Win, win, win

The hidden side of hackathons

IT departments and companies are discovering the benefits of hosting hackathons. Has your organization hosted one yet?

Issue 1, 2017 Download PDF


When we think of hackathons, we tend to picture a room full of nerdy young men tapping away at keyboards for 24 or 48 hours, without regard for time, regular eating or personal hygiene. But recently, the concept of a hackathon has been discovered by IT departments and companies. They have realized the benefits a hackathon can bring on so many fronts.

Hackathons all follow the same general format:

  • Entrants have a common goal, usually developing and demonstrating an idea that will benefit the team, department, company or customers
  • Participants form teams (of two to five people) to work on the ideas
  • There is limited time to develop an idea and prepare a presentation of it
  • A panel of judges evaluates the entries and selects the winner(s)

In recent months, I’ve had the immense pleasure to judge three separate hackathons, all centered around the use of Software AG products. Two were within Software AG’s major development centers in Bangalore, India and Sofia, Bulgaria. The third was organized by Software AG customer DSM, a global science-based company active in health, nutrition and materials.

What struck me most about these successful events was how they benefit all those involved in different ways.

Promote innovative thinking

Participants are encouraged to think about something new, to consider company or departmental goals, costs and benefits, and feasibility. This helps people, especially technical people, get out of their comfort zone and think about the bigger picture. It allows participants to shift from a mode of just executing plans made by others, to showing what they think might be valuable or useful and explaining why. Many people have innovative ideas for improvements or change, but don’t get the opportunity to air them. A hackathon is the ideal platform for this, even if a participant realizes that his or her idea is not that feasible after all.

Learn new tools and products

On a technical front, a hackathon is a great way for people to learn new tools and products that they would otherwise not have the opportunity or time for. They can explore new architectures and methods, and the time-constrained hackathon format ensures they don’t waste too much time with details. This broadening of horizons can pay dividends in future projects with better awareness of other technologies.

Develop presentation skills

Developers know how to develop code. However, a great technical idea is worthless if the creator cannot “sell” his idea to a non-technical audience. Participants will need to think about how they can convince the judges of the merits of their idea. Such skills are invaluable in any organization and will help technical staff communicate better with management. Developing such skills as part of a hackathon is a great way to lower the threshold while the stakes are relatively low.

Planning and prioritization

Hackathons are usually time-boxed. While the hard-core, nerdy hackathons I referred to previously often involve burning the midnight oil in all-night sessions, the hackathons I have seen are a little more civilized. But all include an element of time pressure. They usually stipulate that work should be done outside office hours, and there are usually tight deadlines. This means that participants need to quickly separate important work from unnecessary detail and must carefully prioritize what they are working on. They need to learn when to move on, look for alternatives or workarounds, and how to avoid time-consuming rat holes. These skills are also vital in normal project or development work.

Build relationships

Several of the hackathons I attended actively encouraged cross-functional teams. They rewarded entries from teams of people who don’t normally work together. This helps them learn about another group’s work and how to best leverage the skills in that group within the context of the hackathon. These new relationships and greater organizational awareness will no doubt smooth collaboration for months or years to come.

Exposure to senior management

Hierarchical organizations and management layers mean that many developers often don’t get the opportunity to show their creativity and real potential, especially to senior management. A hackathon is an excellent tool for developing and recognizing talent in an organization and ensuring that top performers are rewarded and nurtured.

Potential new ideas

Last but not least, hackathon participants often come up with ideas that other hadn’t thought about and that likely would never have surfaced without a hackathon as an “innovation catalyst.” Several of the ideas I have seen in hackathons have been taken forward as serious projects, to improve products, tools and processes.

As you see, a hackathon can be a true win, win, win! Employees win by developing new skills and relationships. Management wins by gaining more motivated, more skilled teams. In addition, the company wins through innovative ideas and increased loyalty.

Has this motivated you to organize a hackathon? Or have you organized one already? If so, email us and tell us about it. We’d love to hear about your plans and we may even be able to arrange for someone from Software AG to help judge your hackathon, if you want, to give it an extra boost. We’re looking forward to hearing from you.

Software AG Bangalore – Tech Interrupt

November 2016

This is the fifth hackathon organized by Software AG’s development center in India. It also included entries from other Software AG offices in India, from both the R&D and Global Consulting Services departments. This one was bigger than ever—so big in fact that the local team had to do a preliminary selection to reduce over 200 entries to a shortlist of 25 to be presented to the international judges. It took two full days to get through the excellent presentations and the judges had a hard time picking winners in the various categories. There were ideas for new products, improved internal tools and processes, as well as innovative solutions leveraging many Software AG products. A couple of the best ideas have already been incorporated into our product roadmap for 2017.

Judge Jonathan Heywood with some of the winners of the Software AG Bangalore Tech Interrupt.

DSM – webMethods Hackathon  

November 2016

I was excited when Software AG customer DSM announced their plans to organize a hackathon. They did a great job in encouraging collaboration between the local staff and offshore teams from their key contractors. Bringing in DSM’s enterprise architect Tom Chyla to the judging panel also helped broaden the hackathon’s reach beyond the webMethods team. The five ideas were quite varied but the winner stood out in its innovation in showing how DSM’s products could be taken to new markets and sales channels, enabled by Software AG technology. With this first edition being such a success, I’m really looking forward to the sequel, which will no doubt be bigger and better, incorporating other DSM teams from Singapore, Switzerland, Brazil and the U.S.

The winning “Hackbats” team at the DSM Hackathon, linked by video conference.

Software AG Sofia – SAGathon

December 2016

Software AG’s office in Sofia, Bulgaria covers several departments, including R&D, Global Consulting Services, Marketing and TECHCommunities. This is the fourth SAGathon they’ve organized and it has become a traditional overture to the legendary Software AG Sofia Christmas party, where the winners are announced as the party begins. As in Bangalore, the entries were a mix of product ideas as well as tools and process improvement ideas. The winner was cryptically called UTC+2(L), an innovative tool for automatically measuring and reporting test coverage within Software AG’s R&D department. This tool will no doubt contribute to further refining the hundreds of thousands of automated tests run daily during product development.

Jonathan Heywood awarding the 3rd place prize to the “UM Proxy” team at the Sofia Christmas party.