How hackathons can encourage smarter thinking

Silicon Valley titans like Google know the value of creativity. They invest millions designing workspaces to be the ideal breeding grounds for innovation.

Hackathons – aka innovation weeks or codefests – are giving small businesses the opportunity to recreate the same creativity and innovation, only on a fraction of the budget. The idea is simple: give talented employees a break from their day-to-day tasks and grant them the time and space to create. Throw in some decent prizes to make things interesting, copious supplies of food and drink to keep energy levels up, some evening entertainment for a party atmosphere, and you’ve got yourself a hackathon.

Not every business has, or needs, a team of developers and web designers, which is why there are different kinds of hackathons – including internal, external and online.

External hackathons call on non-employees to create new processes, features, apps or product elements, while internal hackathons make use of existing talent in the business. External hackathons may also be held online, rather than bringing people together physically. While it can be harder to create the same sense of collaboration, these allow for huge scale events like the Global Legal Hackathon that has a staggering 6,000 participants in 24 countries.

Hackathons aren’t just for tech-heads, they can bring together the skills of strategists, salespeople, designers and more. The winning team of the 2017 Cox Enterprise Hackathon was made up of folks from different disciplines and departments.

There are global hack events taking place all over the world. NASA’s International Space App Challenge is now in its ninth year and Random Hacks of Kindness aims to engineer solutions to social issues. What is important to remember is that the success of a hackathon isn’t always down to what comes out at the end of it. Developing relationships and new attitudes to work is just as important as a new tool, product or piece of software.

Making innovation happen

At Claromentis we hold an annual ‘Innovation Week’ when our software development and design teams jet off to sunnier climes – last year Barcelona, this year Girona – with a single goal: collaborate and build. We find that taking our team out of the usual working environment helps to get the creative juices flowing.

Claromentis Innovation Week

We’ve learnt that hackathons are better with thorough preparation and a game plan, so our teams get a year to mull over what they might like to build, and then pitch their ideas ahead of Innovation Week. We mix up our developers and our designers – so the finished product both looks good and functions well – into teams of two to four to work on the strongest ideas.

It has proved invaluable to our business. We get bottled lightning from our employees, who already know our product like the back of their hand. Who better to let loose on your company and innovate, than the people who know it the best, and know what the most pressing problems are?

We have prizes for the best inventions and last year the ‘most innovative’ build laid the foundation for an automated user testing tool which saves resources and allows us to release software with fewer bugs, a better user experience and greater confidence.

But hackathons don’t have to be annual events in villas with swimming pools. Creditplus, a UK-based car finance broker, holds internal hackathons every month to solve tech issues. Its latest hackathon saw developers create and implement – in just half a day – a suite of changes to its customer relationship management and email systems, specifically to improve data management and reporting.

Hugo Rocha, a full stack developer at Creditplus, said: “It’s a great opportunity for developers, who are usually busy working on different projects, to come together and build something they are really proud of. Each person brings what they’ve learnt elsewhere and shares their knowledge which creates a high-quality product and team cohesion.”

Has your business ever considered running a hackathon? At the very least you’ll get a closer-knit team and sometimes you’ll get absolute game-changers such as Facebook’s Like button, Chat function and Timeline, all of which originated from hackathons.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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