Unspoken Benefits of Hackathons

In a tight job market attracting, retaining, and enabling employees while keeping them engaged is a challenge. Hackathons are often thought of as FinTech or engineering focused. But there is real value in a hackathon for aligning the vision of an organization and bringing a more agile, solution-centric approach.

Hackathons bring siloed groups together, enable buy-in for product roadmaps and foster innovation. They also boost employee engagement, surface hidden capabilities and provide career progression opportunities. From a diversity perspective, hackathons at universities and non profits can enable under-represented groups. They’re able to quickly showcase talents and provide an executive audience for the group.

How do hackathons bring siloed groups together? Even in a Series A startup, the Sales and Engineering teams are siloed on a day-to-day basis. Instead of the sales team presenting, engineers become product managers and present their work to the company. The sales team gains direct exposure to the engineers building the product that they are selling. Even if they don’t understand exactly how the team built the product, they see more of what is technically possible. This sparks new ideas for the company’s actual product. 

From a training and performance management perspective, hackathons showcase hidden talent in the organization. Getting people out of their day-to-day work allows them to show what other skills they have. Your data scientist may be a natural at UI design but no one would ever know unless he/she were given the opportunity. Hackathons provide a venue for people to try new things that they may be very good at and genuinely enjoy.

This can influence their overall career aspirations and positively affect their career development. A hackathon may be the first step in that software engineer making the switch over to a PM because of the work that he/she presented in the hackathon. 

Hackathons benefit participants and senior leadership, allowing less experienced individuals to expose their talents to senior leadership. Engineers are forced to think about problems and solutions as opposed to just the technical solution. Human-centered design and communication are valuable skills regardless of someone’s daily job. Senior leadership gains exposure to the team’s skills and sense of ownership.

With tight budgets and operational reductions, hackathons are a cost effective way to test ideas. Back in 2017, the Boston Public School District’s transportation funding was cut significantly. Leadership had to figure out how to transport the same number of students for a fraction of the cost. Their solution was a hackathon! They offered a $15,000 prize to whomever could best optimize the bus routes and school schedule. The winner of the hackathon was an MIT professor! He turned his work into a startup that optimizes bus routes for public school districts around the country. 

Visa did a large hackathon – Visa Developer Hackathon at Money 2020, 2018 and was successful in both tying their organizational strategy to employee engagement and brand marketing, But even small hackathons with grassroots efforts and teams of 4 can provide a ready built application in as little as 2 months.

Small hackathons targeting self-contained applications are valuable as pilots or to solve an immediate need. Examples of self-contained applications:  Mobile applications, Dealer Training, D&I Gamification, and Customer Financial Literacy. Past prizes include lunch with the Chief Technology Officer (CTO), trophies, work-from-home privileges (prior to remote work), with proven increases documented in employee engagement.

Hackathons unite visions, promote agile and strategic thinking and empower employees of all levels to make a real difference in the organization. For your next employee engagement event try a Hackathon. You may be surprised that there are more volunteers than for the obligatory halloween costume contest. 

As Featured in American Banker

X