The Hackathon: 5 Reasons You Should Use it for Your Next Project

Justin Brodeur / November 3, 2017

When the situation calls for it, we like to huddle with our clients, elbow to elbow, for a good old-fashioned hackathon.

We approach software development as a collaborative effort between our clientele and our organization. Our role is to ease the pain of bringing our client’s vision to reality. Requirements documents, design schematics, and countless email threads can only take us so far. Through experience we’ve found that there comes a point in every project where we need to break away from the documents, the conference calls, and the operational clutter. 

A hackathon is a sprint-like event where designers and engineers collaborate directly with project managers and subject-matter experts to build software projects in real-time.

They’re not for everyone. But, we find that hackathons are an invaluable exercise that help to break down barriers, promote open communication, and provide project members with a deepened sense of ownership.

Here are 5 reasons why you should consider a hackathon during your next project.

Equalize Business Knowledge

We’re the designers, coders, and copywriters. They’re the subject-matter experts. Together, we’re working towards solving a business problem through software.

Any subject-matter expert worth their salt has years of experience and domain knowledge that doesn’t always translate to a requirements document. Our challenge is to completely unlock the hidden knowledge and distribute it evenly throughout the team.

Properly run hackathons have a way of cutting the crap and getting the right people in the same room to share knowledge and work collaboratively to deliver the next iteration of design/copy/code.

Prioritize Focus and Project Velocity

Hackathons are a great tool for focusing a team and measuring project velocity.

When team members work separately, it can be easy to multitask or get side-tracked by another responsibility. Within the context of a hackathon, all team members are present, focused, and actively pulling in the same direction to move the project forward.

Because work product is being developed in real-time and in open sight, everyone on the team can get an accurate sense of the project velocity. Project velocity is a measure of how much work is getting done on your project.

Collaborate with the Right People

We’re big believers in getting the right people together in a room.

Each hackathon participant has his or her own unique combination of knowledge and skills. They each come from different backgrounds and perform different roles in their organizations. How often does an engineer work elbow-to-elbow with a business analyst, a marketing specialist, or that guy from legal?

It’s amazing to watch a conversation unfold that in the course of a regular workday, would never have happened. Questions are asked and answered in real-time. Improvements are suggested in passing. Bagels and donuts are shared. Side note: Don’t forget the bagels and donuts. People tend to bond over a communal food experience. Plus, they’re cheap (the bagels, not the people).

As a result, business logic is clarified, the application is constantly improved, and there’s a sense of confidence in team member relationships.

Most importantly, work is really getting done. You know, because you can see it happening.

Set Expectations

Hackathons have an interesting way of highlighting both efficiencies and deficiencies. Being part of a hackathon is like being part of a basketball team or performing in a play; the bright lights make it easy for you to spot the stars and the under-performers.

Because the team has a better understanding of individual personalities, skills, and project velocity from the hackathon they can use these anecdotal data points to set realistic expectations around milestones and quality.

Overcome a Challenge

We know from hard-earned experience that there is a point in every project where an extreme challenge arises that can put a milestone – or worse yet – the project itself in jeopardy. Those are the times that a hackathon can be used as a bridge to “get over” the obstacle.

There’s a healthy amount of pressure applied at a hackathon. By getting the right people together to share domain knowledge, gauge project velocity, and set realistic expectations, you should be able to overcome the obstacle and get a project back on track.


Questions?

We’re big advocates of hackathons. Maybe you’re on the fence about it, or have questions. Connect with us – we’re happy to talk about our experiences.

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