Corporate Hackathons Are Doomed to Fail

Photo Credit: Ilya Pavlov

Hackathons seem like these amazing things to those looking in. A group of talented hackers get together to build you amazing things in 24–48 hours for pizza, beer, and some small amounts of cash. What’s not to like, right?

In truth, here are a number of the actual things happening at hackathons:

Startup Staging

The sponsors of a hackathon can be as important as the subject matter. Since industry and company hackathons bring together individuals and leaders from the industry, they are the equivalent of “chum” for the startup “sharks”. Everyone wants them.

Hackathons are the breeding grounds for startups. Young startups often attend these events as a means of customer acquisition — either developers atop their platform or sponsors as customers.

Co-founder Hunting

As we know hackathons are ripe with startups, they also offer a unique opportunity to find like-minded, passionate partners who share an interest in a specific subject matter. Almost as useful as cherry-picking contributors on Github, the opportunity to pair up for an intense stint can be a powerful interview for a potential partner.

Prize Hunting

Believe it or not, there’s money in hackathons. The prizes can range from thousands to millions of dollars when played the right way. many developers are actually simply trying to win the prizes. See “These Hackathon Hustlers Make Their Living From Corporate Coding Contests” for more.

Social Hacking

Believe it or not, hackathons are rather engaging social experiences as well. There is a real camaraderie formed by people who endure the rigor of the event find themselves socializing more than you may imagine. Some folks go to hackathons just to socialize.

Hackathons serve the audience in amazing ways, but when mapped back to the host or sponsor, it’s often not fruitful. Organizations often embark down the hackathon pathway to accomplish one of many goals, including:

  • Discovering new technologies
  • Inspire new ideas or products
  • Foster innovation amongst their employees
  • Recruiting for talent

These all are based in strategic value to the organization, but, unfortunately, hackathons are tactical tools. While a hackathon is useful for delivering a quick proof of concept or validating some market assumptions, they are also quite unpredictable. Developers and designers can be coaxed in the right direction but don’t generally build precisely what you’re asking for (that’s what consultants do).

Success with a hackathon requires two critical things:

  1. the infrastructure and processes that allow for new idea or technology to make it’s way through the organization
  2. a commitment to seeing new ideas through, regardless of outcome

Until brands can actually bring these commitments to to fore, most of this activity is moot.

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Gregarious Narain is a serial entrepreneur and product strategist. A reformed designer and developer, he writes on his experiences as a founder, strategist, and father on the regular. Connect with him on LinkedIn or say hi on Twitter.