The Evil Cult of the Internal Hackathon
Enough with your internal hackathons, enough with the nauseating tweets “The pizzas have just arrived” and “this is what hustle looks like”. Enough. Your code might well be epic and your heart tremor inducing blood caffeine levels may well be at dangerous levels — seriously, enough already.
I know it’s a tired debate on the perceived benefits of internal hackathons has been discussed ad nauseam, but not necessarily to its logical conclusion. Fact is I’ve had to sit through my fair share of them, and yes, I have been guilty of sending out aforementioned annoying tweets. But after the natural order of things has been restored; your colleagues arrive the next day wondering why there are piles of empty pizza boxes neatly stacked at the bins, the air is ever so slightly tinged with the smell of hustle (read: eau de perspiration) and you exhaustedly return to your Jira/ Trello bug list — ask yourself, what was the point?
The ‘Internal Hackathon’ may appear to be an innovative move for Company X suffering from classic Innovator's Dilemma symptoms. A bid to explore new disruptive revenue streams or product verticals can only be a good thing. Also, it’s trendy right? A few of the engineers may have participated in a Startup Weekend so they know the spirit of the event too, also we’ll get some free twitter publicity, some fodder for the corporate blog and we will look quite the pioneers. Everyone’s a winner? Well yes, apart from the losers.
Company X thinks they’ve pulled a real coup. What they’ve really done is leveraged the skills and interests that their team have developed outside of their job and are bringing them in house. For free.
“But our people are motivated, they know we are committed to innovation” A two-day hackathon, where you’ve permitted folks to temporarily pause their business as usual and offer a rare glimpse of a utopian world where they can move fast and break things — this will not fix your motivation problem. Most likely, as soon as the first organisational iceberg is hit, there will be razor sharp clarity that your company culture is to move slow and safeguard market share. If they hadn’t seen such riches they could live with being poor, or something like that.
Employees may think that they’re super valued and that their company is adopting a new startup mindset. “They’ve invested in two days of our time, all those pizzas and red bull, everyone walked away with a branded hoodie” Good for you, but let’s be completely clear as to what actually happened — management measures everything in ROI and have decided that leveraging your efforts for two days is cheap. Actually investing in R&D is expensive.
It’s a race to the bottom. Unless you invest in an R&D team, or at least make innovation a part of the everyday job of every member of your team, you’re achieving nothing. If there isn’t a strategy to incorporate the innovations that come out of the hackathon into your business, you’re achieving nothing.
Until your company makes real investment into R&D (with the tax breaks you’re entitled to) then the only thing they’re innovating is a new way of being cheap. Don’t stand for it, don’t be a cheap, enthusiastic outsourced-inhouse product development team.