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Unspoken Benefits of Hackathons

Jul 22, 2022

July 22, 2022 | Jessica Gonzalez

In a tight job market with the possibility of recession, attracting, retaining, and enabling employees while keeping them engaged is a challenge. Hackathons are thought to be FinTech or engineering focused, but there is real value in a hackathon themed contest 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 and can surface hidden capabilities and provide career progression opportunities. From a diversity perspective, hackathons at universities and non profits can include under-represented groups, showcasing tangible talents in a very short amount of time and providing 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 doing the presenting, the engineers become the product managers and get to present their work to the company. The sales team gains direct exposure to the engineering minds that are building the product that they are selling. Even if they don’t understand exactly how the team built what they built, they get to see more of what is technologically possible. This can spark new ideas for the company’s actual product. 

From a training and performance management perspective it can offer a pathway to showcase hidden talent within 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 venue to show these skills. Hackathons provide a venue for people to try new things that they may be very good at and genuinely enjoy doing. 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 have an inherent benefit for participants and senior leadership, allowing less experienced individuals to expose their talents to senior leadership. Engineers are forced to think in the “problem space and the solution space” as opposed to just the technical solution space. Human-centered design and communication is an invaluable muscle to build regardless of the day-to-day job functions of the participants. Senior leadership on the other hand will gain exposure to the skills and sense of ownership that their team has in their work. 

With budgets tightening and more expectations on operational reduction, hackathons are a cost effective way to gain traction on an idea to determine feasibility. Back in 2017, the Boston Public School District’s transportation funding was cut significantly and their 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 whoever could optimize the bus routes and school schedule the most efficiently. The winner of the hackathon, an MIT professor, spun his work out 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 were very successful in tying their organizational strategy to employee engagement as well as brand marketing, But small hackathons with grassroots efforts and internal teams of 4 can provide a ready built application in as little as 2 months that are very successful. Small hackathons that target 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. Prizes have included 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. 

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About the Author: With more than 15 years’ experience in the financial services industry, including tenures at Santander Consumer USA and Visa, Jessica Gonzalez is now the Director of Auto at Informed.IQ.

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