Hackathons for the rest of us

Think you're ready to participate in your first hackathon or host one? Learn the ground rules and let the fun begin.

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The situation at internal hackathons might seem clearer, since the IP was created on company time. However, non-employees are often invited to participate. At Dropbox, for instance, invited outsiders can take part in Hack Week, and non-disclosure agreements are used to protect the corporate code base, Belanger notes.

At Rackspace-Blacksburg, outsiders can take part in the internal hackathons but since open-source software is used, intellectual property hasn't been an issue, says Wani.

Rosanova says that intellectual property hasn't been an issue at the West Monroe Partners' hackathons, either, largely because those hackathons last only a few hours. "If we spent the weekend, they might come up with something unique, but there's little risk of that in a few hours with a technical subject," he says.

At POV's hackathons, Wasey says he makes the teams decide how to handle it, while POV claims no ownership.

Results

Back at that Chicago hackathon in 2010, Tamssot told the other team members that "I was not interested in an app but in a new business," he recalls. "That gave us a focus to create something viable, and not just demonstrate a technical skill. We started with different ideas that were all shot down, and then I suggested something food-related."

The result was an app called cookie-bot, which allows anyone to replicate a recipe using not only cooking instructions but data about the oven, altitude and other environmental conditions. The team pulled the app together in 48 hours using the Appcelerator multi-platform coding tool, and won best-in-show. A month later, the team was invited to demonstrate its creation at the Techweek Chicago technology conference.

Hackathons

In the meantime Tamssot and company upgraded the app to CookItFor.Us, a service that lets the user get a dish made by a professional chef and delivered fresh anywhere in the world. The team was then accepted into a 90-day program in the Excelerate Labs (now Techstars Chicago) business accelerator.

In the end, Tamssot and his team decided to bootstrap rather than seek investments, and have expanded the service to MakeItFor.Us, which will get pretty much anything made for a client, from children's toys to a wine rack, backyard pond and dog house -- in addition to food.

Most hackathon partisans report less dramatic results, of course. West Monroe Partners' Rosanova says that the most important impact of hackathons on his organization is that the technical staff is able to play with new technology before the marketing department requests it.

"We have seen for ourselves what works and what does not work," he explains. "The best thing to come out of it is creativity. Even if the results [at the hackathon] were not perfect, they are thinking outside the box, and when they go back to the client on Monday they are still thinking creatively," he notes.

"It helps the organization because the engagement level goes up, and when people are more engaged they are more productive," adds Rackspace's Wani. "We have seen solutions, new technologies and proofs of concept introduced at hackathons."

"It's a way for us to return to our roots," says Belanger at Dropbox. "The goal is to keep that startup feeling alive, to recapture that driving feeling of urgency, to remind ourselves to be bold and to take risks. Going back to that fast-paced approach to building, that is the spiritual goal."

Not that any justification is needed. "It's not an official policy to hold the hackathons -- it's a cultural thing. It's what the staff wants to do," says Wani.

This article, Hackathons for the rest of us, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Lamont Wood is a freelance writer in San Antonio.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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