

For example, in a recent hackathon, an all-female developer team from a major insurance company built software that used drone footage from natural disasters to inform homeowners if their home was affected by the disaster and offer help with the next steps.

We’ve also seen humanitarian technology as front of mind for hackathon participants at Lionbridge. Lionbridge enables global organizations to communicate with their customers and workforce in more than 350 languages. At a Twilio hackathon, they started an integration of Twilio’s Flex Contact Center with Lionbridge Language Cloud. Today, this translation tool is fully productized and ready for easy deployment and use by business, government and non-profit customers across the globe. It's easy to picture how powerful this technology will be in a relief efforts setting.

Another success story we’ve seen first hand was with the engineering org at EnlivenHealth. EnlivenHealth builds advanced patient engagement, clinical and financial solutions that are used by more than 50,000 pharmacies nationwide. During a hackathon, they built a prototype of a personalized IVR using artificial intelligence. Today their Personalized IVR experience not only saves time for providers, but also leads to higher patient satisfaction and improved patient health outcomes.

And a few months into the Covid-19 pandemic, a prestigious cancer center spent two and a half days building telemedicine prototypes. The end result? A platform that allowed cancer patients to continue to receive life saving medical care, even during lockdown. 

Two years later, telemedicine services are here to stay. Now, individuals around the world benefit from the technological advancements of telehealth, as it provides convenience for doctors and patients alike, reduces costs, and improves patient outcomes. 

The benefits of hosting an internal hackathon are not limited to developing a new product or solving a business problem. Hackathons are a disruption to normal work life that bring your innovation community together to help solve a problem immediately. At their best, hackathons boost team morale and foster collaboration among cross-functional teams, which can lead to lateral thinking and ground-breaking ideas. Involving developers in business problems from the start and giving them a stake in the solutions implemented creates a more engaged workforce. And building a project that moves the needle on business metrics is a career milestone for anyone, technical or not.

Unlocking developer creativity drives real business impact

Developers are essential to any company that wants to keep up in the digital era, and hackathons are one way to create space to unleash developer creativity within an enterprise. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to organizing a hackathon, but understanding your goals and staying true to your company values will not only make the event a success, but will result in tangible business impact. 

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