AngelHack, TechCrunch, PolicyHack, StartupBus: Hackathons are everywhere! Some include concepts as crazy as hopping on a 72-hour bus trip to develop a new killer app. In June 1999, a few developers from Sun Microsystems and OpenBSD came together to quickly develop a piece of cryptographic software and created the portmanteau term “hackathon” in the process. Since then, it’s grown to become one of the hottest buzz words in the tech industry and beyond.
But what exactly is a hackathon?
According to Wikipedia, a hackathon “is a design sprint-like event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers, project managers…[and] subject-matter experts, collaborate intensively on software projects.” The verb “collaborate” is key, because it’s collaboration that creates the greatest value of a hackathon.
We now find hackathons used in domains as diverse as health, culture, public policy, and even agriculture. Fortune 500 companies are increasingly adopting the concept as part of their overall strategy, from research and development to talent retention. And Amadeus is no exception. In North America alone, we sponsor hackathons at prestigious universities such as MIT, Stanford and the University of Illinois; we hosted a world-famous AngelHack and we now run internal hackathons on a regular basis.
Why are hackathons beneficial?
Well-established companies tend to form silos as they grow. Communication between the various departments, product managers, subject-matter experts and developers becomes more difficult. Hackathons create an easy, fun way to break those silos down, and bring people together. They’re not only for coders anymore. The strength of a team resides in the variety of people composing it. Hackathons can acquaint developers with soft skills, and submit bright ideas from a product manager to a quick reality check.
Hackathons also help foster a culture of experimentation. To quote Mark Zuckerberg, “code wins arguments.” So, instead of spending endless hours on abstract debates and studies, you can simply take a day and put something into code. Then you’ll see right away if a solution is viable or not.
Finally, hackathons bring about the best of the free software culture. Do you want to improve a product, or solve a problem? Show the technology to the kids, let them play with it, and get out of their way. Eben Moglen calls it “disintermediated innovation,” where the removal of intermediaries fuels innovation. And that innovation comes from the bottom of the hierarchical pyramid, from the community of users and developers. Innovation demands practice and hackathons are a great way to let “practice make perfect.”
A hackathon drawback & solution
The practical outcomes of hackathons are sometimes debated. While the web is full of success stories – think of companies such as GroupMe and Instacart, or new products such as Facebook Chat and Instagram’s Hyperlapse – sometimes the result is “vaporware,” software that evaporates once a hackathon is over.
Perhaps the best way to resolve the vaporware drawback is to approach day-to-day work life as a hackathon. Take time to sit down together, solve complex problems, and immediately implement solutions. Reduce friction by taking it upon ourselves to fix something, rather than waiting for someone else to do it. And foster a scientific approach to every challenge: formulate hypotheses, experiment and draw conclusions, again and again. Doing so creates a culture of continuous innovation, and provides exponential benefits that ultimately extend to nearly every area of business.
Has your company hosted or sponsored a hack? If so, let us know!