Another weekend, another hackathon….

Last month, I competed in my second hackathon of the year, the #HSCodeFest sponsored by the Herald Sun and News Corp, and hosted by Melbourne University’s Carlton Connect. I’m pleased to say that our team of four, which was only formed on the first night, came 3rd in the pitch competition – with an idea for a news quiz app.

Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 3.44.56 PMThat particular weekend was quite an eventful one for local startups – not only were there at least two other hackathons being held in Melbourne at the same time, but the State Government also announced its LaunchVic initiative. Small Business Minister, Philip Dalidakis found time in his busy schedule to address the #HSCodeFest participants, which was a great incentive. The previous weekend saw another Startup Weekend event, and last weekend Carlton Connect hosted yet another industry hackathon sponsored by the GE Industrial Challenge. And of course, since then we have had the Prime Minister announce the National Innovation and Science Agenda. To paraphrase Mr Turnbull, there’s never been a more interesting time to be a startup….

Having participated in Startup Weekend’s first #FinTech hackathon back in March this year, I was a lot more prepared, and had a much better idea of what to expect. Even though I didn’t pitch a specific idea on the opening night, I used my previous team-building experience to make sure we had a balanced mix of skills and expertise. I was also clear to make sure that once we had agreed on the project idea, everyone had specific roles, and we constantly checked in on progress and next steps.

As usual, the team generated far more content, data and ideas than we actually used in the pitch presentation. We also kept it very simple, by focusing on the key concept, demoing an MVP, outlining the commercial strategy, describing the business plan, and establishing just enough knowledge and awareness about the market opportunities, even though it had not been possible to fully scope them. For an insider’s view, check out my team-member Nathan’s blog.

We have seen over the past 12-18 months that the hackathon model is being deployed in many different ways to try to stimulate innovation and generate new business ideas. Even government departments and public utilities are getting in on the act, by enabling participants to access data sets, software, technology and APIs to see what they can come up with. Large corporates, who struggle to embed innovation into their organisations, are also holding internal competitions drawing on the experience of meetups, hackathons and pitch nights.

I only see this as a positive development, as long as the energy, enthusiasm and experience can be channelled into meaningful outcomes, which enable in-house talent and external expertise to combine to build great products and services that customers want, and/or identify and deliver significant process improvements and efficiency gains.

However, part of me is sceptical – as someone who is probably much older than the average age of a hackathon participant, I’m still amazed how many of my contemporaries either have no idea or simply don’t “get” the hackathon or meetup concept. They seem astonished that anyone would want to get together with total strangers, and spend their evenings let alone a whole weekend working with them, for “free”. To those of my peers who may see it that way, I would point out that participating in these events is a cheap and effective way of accessing new ideas and skills, meeting talented people, and acquiring new skills and knowledge.

Finally, if your organisation is thinking about running a hackathon or similar event for the first time, I’m more than happy to share my insights – contact me via this blog.

Since the holidays will soon be upon us, Content in Context is taking a short break. Normal service will be resumed on January 5. To my many regular readers and followers, I wish you all a safe and peaceful New Year.

Next: Surrealism, Manifestos and the Art of Juxtaposition

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