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Hackathons: Redefining the Future of Innovation

At the turn of the millennium, hackathons represented the equivalent of jamming sessions in music – a bunch of scrawny, spectacled, shabbily dressed geeks sitting around in listless groups discussing technology challenges that most others weren’t aware of and working out solutions that would often appear to be right out of sci-fi movies.

But, not anymore! Today’s hackathons are sprint-like events where programmers, graphic designers, UI/UX craftspeople, project managers and domain experts sit around and seek solutions to real life challenges that have an equally real chance of making into the prototype stage and possibly go into production, if some IT giant evinced interest or some moneybags signed a term sheet.

Over the past two to three years, the narrative has shifted drastically. What were often considered a platform for hiring based on real-time aptitude testing, has moved on to becoming a ground for innovative design thinking that generates IP for the creator and wealth for the investor.

Organizers such as HackerEarth and TechGig say the number of hackathons they organize is doubling year on year. For companies and universities, hackathons are smart, fast and relatively inexpensive means to encourage collaboration, produce new ideas and generate publicity.

Innovation Hotbed

HackerEarth’s ‘Global Hackathon Report’ ranks India second, only next to the US, in conducting such events, with the cities of Bangalore, Mumbai and Hyderabad becoming veritable hotbeds. The events help develop low-cost solutions, besides creating fast-track innovative ideas, and encouraging creativity among employees. Emerging technologies such as IoT, AI/ML, mobile app and augmented/virtual reality were among the top domains, reinforcing their positions as potential digital disruptors across industries.

Sachin Gupta, CEO & Co-founder, HackerEarth says, “Hackathons are successfully battling talent scarcity, acquisition, and retention, as well as fueling innovation, across domains and functions. It is a tool to help entrepreneurs and academicians realize their power as change agents – enabling tomorrow’s innovation today – to address a multitude of challenges to create sustainability in every sphere.”

Instances of women-only hackathons have also surged in recent years, as more companies are making a conscious effort to drive gender diversity. For example, this year’s TechGig Geek Goddess, a hackathon for women coders, saw a range of contestants, from college-goers to mid-level managers showcasing their talent in areas such as cloud-based technology, AI/ML and RPA.

Ram Awasthi, VP – Technology, Times Internet Ltd., a judge at the event, said, “The topics are grounded to reality. Since companies are trying to implement AI within their workflow and work process, all these new technology themes are the part of this event.”

The Smart India Hackathon (SIH) is another nationwide initiative that provides young professionals a platform to solve some of the pressing problems we face in our daily lives, and thus inculcate a culture of innovation and a mindset of problem solving. An expert at the event observes, the biggest advantage a hackathon offers is a structure to scale innovation and build new features. Concrete ideas derived from hackathons can help companies provide better customer experience and improve revenue.

American author Steve Johnson points out that “By providing a structure to develop ideas, a hackathon essentially makes it easier for firms to implement innovation. “If you look at history, innovation does not come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.”

But solving a problem in a vacuum… is a waste of time and money!

Innovation is a continuous process and opponents of hackathon criticize the technique, stating that very rarely do hackathons spark real, lasting innovation. They believe the biggest drawback is that more often the answers are divorced from reality. Not many of those participating have a degree from a premier institution or years of product development experience – what these naysayers claim are the preconditions of innovation.

Vijay Sankaran, CIO of TD Ameritrade says in an article published on FastCompany.com that hackathons have become de rigueur for any organization that wants to be perceived as innovative. “But experience has taught me that very often hackathon participants don’t have the right contextual knowledge and technical expertise, they tend to come up with ideas that are neither feasible nor inventive. Worse yet, these flaws tend to go unrecognized in the limited time that the events take place.”

Moreover, in a highly regulatory environment, tools like hackathons often create a false sense of success, completely overlooking the legal, financial, technical aspect of a product. And that can have heavy consequences. For instance, every hackathon proclaims its winners and awards prizes. But what if none of the ideas are good enough? It doesn’t seem to matter. Thanks to sponsors – the top team still gets a check and the very fact that the organization hosted a hackathon ticks the innovation box.

In spite of these criticisms, there is no going back on the fact that hackathons are here to stay.

Despite the stumbling blocks, hackathons trigger blips of great energy in a world that is digital and more so disruptive. Hackathons are in fact logging greater numbers with many innovative IT companies such as Microsoft, Google, IBM, Capgemini – who are recruiting through this method, as HackerEarth saw up to 40% of a company’s hires come from a hackathon challenge.

And it is not just tech companies. Several FMCG, retail and financial firms are also organizing hackathons to attract talent. Even public sector companies are joining the fray. Pune Smart City Development Corporation conducted a hackathon in April this year. Some of the solutions built, like the traffic light hacking, came across as robust and innovative and can be replicated in other Indian cities.

In many ways, hackathons complement traditional innovation methods. Through hackathons, companies harvest ideas and knowledge to take their technology to the next level. With the added advantage of crowd-driven ideation, companies can now move fast, reduce the time-to-market, and stay ahead of competition.

However, to sustain it in a way that creates real impact is the big challenge. In this context, Katie Johnson, Lead Design Strategist and Researcher at ConsenSys, argues, “Just like companies hire remote workers because it allows them to find the best talent, remote hackathons can also garner better hackers, mentors, and judges all of which combine to enhance the overall quality of the event for a fraction of the cost.”

Maybe the future will see more virtual hackathons or even more innovative models that will be open, global and scalable. It may produce even better projects and address unique problems from multinational and multicultural dimension – creating another bigger shift in the industry.

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