Programming marathon

From an idea to a prototype in 40 hours

When the young, creative programming community meets at hackathons, they quickly generate practical ideas. These ideas are also an efficient innovation tool within companies – as long as they are brought on track properly.

Claudia Bardola

Hundreds of young IT hotshots – mostly students – who write thousands of lines of code over 20 or more hours without a break, until their keyboards and heads are smoking, and in the process develop functioning prototypes of mobile apps, online applications, websites or other software: the hackathon phenomenon, which has been popular in the USA for a good decade, is increasingly also spilling over into Europe.

And no wonder – after all, it has become widely accepted that such events release enormous creative potential, and functioning products emerge from vague ideas in an extremely short space of time.

In Switzerland, too, code festivals are all the rage: last year, for example around 30 cultural institutions provided data records from their collections for a culture hackathon; in the spring, the stock-exchange operator SIX sought ideas for intelligent finance apps, and at the Arkathon in Wallis, the community recently worked on solutions to make life easier for health professionals in the future.

The largest programming marathon in Switzerland, and even in Europe, is HackZurich, which will be taking place for the second time this October. Here, around 500 of the best programmers, designers and data specialists in the world get together to gauge their programming and innovative power in teams of two to four, many of which are only formed on site. The aim is to develop a functioning prototype within 40 hours.

In contrast to other hackathons, where participants usually work on a predefined problem, the IT talents at HackZurich are free to take on any project they like, as Jonathan Isenring, co-director and co-founder of the event explains: “This allows a certain diversity and the innovative power is strengthened when various interest groups come together. This is why developers can work on their own ideas at HackZurich as long as they are new. However, we do inspire them with topic proposals and with the aid of our sponsors.”

“At internal hackathons, ideas can be freed from employees’ heads in an entertaining and motivating framework.”

For instance, the latter provide their technologies, data records, interface or expertise in the form of employees, who are available to help the programmers. In return, they receive valuable creative input from the participants, and can make use of recruiting opportunities and position themselves as innovative employers. “However, all of this is kept certain within limits,” Isenring clarifies and adds: “We neither want to be a job fair nor an outsourced development platform for companies. For this reason, the developed prototypes also remain the intellectual property of the participants. Our goal is to provide content, develop new business cases and to sustainably network companies among each other and with the participants, thus enabling value-generating forms of collaboration.”

Develop ideas economically with internal hackathons

However, Isenring knows that, alongside the public programming contests like HackZurich, hackathons within companies are gaining popularity in Switzerland. He investigated this phenomenon for his Master’s in economics.

Such internal competitions are a valuable format when it comes to freeing ideas from employees’ heads within an entertaining and motivating framework and quickly formulating these to prototypes, testing them, modifying them and, if appropriate, developing them further away from the hectic daily business.

However, Isenring concludes: “Holding such an event is not an innovation in itself. If the contest is not brought on track properly, it does not provide any added value for the business and becomes a black hole for good ideas.”

According to Isenring, one of the decisive factors is the resources that the participants are provided with before and after the contest of ideas. In addition, it is crucial to compare the design of the hackathon with the company’s strategic goals. Apart from the commitment of the manager, the organiser plays a decisive role: Can he bring the right people together? Is he really well networked?

Isenring also recommends not making the winners of the competion the focus: “It’s worth taking a closer look. It is possible that the very participants who were less convincing when presenting their idea but have produced a good technological construct offer the greatest potential.”

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