This past Thursday/Friday I had the honor of joining a team in a company hosted hackathon.
Quick vocabulary check (because many have asked)…I would define a hackathon as a set amount of time where a group of people work together to solve a problem with the goal of bringing a viable solution together before the end of the contest.
While the term hackathon could include any contest where you are hacking a solution together, most focus on software design (Facebook’s “Like” button was the product of an internal hackathon, the super secret algorithm that decides what Netflix movie you should watch next was a during an open hackathon and one of my favorite success stories, “GroupMe” was created at Techcruch Disrupt – and later acquired by Skype/Microsoft for more than $40M).
The rules for Sprint’s hackathon were fairly simple: 1 – It had to be a mobile app, 2 – it had to be related to Sprint, 3 – it had to be marketable and make money.
I had always heard about hackathons and was excited that Sprint was going to host one internally… I never thought anyone would see value in bringing a marketer into the group, but to my surprise I was asked to join a team! On Wednesday, the four of us (two developers, one designer/UX expert and me, a marketer) sat down for 30 minutes and brainstormed. We left there with a good idea of each other’s capabilities and I went to work on what I believed to be some important pre-work…. defining the problem statement and the current marketplace.
The contest started Thursday afternoon at 2pm and the sound of keyboard clicking filled the room. We huddled as a team to quickly review some of my research and came to a consensus on the problem statement, the target customer, the current solutions for that problem in the market, and what we believed to be some blue ocean/white space to exploit.
Our pre-work paid off, we were extremely focused and full of purpose. Everyone knew their role (mine at times was simply filling cups of coffee), we communicated well and executed on the shared vision. 24 hours later (after a 4-5 hour nap back at our respective homes) we had a solution that looked a lot like what we set out to create. As a cherry on the top of our beautifully executed plan, we also won the contest with an app that looked/worked great, had a realistic business model and most importantly, solved a real problem.
So, what did I learn? Aside from the fact that I probably only utilize about 1% of my Mac Book’s computing power…I witnessed a few things about the hackathon concept that can be applied to any problem solving situation in ANY functional organization:
1) Solve real problems – This is the most important component of them all. If you’re not working on something that matters then find something that does. We picked a problem that we were all passionate about and would be meaningful to Sprint. By 2:15am, we were all ready for bed. We took off from the campus and went home for some shut-eye. By 6:30am, I was tossing and turning in my bed, obsessing over our project. I jumped out of bed, hit the shower and headed back to work. I wasn’t too surprised to find that my whole team was already there, back to work on our solution…they were personally invested and believed in the cause.
2) Make friends with people who can do stuff you can’t – I was flat-out, blown-away by the skills of my teammates. We were well balanced and everyone learned something from someone else on the team. There are people in your company right now with some amazing talents (you’re one of them). Some are creative, some have analytical skills, some are fantastic communicators, some can write strings of code that turn into apps. Until you get them out of their individual corners (or in my case…gigantic organizational structures), onto a diverse team, they’re not really working for you…
3) Set a deadline – The pressure of a 24 hour contest was palpable…with 6 minutes to go, our two developers were merging the final code together (the designer and I exchanged nervous glances behind their backs). With total exhaustion setting in, they were both dead set on delivering their piece of the puzzle…they were not going to let the team down. With a short period of time, everyone is forced to put everything they have into the problem…and if they’re not, maybe they don’t have your best interests at heart when the pressure is on during normal business hours.
4) Learn to Prioritize – Because of the deadline, we were forced to leave some components on the cutting room floor…and probably for the best. Through the normal course of business, we’re all tempted to analyze the data one more time, add a couple more slides, slide in one more disclaimer, pour over the details to the point where nothing makes sense any more. The short deadline forces you to trim the fat and dump the details that aren’t critical to success….what you may find is the solution didn’t need any of that stuff to ship in the first place.
5) Celebrate Progress – About 9 hours into the contest, we had our first look at the app running on a phone. The user interface hadn’t been added yet, the buttons were boxy and the text wasn’t in the right spot….but it worked!!! We all stood up from our huddled position around the phone and celebrated with high-fives and cheers [as though we just landed a man on the moon]. We can get beat down from time to time about the status of a project or how things aren’t going the way we want. Find a way to celebrate what’s working. Start evaluating what’s not. You might be fretting over one of those details that should be left on the cutting room floor.
We took something from concept to a working reality in less than 24 hours. With a few more hours worth of work, we can put our app into the Google Play store and get some real-time feedback from actual users. Had we set out to tackle this same problem through the normal process it would have taken months and most likely never launched.
I’m a believer that the hackathon framework should be re-purposed for all kinds of problem solving exercises. Is your business looking for new market opportunities? Want some ideas on brand strategies? Looking for innovative programs to build a better corporate culture? Putting a well-rounded team of individuals on a hilariously short deadline to solve a real business problem could be the answer to what is keeping you up at night.