What if a company hosted their own hackathon that ran like the US Open?

The hackathon is a beautiful thing, but I don’t think the concept has been developed enough. Let’s think bigger and gamify them.

What if large companies like Intel, Honda, or iRobot held their own hackathon. It’s kinda been done, Paypal has a great program, but they’re all a bit short sighted. Let’s revise the events, have companies state a problem they have and let competitors try and solve it. Now, the competitors could be individuals, but more likely they would be small or large firms.

Now, this wouldn’t be viable unless you attracted top talent. There are two pretty common things that can incentivize a large group of talent to compete against one another to win something; prize money and glory. A great way to do conduct this competition could be to emulate a system that already works.

In professional individual athletic tournaments — golf, tennis, racing, horse racing, etc — there is always a purse and there is always a trophy. The trophy analogy to a company hosting its own high stakes hackathon is obvious, for a competitor to build something great for a prestigious client, it would do wonders for their reputation.

We’re going to use the US Open as an analogous tournament. The two variables most relevant are contestants and prize money; there are 128 initial competitors at the start of the tournament (not including the qualifying rounds) and a purse of $38.3M. The 64 losers of the first round received $34,754 a piece in prize money. The 32 losers of the second round received a sum of $60,420. The purses essentially double for the incremental advances up to $3 million for the winner.

This type of competitive structure could be used to solve big problems for companies. There would be a smaller pool than the US Open’s 128 of competitors, as there probably aren’t going to be that many credible competitors. This concept would give a larger array of firms, big or small to compete for projects from big companies. The scale of projects or competition could range from building a new mobile application to developing batteries to capture energy surpluses on our grids.

There is another interesting aspect to this grand hackathon. People are good at being creative when they don’t know what they are doing. There’s always a first time for everything. First Tweet, email, electric car, robot that can moonwalk, and there will be an infinite amount more.

Laszlo Bock, VP of People Operations at Google, presented a wonderful perspective on problem solving during an interview with The Times. He was discussing that having expertise is not always the most effective way to solve problems. Bock explains that: “The expert will go: ‘I’ve seen this 100 times before; here’s what you do.’ Most of the time the non-expert will come up with the same answer,” added Bock, “because most of the time it’s not that hard.” Sure, once in a while they will mess it up, he said, but once in a while they’ll also come up with an answer that is totally new. And there is huge value in that.”

It’s not necessary that an English major try and build medical devices, but there are plenty of people with the necessary skills to accomplish a task, that simply haven’t attempted to solve a problem.

Say NASA (or perhaps SpaceX) needs a better onboard battery for their rockets. They could recruit chemical engineers that perhaps designed batteries for mobile phones. And maybe they would also recruit some engineers that build batteries for cars. They have experience designing batteries that give the most output within a restrictive accommodation. You have different perspectives from people that have similar base skills, but different expertise. The conglomeration of talent from varying backgrounds could ultimately solve more ambiguous challenges. There inevitably will be different approaches to find the best design for a battery.

Mobile battery designers may be better at figuring out how to fit batteries into tight spaces and perhaps one team would discover that perhaps it’s better to use multiple smaller batteries for the rocket instead of a single large one. But maybe the car battery designers may provide a solution that is more adaptable to harsher climates and are more efficient within mechanical systems.

It could be a wonderful thing for companies. It could cut down the time of the total life cycle of the project. Instead of spending time finding a vendor or partner for a project, they have a pool of competitors working to solve a problem. Each round is about completing a certain part of a product’s lifecycle. It follows basic project management principals without wasting a company’s time if a vendor isn’t going in the direction that works best for them. The trial and error would be greatly mitigated This would hedge against wasted funds and lost time.

It would deliver the best possible solution for their problems. Tiered competition would drive the most talented prospects to maximizing their potential. It pushes the best to work their hardest by offering escalating reward.

Though the outcome is impossible to predict, it has a very curious potential.

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