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Hacking for Innovation: A Day in the Life of a AppHelp Hackathon

By R. J. Stangle / Jun 20, 2014

Hackathons are not just about team-building, fun and free gourmet food. They’re a great way to push one’s limits and innovate off the beaten path.

AppHelp Hackathons are challenges intended to push us outside typical boundaries to discover something new for the company, but also about ourselves. Everyone wins something, even the losers. Sure, the actual winners are the only ones who get prizes (sweet gift certificates, in our case). As any marathon runner will tell you, the mere action of participating deserves respect, and an unfinished race is still an achievement.

By removing the notion of failure, we push ourselves even further. No customer deadlines to worry about, no task assigned by management, no productivity metrics. Our minds are free to try any crazy idea, as long as it solves a real problem and we can convince others to help us build it. In a two-day timeframe, we will create new products or improve existing ones; fine-tune processes; investigate new technologies.

After going through six Hackathons at AppHelp over the past two years, we have first-hand experience on how Hackathons can help companies get better at what they do.

NO “BUSINESS AS USUAL”

At my first hackathon, I took part in a project aimed at solving a HR problem. Every quarter, our HR department had to hire someone for three days to manually process peer feedback from employees. In just two days, we built a system that automated most of this process.

In a hackathon, time is of the essence, and we work at full speed to produce results, without any interruption.

Past AppHelp hackathon winners include:

  • Ringo, an open-source tool to provide live video chat support to mobile users (a sort of Amazon Mayday for mobile app support).
  • Porting a database from MSSQL to Postgre SQL (something that would have required heavy coordination and discussion under normal circumstances)
  • TechCenter for iPad, a free centralized repository of users’ technology environment, to help companies provide them with a better support experience.
  • An email notification system to alert our customers of system outages and maintenance.
  • A tool to predict support ticket spikes using the cortical learning algorithm.

ANATOMY OF AppHelp HACKATHON

With all the exercise we’ve put into building our hacking chops, here’s some advice to organize a successful hackathon for your company:

  1. Secure the time. To ensure participation, announce the hackathon event early and send email reminders to register and prepare; block time in the shared calendars of all participants; and notify their managers. The earlier you do it, the easier it will be for everyone to focus on the competition and give life to their ideas. Also, it’ll help with ordering the right amount of food!
  2. Share ideas. In the weeks ahead, participants should start uploading their hackathon ideas on some collaborative project dashboard (we use Trello). This way, they will have ample time to discuss and fine-tune each other’s projects and start forming teams in advance.
  3. Team up. Then comes the first morning of the event. Those who came up with ideas have a last chance to pitch them in person to recruit team members. They pitch to the rest of the participants (56 people at our latest edition), and the final team choices are made. The more people in a team, the higher the chance of completing the project on time. In our case, we’ve had teams from one person to seven.
  4. Compete. After two days of work, on Friday evening, it’s time to decide who will be able to present a demo to the jury on Monday. In case a team needs extra time, they’re welcome to keep working through the week-end (which is why we organize hackathons on Thursdays and Fridays).
  5. Win. On Monday comes the final judging, in front of five volunteers judges. Each demo should not be longer than five minutes, and the total for all demos is usually about 1.5 hours. After demos are finished, the jury gathers to choose the winners. Four or five awards are given, along with a “People’s Choice Award” voted on the Trello board by everyone in the company during the day.
  6. Celebrate. Winners are announced at a company meeting. Don’t forget to give out great prizes. Of course, hackathons are about participation… But it’s always nice to win!