Developers Love Hackathons. Here’s Why You Should, Too.

Dice has partnered with HackerEarth to help our clients easily plan and host hackathons. A global leader in the hackathon space, HackerEarth has organized, promoted and delivered over 800 hackathons since 2014 for companies such as Intuit, Walmart Labs, GE Healthcare, Pitney Bowes, Verizon and IBM. Dice recently caught up with Sachin Gupta, CEO of HackerEarth, to talk about the emerging popularity of hackathons and the benefits of hosting one.

Dice: How are hackathons fundamentally changing the way companies approach innovation?

SG: Traditionally, innovation has been the responsibility of the research & development/innovation departments of companies. The responsibility of ideating innovative products, services, and business models is usually assigned to only a handful of people.

But recently we’re seeing a paradigm shift with the emergence of hackathons. Companies are innovating with hackathons by reaching out to everyone within the organization. The hackathon process enables the entire organization to embrace innovation. With this approach, the team primarily responsible for innovation works with the entire organization to synthesize ideas, and deliver proofs of concept and new solutions.

Hackathons have some clear advantages over traditional innovation management processes. They are inclusive, agile, promote multidisciplinary collaboration, and have shorter innovation cycles that are better suited to address fast-changing consumer demands. Large companies have been running hackathons for years, but lately we’re seeing more and more mid-sized companies participate, as well. We see all of these companies following two distinct approaches when using hackathons for innovation — that is, conducting hackathons internally and externally.

Dice: How are internal and external hackathons different?

SG: Internal hackathons are used for crowdsourcing innovation inside the organization. They are swift and eliminate the need for long discussions and debates about whether or not to develop an idea into a product. Here, the merits of a new idea are accessed after a prototype has been developed through the process of holding a hackathon. The ability to collaborate is the competitive advantage in this case.

More and more, companies have also started hosting external hackathons to leverage outside developer ecosystems and crowdsource innovation. We conducted a machine-learning hackathon for Exotel, a cloud-based telephony platform company. Over 2,000 non-employee developers attended virtually, and the theme of the hackathon was speech recognition. Participants were given sample audio files and 18 days to create their prototypes; at the end of that time period, the winning idea was an app that can decipher human sentiments (happiness, sadness, anger, etc.) from digital voice samples. That’s how little time it takes to successfully innovate with hackathons.

Dice: Beyond innovation, what are other compelling reasons for companies to host hackathons?

SG: Companies are finding novel reasons to run hackathons, from recruitment and hiring to product adoption, employee engagement and brand building.

The number of developers attending hackathons is increasing at an incredible rate. Hackathons are where tech professionals are going today to improve their existing skills, as well as to master new skills and gain experience on new tools and technology that they can use for future projects. It’s a unique opportunity for a company to fully engage and build relationships with these developers in a very focused environment. It’s also a great way to observe first-hand how an individual handles a challenging project within a tight timeframe. Hackathons allow companies to get their apps and products directly into the hands of developers, and provide personalized mentoring on how they work; companies gain rapid product feedback about their technology from these developers, which helps them stay ahead of the curve as the tech continually evolves and improves.

And an employer-branded hackathon is a highly targeted branding activity. It allows a company to let potential employees know what the company stands for, the challenging projects it works on, and communicates its values to them. For example, HackerEarth uses a Django/Python framework. By conducting a targeted hackathon with Django and Python developers, we let the developer community know about our company and the technology stack we use. We also helped our client, Intuit, conduct a women-only hackathon to attract female talent and position themselves as an attractive brand to the female workforce.

Dice: What are some “must-have” ingredients for a successful hackathon?

SG: To run a successful hackathon, you must have a clear vision of what you want to accomplish. First define your purpose: for example, innovation, product marketing, employer brand, etc. Then identify the avenue, or the broad area of innovation. The problem statement is next – what is the problem to solve or opportunity to seize? Finally, establish one or more themes; these are areas of interest based on the avenue and problem statement.

I’ll use a recent hackathon for GE Healthcare in India to illustrate how this works. The purpose of the hackathon was to crowdsource solutions within the digital healthcare avenue. There is a lack of experienced healthcare professionals in rural India, which leads to low-quality maternal care, delays in diagnosis, and hospital overcrowding. Based on this problem statement, these themes emerged and guided prototype development: 1.) creating contextual training platforms and protocol support for newer doctors; and 2.) developing video content analysis tools to enhance tele-ICU capabilities.

Choosing a relevant target audience is also critical. For our client Redis Labs, the purpose of their hackathon was product adoption of their open-source in-memory data application. Redis clearly defined its target audience, inviting those with 4+ years of experience working on Redis with expertise in C, C++, golang, NoSQL databases, memcache and Mongodb.

Finally, post-hackathon implementation may be the last ingredient of a successful hackathon but it is also one of the most important. Create an actionable plan after the hackathon ends. What are you going to do with the winning and shortlisted ideas? How will they be taken forward?

Dice: What’s the number-one reason corporations should host a hackathon this year?

SG: The number-one reason for corporations to host a hackathon this year is to foster innovation through collaboration. In 2016, 181,254 people participated in HackerEarth hackathons and they created about 1,456 new product prototypes. Those numbers are growing in 2017, and we’re especially excited this year about partnering with Dice to bring hackathons to their employer clients. Since Dice engages an active community of over 2 million highly-skilled tech professionals, these hackathons will connect customers directly with this community and provide completely new ways to drive product development, product marketing, branding and recruiting. We’re looking forward to it!

Learn more about our comprehensive hackathon solutions and how you can use hackathons to drive innovation, engage employees, build employer brand, and attract top talent.