A Neophyte’s Guide to Hackathons

Do you know how a “Hackathon” works? If you’re like me, I hadn’t a clue as to what this growing phenomenon popular with millennials was all about. I decided to take part in a hackathon recently to see what was causing all the buzz in the business world. I also developed a primer for hackathon neophytes, along with reasons why you should give this latest problem-solving methodology a try.

Hundreds of individuals of varying ages and backgrounds recently assembled at CIC (the Cambridge Innovation Center) in St. Louis for Global Hack V, to take a shot at solving a thorny problem for the Municipal Court system of St. Louis and citizens attempting to navigate the system. I opted to join them.

Though I had spent 30 years in a variety of positions in corporate America across six different industries, and also had served on over a dozen boards, I found this experience unlike all others. At age 57, I had to have been one of the oldest participants in this brave new world.

Since I desired the full immersion experience, I didn’t try to find or join a team ahead of time. Instead, I enrolled as an individual, trusting that I would be assigned to a room where those without teams could either form a team or join an existing team still looking for additional members.

As it turned out, most of the hundreds of participants had joined as complete teams. Accordingly, there were only 20 of us in the “individuals” room. Alas, there were not many teams looking to add members. “What’s your skillset?“ was the only question inquiring teams asked. I learned quickly that “managing a former public company as a CEO“ was not an acceptable answer.

Since a hackathon is essentially a relay race to solve a specific problem, teams look for talented programmers and problem solvers to help them at each stage of the race. In my case, I was disadvantaged by the lack of programming skills and lots of grey hairs. What saved me was my response to the skillset question, “I’m an ideation facilitator.” A potential team leader asked the fair question, “What the hell does that mean?” I had a further opening to explain I help teams (both small and Fortune 50) solve their toughest problems by teaching, taking them through a process that produces more innovative and creative solutions. Bingo, that answer secured me an invitation to join a team.

Still interested? Read on, and you will discover how the rules of engagement in hackathons are very different from those in most problem-solving exercises. By the way, the technical solution (written in computer code) was due in 48 hours!

Hackathons: 11 Guideposts for the Neophyte

1. A democracy of thought. The leader only has so much power. Our team leader was voted down when he pitched a direction to take with which the team did not agree.

2. Anyone can form a team and take a shot at the prize money. (In this case, $30,000.) Participants, however, are not likely to join a team unless they have a reasonable degree of faith the team leader has the required skillset to be effective as a leader.

3. Contribution or dilution of the prize purse. Teams need to figure out quickly whether or not an individual will be able to make a qualitative addition to the process. If not, participants will add dead weight, and the prize money will have to be split among more members.

4. No place to hide. Most teams are comprised of two-to-eight individuals. It rapidly becomes clear as to who is or is not contributing. For example, one of my teammates spent most of the weekend in and out of his sleeping bag looking up arcane data about the municipal courts system. The team leader never asked him to do anything else. Another team leader vanished for most of Day Two without explanation. Clearly, these two would not be chosen again.

5. Inverted world. Younger participants (high school and college students and those in their early twenties) know how best to write computer code, thereby placing older individuals without such skills at a disadvantage.

6. Time management is critical. Completed solutions were presented Sunday at noon, 40 hours after start time. That timeframe did not leave much room for discussion, debate or revision, as a big chunk of time (12-16 hours) had to be devoted to writing code to build the solution. This timing necessitated a focus on what’s possible rather than what’s ideal.

7. Power Points and slide decks not allowed. Judges want to see demonstrations using the newly built technical solutions, such as website, apps, etc.

8. Choosing wisely. The team you join will seal your fate, for better or for worse.

9. Skillsets the coin of the realm. Because teams are formed quickly, there is no time to discuss your resume or work history. Participants ask “What is your skillset?” and expect a succinct answer.

10. Instant cash payout and bragging rights. Prizes can be big and are typically awarded at the end of the weekend. In my particular hackathon, $30,000 was the top prize, with total prize money of more than $60,000 awarded. Not insignificant cash for a weekend’s work, I might add, along with bragging rights at the water cooler on Monday morning. Becca Williams, a member of the winning team for Global Hack V said,

It’s flat out inspiring and hugely motivating and the industry in which one works is completely irrelevant. We can all do things better. Period. At hackathons, in order to be successful, the team must be open to near constant calibration and be united in working to accomplish common goals.

11. Disrupted world. Many organizations are stuck with unsolved problems, and some are also stuck with individuals who are not pulling their weight. Hackathons offer companies opportunities to put problems out there for the world, in some cases, to solve.

Among the reasons to investigate hackathons is the fact that millennials generally do not want to wait decades to be invited into the inner sanctum to learn about the company’s biggest challenges and problems. They want high-level engagement, and if they do not find it at their existing companies, they are likely to depart for greener pastures.

To my knowledge, there never has been such a gold rush for this type of talent. One member of my team, Francesco Polizzi, a talented programmer who is still in college, mentioned the perks, including a trip to London, that top-tier companies are using to recruit talent. Sound familiar?

Evidently top-tier athletes are not the only recruitment game in town. Keep a look out for Global Hack VI, the talented team lead by Matt Menietti, plans to boost the prize money to $1 million.