Hackathons Should Be More Than A Circus

Tapping into developer talent at a hackathon should be fun, but don't lose sight of the potential business benefits.

Peter Waterhouse, Senior Technical Marketing Advisor, CA Technologies

April 10, 2014

4 Min Read

Every year, a circus comes to town. The big top is erected, and a troupe of jugglers, trapeze artists, and illusionists assemble to thrill the crowd. Then, after two shows a day for a couple of weeks, the carnival is over, and the circus moves on.

There's the technology equivalent of a circus on the business and government IT landscape. They're called hackathons.

Hackathons are short events where all sorts of application development artists come together to work intensively on short software-related projects. Just like a circus, a good hackathon will showcase a range of talent, including visualization and user interface designers (illusionists), Java and JavaScript developers (jugglers), mobile apps gurus (high wire artists), and even a project manager or two (ringmasters in circus speak).

[Consider these steps to creating a praise-worthy business app. Read The Curse Of One-Star Apps.]

Hackathons can be run as a contest (e.g., prize for best mobile app). They might be hosted internally or externally. They might be purely social, or in some cases they might have the lofty goal of creating commercially viable software. They are increasing in size, scope, and popularity. McKinsey Group reported that 102 cities across the globe participated in the 2013 International Open Data Hackathon Day.

So can the hackathon carnival work for the benefit of your business or government agency, or is it the worst type of tech circus -- fun and engaging but providing no real value? It all depends on what CIOs and app management leaders hope to achieve and then steering what could be the "greatest show on app dev earth" toward meeting these goals.

Before putting up the big top, make sure you have a good repertoire of skills needed to support all the business benefits that could come from a great hackathon. Here's my carnival of considerations.

Magicians and illusionists
If you expect robust and clean code from a weekend hackathon, forget it. Even if you throw a large cash prize into the mix, you won't get anything near commercially viable software.

What you will get are some interesting hack jobs, which, when working with an open data set or API, deliver fresh new ways of thinking. Recently, I witnessed a government hackathon project where a team developed some hurried Java to process an open data set of migration statistics. The result was a unique and highly interactive way to visualize global population movement. The developer admitted his code was patchy at best, but I could see how leveraging the creativity of someone outside the organization (who doesn't have predisposed ways of thinking) could be tremendously valuable.

Wonderful, amazing things
Because short hackathons deliver diverse ideas founded on alpha quality code at best, many organizations take a different route -- online developer challenges. These can be preferable to hackathons because developers have more time to build solid prototypes, or the hosting organization has more specific requirements, such as integrating a highly valuable data set (e.g., government geospatial data) or building an ecosystem of mobile tools around a new product.

In the latter case, there are many examples where businesses have exposed APIs to breathe life into a product. To me, there's no better example than Withings, which has reinvented the humble bathroom scale with a great API that lets external developers create health-related apps from the data collected when someone stands on the scale.

Safety nets and harnesses
Without providing support, expecting a hackathon or online challenge to deliver instant innovation is like expecting a blind squirrel to find an acorn. Therefore, avoid bad practices like dumping a collection of badly formatted open data sets without metadata, or providing a badly documented and managed API.

Always remember that hackathons resemble a circus in that developers can perform amazing stunts only when they have the right apparatus and props. Consider too that exposing valuable enterprise data to an outside community via open data or APIs could also open up your business to security risks -- for example, a nasty SQL injection. It's important to support openness, but this has to be balanced with flexible management and security controls.

Given that security is so important, I'm also a great proponent of enterprise security pros witnessing or actually participating in security-related hackathons. For example, there's the Cyber Security Challenge UK, where teams square off in a variety of security-related scenarios, many of which are highly complex and extend into new areas like the Internet of Things.

Roll up, roll up
Successful hackathons require careful planning, from getting the right venue to finding good sponsors to providing support and expertise. Marketing will be important, too, ranging from promoting the hackathon through developer channels and social networks to sophisticated branding campaigns for a new product API.

For enterprises and governments lacking the developer talent to drive innovation, hackathons, open data, and APIs are a unique opportunity to take advantage of outside skills. But don't be fooled. Real value comes by setting the right expectations and focusing on business outcomes. Ignore that, and the event becomes just another entertaining circus.

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About the Author(s)

Peter Waterhouse

Senior Technical Marketing Advisor, CA Technologies

Peter Waterhouse is a senior technical marketing advisor for CA Technologies' strategic alliance, service providers, cloud, and industry solutions businesses.

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