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What are Hack Days / Hackathons?

Read 17388 times Last modified on Thursday, 18 December 2014 21:58
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Hackdays, Hackathons, Hackfest, Codefests and More

Hopefully this blog will help clarify and explain what a Hack Day or Hackathon event is all about, as well as highlighting some of the positive effects it can have for your organisation and its staff.

Hack Days are an innovative way to invigorate your teams and can unlock many benefits that will stay within your organisation for years to come.

What are Hack Days or Hackathons?

Hack Days, also known in the IT community as a Hackathon, Codefest or Hackfest, are a way for a business or organisation to explore different ways of doing things within their own context - A key purpose is to enhance and encourage internal innovation and team collaboration via the process of to delivering an end product (working prototype).

A Hack Day is a planned event that a business or community organisation runs internally for its staff to collaborate on. They can be themed around different software projects, process or system improvements, corporate IT applications (i.e CRM & ERP Systems), and even down to hardware components over a set time frame. Hackathons can last anywhere between one day to a week, with the intention of having a showcase ready working prototype (software, system improvement, process improvement, etc) delivered by each competing team by the close of the Hack Day event. The goal is to create something usable and of value for the business, and hopefully win a prize in the process.

The terminology and names often used to describe these innovation events can sometimes unwittingly scare some people away by the misconception that these are a "cult figure" type events, only held for the IT community. The connotation of the word Hack, often associated with "computer hackers" (in the bad sense) isn't the ideal or traditional thing to combine or attribute with a corporate business or government body with the expectation of a positive outcome. The term Hackathon is however harmless and is basically combining the term "hack" in a playful manner, combined with a marathon type event, to form the now known term "hackathon". Hack Days and Hackfests are simply variations of that name.  

Hackathon events are used globally by some of the largest and most successful businesses (both technical and non technical) as a way of building a positive team culture, delivering internal innovation, experimenting with new technologies and increasing staff engagement and retention. Hack Day events can also help reduce delivery cycles by embracing more agile delivery methods to spike out product ideas and iterate through to delivering a working product or idea in much less time. 

Technology is constantly changing throughout world, as are the users expectations of its use and capability within our organisations. Corporate IT systems and the processes surrounding them are lagging behind, partly due to the inability for an organisation to move fast in terms of delivery or pivot quickly toward new external trends. Hack Day events are the perfect opportunity for an organisation to target inefficient systems and associated processes or look into new ways of doing things with a dedicated theme (and dedicated focus) to move the organisation forward. 

Each competing Hackathon team's finished output is usually judged and voted on by everyone involved, so the hack day event winner or winners are selected by their peers. In some organisations, the winning idea (or multiple ideas) are then moved into the main-stream delivery project pipeline to further iterate upon with the goal of getting these ideas to production.

Hack days are designed to incorporate your teams and people. Ownership of the event lies directly with the people participating, not the executives or facilitators hosting the event. The event needs to be about fun, interesting new ideas, exciting new ways of doing things, and of course, pizza and beer. I can't stress enough, that the event needs to be for the people.

Here's just a few recognisable company names that frequently run internal Hack Day events - Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, Hasbro, Google, Microsoft, Linkedin, realestate.com.au & seek.com.au, 

Who gets Involved?

Historically, Hack Day events were more focused toward software developers as their primary participants. More recently though, the benefits have been widely embraced by a broader background and skill set within the organisation. This has a much more positive impact on the event and increases the chances of uncovering better ideas for a business.

Having people with different roles and skills participate in the Hack Day, such as project managers, graphic designers, user interface experts, product managers and help desk and call centre staff can often articulate and capture more accurate business requirements and specifications, and often build more focused, valuable outcomes that truly benefit the organisation. It delivers a more holistic approach. 

The Hack Day event can also act as a valuable bonding session, bringing different staff members together, people of different roles and responsibilities who rarely get a chance to work together within the same organisation, to focus on a common outcome.

A creative way of getting different roles participating in your hack day event is to theme your Hack Day more broadly than just "software development" focused topics. Hackathons are not just for IT or technical folk - everyone within your organisation can get involved and contribute to a successful Hackathon. Think about different areas of your business (Finance, Legal, Contract Management, Sales teams, Call Centres) and identify an area of interest (maybe something causing concern, or an inefficient process/application, new product) and develop your theme around this. 

The broader the range of skills and backgrounds that get involved, the better the outcome and benefits for the organisation.

Different Types of Hackathons and Hack Day events

Hack day events can very much be customised to suit your specific industry or organisation. One way is by using Hack Day themes to draw out relative ideas for your teams to work on. Some Hack Day events have no restrictions on what teams choose to work on and are simply a way to generate and build on interesting new ideas. 

Hackathon events can be very successful for both small teams (around 15 people) to very large organisations (500 people). There are many different types of industry driven events that focus on Hack Days, from Government Hackathon events to open music Hack Days. This proves that Hackathon events aren't something that only technical organisations are getting involved with as, more and more non-technical companies are using hack days to incubate innovation within their organisation. 

IMPORTANT NOTE: Ownership of the Hack Day event needs to live with your staff. Don't limit your use of Hackathon events to simply churn out new products or finish off projects that are struggling along. The real success of these events is when your staff are completely invested into the event and feel as if they want to own the outcomes and ongoing benefits. Sure - Hack Days Australian can help with the logistics and facilitation and running of running an event, however we are very focused on letting the teams make the event their own. 

What's usually Involved

People, ideas, pizza and beer...

The key to success when running a Hackathon event is meticulous planning before the execution of the actual Hack Day event. 

A successful Hackathon event usually comprises of a set of well organised components, that when combined creates an awesome experience for your teams. Some of the different components that make up a Hackathon include;

  • Ideas generation sessions
  • Announcing the event & associated communications
  • Venue selection & theme decorations (can always be hosted within your business location), ideas generation sessions,
  • Catering
  • Data sets & data security
  • Wifi and network connections
  • Ideas pitching & team formation session
  • Hack Day kick off session
  • Idea inceptions
  • Showcase market session
  • Judging and prizes session.

At the completion of a Hack Day event You you can also then organise a roadshows to other interstate offices to show off the winning idea.

When you have hosted a great Hack Day experience for your teams, you will notice the buzz and energy that it creates in an organisation. It really is a magical thing to experience. 

Benefits of Hack Days

The benefits of running hack day events within your organisation are endless. From the small, sometimes unnoticeable things, like a smile of an employees face to larger scale benefits such as improved and increased delivery capabilities for your organisation.

Some of the tangible benefits that stand out as benefits include;

  • Improved team culture and increased collaboration
  • Embedding a culture of internal innovation
  • Higher staff engagement
  • Improved staff retention
  • Exploration of new ideas that can benefit your business
  • Dedicated time experiment and to think outside of the box
  • Prototyping new products 

Read through our recent article "Why run Hack Days?" which really goes into the detail of benefits realised as a result of successful Hack Day events.   

Hacktastic Hackathons

Hack Days can sound a bit overwhelming. Trust me, they aren't. Hackathon events are an innovative way to come up with new ideas collaboratively and can develop quick solutions that can be used by the organisation and its staff. Focusing on building complete or polished "products" isn't necessarily the aim of a Hackathon. It's about having fun, whilst learning new things and working with people from across the organisation that you may not necessarily get to work with on a day-to-day basis. The main advantage of Hack Days is having a broad range of people with different skills all in the same room and working together, toward the same goal.

Above all, Hack Day events are designed to bring teams together, in a collaborative, experimental and creative environment, whilst delivering real and tangible benefits and value back to your organisation.

Hack Days Australia (www.Hackdays.com.au) can help tailor and deliver the perfect Hack Day event specific to your organisation. We can help you plan, shape ideas or themes, source specific technical skills, look after the event logistics and most importantly deliver an unparalleled experience for your staff.


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