Hackathons and innovation: Why businesses need a start-up mindset

Rocket Software's George Smyth on how hackathons can take your company to the next level by fuelling innovation and competition.

Facebook’s hackathons are the stuff of legend. It was in these sessions that the brains behind the world’s biggest social networking site came up with two of Facebook’s most recognisable features: the ‘like’ button and messenger. It was also during one hackathon that Instagram’s Hyperlapse feature was born. Once upon a time, hackathons were confined to starts ups; using them as a way to innovate and boost their competiveness against heavyweight tech companies. Done well, hackathons can be a boon for companies both big and small; they encourage people to push their boundaries and use their knowledge to solve big problems, as well as working to attract talent and improve a company’s reputation.

On the most basic level, hackathons act as a sprint-like event, bringing together developers, computer programmers and entrepreneurs in an intensive working project group to achieve a specific business goal. This can be anything from product development to a shift in the culture or processes of the company, but the overall purpose is usually the same – to harbour a creative environment for interesting new business ideas. Here’s why hackathons are worth it.


During a hackathon, being bold carries fewer risks. This means it’s easier to encourage creative thinking and ask employees to step outside their comfort zone to develop bright new ideas. This is something you can rarely achieve in your stock-standard office life. Ultimately, giving people the space to gain a new perspective on a specific business challenge can make a serious difference to how they approach the solution.

Building relationships

Holding external hackathons means you can engage with your stakeholders or even a new community of experts outside the company, who can bring a different viewpoint into the mix. Inviting customers to get involved is also a perfect opportunity to build relationships between those employees who are developing software solutions, like APIs or cloud applications, and the people who will end up using these tools. This gives programmers and developers the chance to get an insight into what customers are really looking for out of technology, and can lead to some innovative ‘out-of-the-box’, bespoke solutions.

What’s more, becoming well-known in the developer community can only do good things for your company’s reputation, helping it to stand out from others when it comes to cutting edge technology.

And in the case of internal hackathons, they are the perfect opportunity to bring together your development teams. These teams are often spread across the globe, with some members of the same group rarely (or never!) meeting face-to-face. Getting your best and brightest together in one room will both build relationships across your company, and help foster better-integrated teams.

Finding the talent

Developers and programmers should be the drivers behind your company’s next innovative piece of technology, and this means they need to be able to work under pressure, and to a deadline. Hackathons are the perfect way to find new employees who can do just this. With the current skills shortage in the IT sector, finding programmers via traditional recruitment routes can prove more than tricky. So, reaching out to the developer community with an event that engages their skills (and piques their interest!) is going to help when it comes to attracting talent.  

Internal hackathons also provide you with the opportunity discover the talent that you already have right in front of your eyes. For example, a programmer may have a passion and skill for a particular technology that your company is looking to develop. Without the opportunity to showcase his or her skills, you may never notice this untapped knowledge. To make the most of internal hackathons, you need to make an effort to advertise them company-wide, not just to the R&D department. Often it can be the non-developers who input great ideas; for example a support or sales person may have a better insight into the pain point for a customer. This makes them the perfect person to work alongside a developer to create a solution.

Making hackathons work for you

So, you’ve committed to holding a hackathon. But there are a few things that will make sure the event is a success. First off, the right setting is crucial. You want to stimulate creativity, which means building an environment that makes people feel comfortable as well as inspired. It’s also important to have a goal at the outset to ensure you end up with a usuable product or solution. But this shouldn’t be at the expense of innovation, and letting people step outside the original aims of the hackathon. Finally, the real success will only be achieved if you follow through; don’t let the ideas or outcomes from the hackathon fall by the wayside after its done.

Clearly, hackathons can take your company to the next level. This is not only true when it comes to innovative new ideas and products, but also when we’re talking about attracting top talent and boosting the reputation of your company as a cutting-edge player in the tech industry. So, the next time you’re facing a problem without an obvious solution, give a hackathon a try and see where some creative thinking can take you.

George Smyth is the director of R&D at Rocket Software.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.

Related Topics

Innovation in Business