What in the world is a hackathon?

Welcome to Hacking 101, first lesson – defining hackathons

When someone says the word “hackathon” a few things might come to mind; security, breaking into things, coding, developing… these are some of the buzzwords surrounding this growing phenomenon. Working at so many hackathons over the last few months has allowed me to fully explain what a hackathon is and what people do at them.

I recently wrote down some of the topics I want to cover in my blog and a good explanation of hackathons was near the top of the list. It’s a little ironic therefore that Carlton Connect hosted the Health Hack Showcase recently with a panel on what is hacking and how it can shape society. I thought it fitting therefore to tackle this subject now after Sam Stewart (Frenchie), spoke so eloquently about what different hackathons are.

Contrary to old school beliefs, hacking doesn’t refer to breaking into cyber security and accessing top-secret information. There is however an element of breaking. Hacking is taking a problem or issue, breaking it down into its root cause and finding a suitable solution. Traditional hackathons usually consist of writing code within a short time period to build a working program. The hacking part of this is finding a problem and developing a technical solution.

Problems don’t have to be huge, they can simply be “the problem of not enough role playing games” and therefore building a game, or “I can’t find cafes around me” and thus developing an app to address this issue. This is where the startup aspect of hackathons segway into it… finding innovative solutions to pressing concerns.

As of late, hackathons and hacking have become a bit of a spectacle. From the classic all nighter software hackathons where everyone has to have a cleaning, fully working code, to hackathons consisting of throwing all the ideas on the table and solving a problem. Both are still hackathons, one simply places a bigger emphasis on code.

Software has become a huge part of solving problems as many issues in today’s society are being solved through the use of apps, online web servers and even newer technology such as the smart watch. The majority of hackathons therefore, whilst the issues may focus more on an ideation workshop, there is still an element of coding involved to produce a viable user-friendly solution. In today’s tech savvy, digital world, coding is a key part of any hackathon and a basic knowledge of code always helps!

This brings us to the crucial players in any hackathon. At any hackathon it is absolutely essential to have a broad range of skill sets, expertise and backgrounds. If it is a pure code hackathon then everyone will need to have some knowledge of code to contribute to the final product. Along with this necessary skill, there are a number of other highly desirable qualities a team needs to possess. If it is a themed hackathon (for example, aged care like the Health XL Hack earlier this year) then having someone with experience in this area will help you immensely. It doesn’t have to be a lifetime of work but it could be something as simple as having to look after an elderly grandparent.

Other key traits within the team include presentation skills. It is vital to have someone in your team who knows how to pitch! It is one thing to have a great product, but if you can’t sell the story then you won’t get far. Having someone with a business background is always a big plus. They’ll be able to help with the idea itself, the validity of it and help develop a revenue model. Not all hackathons require this but it’s always good if you want to look at selling your solution.

Frenchie gave a good breakdown of the three types of people in a hack team:

  • Hacker – the code guru (everyone can code in the group, but there is usually one person who can really pull it all together). They are the engineers and developers.
  • Hustler – the person who goes out and validates the idea (this can be in the form of speaking to people or even running a short survey; I’ve even seen these done over a weekend and people have gone out onto the street asking people if they like their idea). They are basically the marketing/business person or the ‘growth hacker’.
  • Hipster – this person focuses on the product itself, how it’s designed and the user experience (UX) of your idea. They are the design thinker.

The next time you’re forming teams for a hackathon or helping people find a team, make sure you remember that diversity will help and it is never a good idea to have everyone with a super technical background and no one with a business mindset or no one who can pitch your idea.

Look out for the next post on the many different types of hackathons and what style of hackathon suits your organisation, your goal and your desired participants.

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