Why Enterprises Should
Host Hackathons

Hosting a hackathon is a lot of work. From finding venues to deciding challenges, it requires man power, event planning, and employees willing to do a lot more than usual. So why not just sponsor one of the thousands of hackathons already going on around the country?

After hosting two of our own hackathons, we’ve become more interested in hosting hackathons, not less. Why? Here are just a few of the benefits.

Stronger relationships

Working in a large organization, it’s easy to work mostly in your team. Developing technology inside FINRA is collaborative, but it can be difficult to collaborate between teams or groups. It’s easy for developers to become disconnected from others who may be working a floor above or below.

This can lead to assumptions within the organization, as Marcela Carbo, Lead Systems Engineer for Internal Development Tools, explained. “So often we interact only in emails with a small photo attached. Teams don’t realize that the Development Tools team has only 4 or 5 people.”

Hosting a hackathon allows developers, engineers, and hackers to see the people behind emails, especially those beyond their usual team. Mentors and judges come from various parts of the organization. A hackathon can become an opportunity to meet more management and learn more about what different parts of the organization are working on.

Names become people with areas of expertise. They might just be the ones who can help when the next problem arises. While studies show benefits of collaboration among experienced teams, different perspectives from participants and mentors provide opportunities too. The change in team participants may force a developer to take on a different role in the team. Mentors in a hackathon may have very different criteria for success than someone’s boss. All of this can drastically change how people see a problem and how they try to solve it.

Learn something new

Day to day, work tends to be with the same tools. Perhaps one test developer works mostly in Python. Someone else working in a production system may rely heavily on SQL. When trying to meet sprint deadlines, it’s easy to use tried and true methods instead of experimenting.

Hosting a hackathon can provide an opportunity to experiment. While a team could win over a thousand dollars, no team lost money at the event. Developers don’t have to risk anything other than free time.

Many use these events as an opportunity. Some wanted to learn a new tool; others were more interested in new part of delivery cycle. Our last hackathon was about continuous delivery. Teams could work on problems at any point in the cycle, starting from building to release readiness.

Developers can use hackathons to learn new tools and try new areas of work. This added experience benefits teams and may help developers tackle issues that arise at work.

Change of space, Change in ideas

A hackathon, with time pressures and different challenges, can push developers and engineers to think in new ways. Need another big way to change it up? Try hosting your event outside of the office.

This past hackathon, CDHacks, occurred just a block away at John Hopkins’ Rockville campus. Getting outside of the office had a positive effect.

“Many developers felt like they could think about code in a new way.” Daniel Koo, Director of Productivity Engineering and Organizer of CDHacks, explained. Getting out of the office got people away from thinking like they would day to day at work.

Remember the big picture

With fast sprints and incremental work, it’s easy to forget the bigger picture of a team’s or entire company’s work. Hosting a hackathon can provide an opportunity to have leadership speak to the larger initiatives of an organization. At CDHacks, Saman Michael Far, Senior VP of Market Regulation Technology, spoke on the hackathon’s focus: continuous delivery. He focused his talk on its potential not just for FINRA or the tech industry but for peoples’ careers.

Continuous delivery, especially at FINRA could be an opportunity for, “creatively solving problems and systems,” explained Far. The opportunity isn’t waiting either. He believes that, “in two years we won’t talk about continuous delivery. It’ll be how we do things.”

Starting the hackathon with a speech was an opportunity for participants to remember the bigger picture behind the hackathon and FINRA’s move towards continuous delivery. This wasn’t a one off opportunity: these hacks could have huge implications for FINRA and other organizations.

Presentations like Saman Michael Far’s provide perspective that help technologists, those who work for an organization as well as potential recruits. Employees remember their work is part of a bigger mission. External participants get an idea for where your organization is going, what opportunities exist in your organization. They can start to envision themselves tackling these problems and becoming a part of your organization.

Hosting a hackathon may take more work than sponsoring someone else’s event. However, the benefits both for employees, collaboration, and recruitment, can be huge for organizations. Each hackathon at FINRA has helped us build a more cohesive technical organization and improved expertise in a variety of areas.