Running a Successful Hackathon Starts With This One Important Question

Posted by Patti Mikula on January 10, 2017

If you are thinking of hosting a hackathon—and if you’re reading this, there is a good chance you are—the first question you should ask yourself is “Why”?

It’s not just the first question. It’s the also the most important question you need to answer before taking any other steps.

There are a lot of good reasons to host a hackathon (and just as many horrible reasons, but that’s for another blog) and when we look back on the 150+ innovation-focused events including hackathons in 125 locations, we see that the (good) reasons generally fall into one of six objectives: Community Creation, Developer Engagement, Recruiting, Innovation, IP Development or Branding.

At a higher level, these objectives can be further classified as either participant-focused (Community Creation, Developer Engagement and Recruiting), or output-focused (Innovation and IP Development). Branding can be either participant- or output-focused; whichever is more likely to help achieve your company’s unique objectives.

It may sound overwrought, but determining your primary objective is critical to the success of your hackathon. If your objective is people-focused, then determine who the people are you want to engage with and build the best hackathon to suit them and meet their needs. Choose a venue that is convenient for them to access. Choose a theme they can be passionate about. Design a demo format (live pitching or expo-style) that is conducive to the personality of your participants. And incentivize participants in a way that is meaningful to them (Money? A job? Fame?).

If your objective is output-focused, then determine what the outputs you want are, and invite the right people to make it happen. Do you want working prototypes of medical devices? You will need both engineers and healthcare specialists. Do you want solutions that can help fix traffic issues? You may need data scientists and policy experts in addition to your coders.

It seems simple, but in so many instances we see hackathons where things are just done backward—choosing the venue first, or picking a theme, or even deciding what food to serve—without giving due consideration to the objectives. When we are planning a hackathon, either one of our own or for a client, we are constantly checking our decisions along the way against our key objectives.

Community Creation

Hackathons provide an opportunity to activate a tech-savvy community to rally around a specific cause. A good example of this type of hackathon is Gift the Code, a hackathon we recently ran on behalf of Capital One. Gift the Code invited the Toronto tech community to rally around the needs of six local charities and code solutions to their challenges.

The results of the hackathon were impressive. But even more outstanding was the desire of the participants to keep working on the projects once the hackathon was over and see them implemented.

Developer Engagement

Hackathons present an excellent opportunity to expose a community of developers to new technologies. It’s a great way to seed developers with new or in-development hardware or software, ask them to dig into it and try it out.

The participants get the opportunity to learn about the new tech and engage with the engineers that have made it to understand it, and the technology providers get in-depth feedback and the knowledge of watching how their tech is used “in the wild.”

Recruiting

For companies looking to grow their teams, hackathons provide an opportunity to look beyond a resume in identifying interesting potential employees. Depending on the theme of the hackathon, just showing up can identify someone that shares a common passion with your organization. And in the span of a hackathon weekend you are likely to see the full range of experiences an employee can face in the working environment—code that won’t compile, finding out a competing team has a similar idea, re-thinking and eventually releasing the product to the world.

How well they deal with the highs and lows in the context of a hackathon can act as a proxy to how well they will deal with these types of challenges on the job.

IP Development

Whether you are looking at hosting a public hackathon or an internal one just for employees or members of your organization, the framework of a hackathon is a great way to surface, develop or identify new IP.

It was during an internal hackathon that the team at XMG Studio identified a unique gaming mechanic that ended up being at the core of a series of games it later released. A hackathon provides a risk-free environment to crack a specific challenge or simply leave room for spontaneous brilliance.

Innovation

Hackathons are where those with the passion and abilities to problem-solve, build something out of nothing. But in their day job, most developers are looking to minimize risk, so they stick with tried and true software, hardware and processes, which can stagnate innovation.

In a hackathon, the risk of failure is minimal or nonexistent and participants are encouraged to forget all of the regulations, restrictions and reservations they are often seeped in and instead be free to experiment, envision and exercise their innovative freedom.

Branding

And finally, hackathons are a fantastic vehicle to position its hosts and sponsors as corporate changemakers by demonstrating honest investment in the social coding movement.

So get out there and get hacking, folks.

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Culture, Art and Technology: Museums make for Fantastic Hackathons!

Posted by Gabriel Couture on December 6, 2016

On November 26th and 27th, the Canadian Museum of History and Canadian War Museum teamed up with Hackworks to host the Museum VX Hackathon, their first event of this kind. Working with Carleton University and Algonquin College, Marquis Côté, Head of Digital Interactives and A/V, wanted to foster creativity by inviting post-secondary students to craft new and innovative digital experiences for museum visitors. Together, the two museums own all kinds of interesting hardware technologies and their exhibits are the perfect stage for resourceful problem-solvers to explore the use of new tech tools. Marquis thought a hackathon would provide a unique opportunity for students to use their imaginations and engage with the museums. And how right he was!

At kick-off, the students were provided with a variety of problem statements they were encouraged to tackle that varied from gamifying the museum-going experience, creating personalized curated visits and developing new immersive software solutions that would make exhibits more interactive. Students were confronted with a wealth of creative possibilities; the only directive was they choose from the themes of hockey, the battle of Vimy Ridge or the Franklin Expedition (based on three upcoming exhibits that will be shown at the museums) to craft their solutions.

In order to inspire them further, the museums provided touchscreens, beacons, Arduinos, Raspberry Pis, motion sensors, NFC readers and writers and an HTC Vive VR headset for participants to play around with. Moreover, mentors from Carleton University and Algonquin College as well as local tech professionals joined over the weekend to share their expertise and help teams with the ideating and development process.

With all this stimulating material at their disposition, it was clear for participants that museums are fantastic hackathon hosts. Beyond the technology, there’s also the abundance of artifacts, stories, data and general information that creates numerous interactive possibilities. With the right tools and knowledge, participants can let their imaginations roam wild to come up with cool submissions. Museums today increasingly demonstrate a sophisticated convergence of culture, art and technology.

With this in mind, the participants enthusiastically developed their ideas. Over the weekend, one of the teams built a boat in Unity based on the Franklin Expedition and created a VR experience to go along with it; another developed an AR platform that generated 3D artifacts when you scanned pictures or objects in the exhibit; a third team created an app that allowed you to digitally collect artifacts from the museum in order to curate your own personal museum space. The students managed to use every technology made available to them – many using software and hardware technologies they had never had the opportunity to work with. Despite this learning curve, in less than 18 hours of actual hacking, each team presented forward-thinking solutions that could go a long way in improving the interactive nature of the museums’ exhibits. Marquis was certainly pleased by the results:

“There is nothing more rewarding than having young enthusiastic students in one room working together to find creative ways to make Museums more engaging. I was extremely impressed by the students’ energy over the weekend and the quality of the final projects and prototypes.”

Ultimately, the teams who received the best scores during the judging innovated without losing sight of the museum visitor. Their ideas were designed to satisfy today’s visitor’s interests, natural predispositions and access to smart mobile technologies. They crafted solutions that were financially feasible, realistically implementable and user-friendly – the keys to successful design and development.

At the end of the hackathon, the inspiration between museum and participant was mutual: Marquis and the rest of the museum team were able to engage and learn from a group of participants who belong to a demographic that doesn’t frequently visit museums; and the participants were able to find a new appreciation for the how museums use technology and the creativity that's required to design attractive and educative exhibitions.

Who knows, over time, perhaps hackathons are a solution to increasing attendance of young adults at museums. Following the hackathon, a participant wrote to us about his experience:

“it seems like the [museum] exhibits would really benefit from more interactivity. This is a good way to engage more young adults at the museum. This was the first time I visited this museum since I was in elementary school.”

This, in itself, is a success story.

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Gift the Code: Participants Eagerly Donating their Time For Good

Posted by Gabriel Couture on November 4, 2016

Capital One Canada engaged Hackworks in early 2016 to extend their already impressive CSR program to include a charity focused hackathon. It has been an incredible journey, which culminated in one of the most amazing hackathon experiences in the history of Hackworks. Below, Gabriel Couture, one of Hackworks Hackathon Managers, recounts his experience.

At 5:30pm, on Friday October 21st, a steady stream of participants made their way through the doors of BrainStation’s Toronto location, received a hoodie, a swag bag and registered for Gift the Code, Capital One Canada’s first charity hackathon. Carrying their laptops and new belongings they scoped out the venue and workspaces. Capital One’s creative team had decorated BrainStation with pillows, Muskoka chairs, picnic tables, small pine trees and fake grass. As the sun went down on the first night, while participants set up their workstations with laptops and monitors, it was delightful to watch BrainStation teeming with animated and eager participants.

For months, Hackworks helped Capital One make their vision of a charity hackathon a reality. Together, we worked on organizing an event that was going to be memorable and fulfilling for the charities and participants.

Capital One proved to be more than up to the task of answering every need. Their work and investment in this project has been a true indicator of their level of commitment. As the seed of an idea grew into the hackathon to be, they kept providing more of their time and resources. All of Capital One Canada became excited about the project!

Many participants spent the whole night of Friday coding away. At 6am on Saturday morning about 15 participants were still going about it; and most were still in impressively good spirits. One particularly generous and keen participant named Ryan offered to help clean up, get breakfast and make sure the coffee urns were full. His team was creating a chat app for Toronto Pflag and he had spent then night building the structure for when his team returned.

The 142 participants who joined us at Gift the Code were as diverse as they were generous. We had young professionals from TWGr for example; student teams from Ryerson University, University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, Humber college and Sheridan college; as well as Capital One employees from New York, Chicago and Virginia just to name a few. It’s worth emphasizing the fact there were no prizes at Gift the Code: nothing to be won other than some cool stickers for different achievements and a medal. Attendees were simply passionate techies who wanted to give back in some way. They committed to a whole weekend of hacking for good, not for reward!

For the six invited charities - who in diverging respects didn’t really know what to expect from the hackathon - the opportunity to speak with participants was in itself rewarding. For example, Rod Cohen, the Blake Boultbee Youth Outreach Service Executive Director, shared a story during the awards ceremony. One of the teams working on his charity challenges was a young group of friends who had all grown up in different war-ravaged countries and met in Toronto. Here, at Gift the Code, they spent a weekend designing a new version of the Blake Boultbee website. Rod, who works with at-risk youth, was totally inspired by the story.

“Over the 40-hour Gift the Code Hackathon, I had the opportunity to interact with participants, answer questions along the way and ultimately see a finished product come to life. The impact these solutions will have on our organization are huge, and drives home that it’s not always about donations, but about thinking outside the box to achieve a common goal.”

- Lina Almanzan, Resources Systems Manager, Women's Habitat

Pictures from the hackathon include teams posing with their charity representatives, laughing, hugging and glowing with pride. Over the weekend, in person and on Slack, a constant discussion took place between the charities and participants. Questions were answered, data was shared, anecdotes were told and everyone was able to dive deeper into the root causes of the challenges the different charities faced.

Overall, 24 different solutions emerged from a very successful weekend of hacking. There were gaming apps, coaching tools, chat bots, data analytic tools and new websites just to name a few.

On Sunday, after an afternoon of presentations, teams were awarded badges for achieving different judging criteria. As a final round of applause for the hackathon took place, to the side, one of the participants who hadn’t slept on Saturday appeared passed-out on a bench in the corner. His head hung to one side and he was crooked with exhaustion. With his eyes closed, as people clapped, he used his hand resting on his arm to clap as well - a last generous gesture of support.

If you would like to learn more about this incredible event and the solutions developed, check out Capital One’s Press Release, Capital One’s Hackathon Git Hub Account where the code of all 24 submissions is available under an open source license; or head over to the events’ official website, Twitter or Facebook page.

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What's The Hackathon Secret Sauce?

Posted by Gabriel Couture on August 23, 2016

On August 23rd, Capital One Canada and Hackworks launched Gift the Code, a hackathon with the aim of helping six Toronto charities enhance their technical ability to overcome challenges and better fulfill their mandates. The hackathon is a testament of Capital One’s commitment to giving back to their community in innovative and unexpected ways. During Gift The Code, participants will work on developing strategies, solutions and digital prototypes that help answer challenges presented by the charities. What's more, the participants will be introduced to problems that afflict their communities, learn about challenges charities face and network with people from across the city interested in using their skills for a good cause. They arrive with a fresh perspective, join a motivating creative environment and bring diverging skill sets to the table. Ultimately, Toronto citizens will help beef up the digital platforms used by the charities to provide aid to the different individuals and communities who use, and need, their services. What's more, it's all open source, so the results and outcomes of the hackathon have the potential to spread internationally and help non-profits, charities and other organizations around the world! It’s a win-win for all involved and a great example of how versatile and effective the hackathon format is to generate change.

For most its two decade long history, hackathons were understood as the domain of hackers, bro-coders, techies and startups. Over the last 5 or so years, this has changed rather dramatically, but the present-day popular understanding of the term still belies its broad potential as a tool for promoting creativity, community development and problem solving.

Hackathons today are used for a wide variety of purposes. At Hackworks, we have run over 150 innovation challenges, including hackathons in 125 locations. Among them, we’ve organized national open data hackathons with the Canadian government, executed a hackathon that provided bank employees with an empowering experience to take initiative and create digital tools that would help them become more mobile and efficient, and coordinated an event with Evergreen and the city of Toronto with the goal of developing insights and prototypes for solutions that would help solve Toronto’s awful traffic woes. On the surface, the hackathons couldn’t be more different, but the core principles are the same: competitive collaboration under creative pressure resulting in rapid solution prototyping.

Participants in these hackathons are a mix of motivated employees, civic activists, students looking for exciting learning experiences, professionals wanting creative outlets for their talents, software engineers looking for opportunities to use their skill sets, data scientists curious about sifting through data unrelated to their work and other engaged citizens hoping to network and participate in stimulating activities. They come from different personal and professional backgrounds and each brings a unique perspective to the table. That’s wherein lies the hackathon secret sauce!

The success of a good hackathon lies in its ability to harness the diverse talents of the participants, inspire them to collaborate and contribute their ideas to a specific cause and make sure the event satisfies the organizer’s original objectives. The power of hackathons is predicated on the capacity of people to deliver more of themselves in concentrated bursts of time and the potential that comes from crowdsourcing ideas from motivated participants. Depending on the objectives of the hackathon organizer, hackathons can be used for an almost infinite array of purposes, whether technical or not. What’s clear is that the results of our hackathons (and others) convincingly indicate that people work more efficiently:

  • With specific objectives.
  • In concentrated bursts.
  • When empowered to express their thoughts and opinions.
  • In small groups who can support and challenge the ideas put forth.

Hackathons emphasize all of these elements. You can accomplish pretty much anything within the framework of a hackathon – including achieving a CSR objective and making your community better like Capital One – but it’s important to know what you want to achieve. The only question one needs to ask is, “what are my objectives?” or more simply: “What do I want to be left with on Sunday night?” ;)

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You're probably wasting your most valuable resource

Posted by Gabriel Couture on July 20, 2016

There are many factors that go into developing and sustaining a successful company. Arguably, the most important is making the most of your employees’ skills and abilities.

Some believe that employees who are driven, focused, and creative are hard to come by. What’s missing from this perspective is that employees who feel inspired and empowered to excel at work might be rare because their work doesn’t provide them the environment to live up to, and exceed, expectations. Now you may scoff at that, opine that great employees shouldn’t need any babysitting or specific environments in order to thrive, but the more we learn from science about human behaviour, the way our brains are wired and what promotes motivation, the clearer it’s demonstrated that an employee’s work circumstances plays a large role in dictating their likelihood of success.

At Hackworks, during our events, we see examples of employees outperforming expectations all the time. In June, we organized an internal Tech Jam for one of Canada’s big banking institutions. Leading up to the event, there was some concern among the bank’s organizers about the ability of participants to come up with ideas and deliver interesting mobile applications for the challenge. Unfamiliar with hackathons, they could not anticipate the promising output of a group of engaged employees with a tight deadline and nothing to lose. After 40 hours of ideating, discussion, inspiration, compromise and development, fifteen teams of employees from different departments, who didn’t know each other, with diverging interests and expertise, presented their solutions in an expo style format. We watched the bank’s organizers and judges go from team to team, listen to their presentations, and saw the smiles on their faces - grins of delighted surprise. The employees hadn’t spent their time on mediocre, run-of-the-mill mobile applications, instead, these were elaborate, well-thought-out, implementable solutions to challenges the bank had presented them. Suffice to say, the organizers left impressed; emboldened at how talented and innovative their employees proved to be.

So what took place during the hackathon for that successful outcome to take place?

  • The bank decided to take the risk of trying something new. They had never organized a hackathon before; in fact, they weren’t quite sure what a hackathon was, and yet, they invested a great deal of resources and time to make it a success.

  • The bank put their faith in the power of crowdsourcing, bottom-up innovation. Your staff may consist of 5 or 5,000 employees; either way, the cumulative brain power of a group is greater.

“Crowdsourcing is an executive—not marketing—capability. It’s something your CEOs need to engage in.” – Sean Moffitt, Wikibrands

  • The bank provided a challenge to their employees - to create and prototype digital mobile applications that would improve employee productivity, connectivity and mobility - that was neither too narrow nor too broad. They had already identified specific problems they wanted to work on, but chose to leave their employees to problem-solve on their own terms.

  • The bank invited employees from different departments, with different skillsets, perspectives and knowledge, who didn’t know each other, to come together and pool their collective knowledge and abilities and learn from each other. Everyone came in on equal terms, with no hierarchy, free to express their opinion and add their two-cents.

  • The bank organized the event in a location that was unique and different from their usual offices. They chose a physical environment that was modern, unique, and fun. It provided a different space for participants; a clean slate that would promote creative thinking.

  • The bank made sure to send important executives as mentors and judges in order to demonstrate their commitment to the initiative and inspire participants to give it their all.

  • The bank was able to promote itself, in this case internally, to its employees, offering them a different perspective on the company they work for: less risk averse, more innovative, more exciting, more connected…

  • The employees volunteered their time to try something new. A survey after the hackathon revealed that the leading causes for participating were learning new things, being curious about trying something new, and the opportunity to network with other employees.

  • The employees were still 'working', but they were unshackled from “the burden of day to day processes.”* As a result, they benefited from “seeing and experiencing how effective they could be”* when provided with the opportunity. For many, the hackathon improved their sense of self-esteem and confidence, which is absolutely key to self-motivation at work.

“Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.” -- Sam Walton, Founder Walmart and Sam’s Club

  • The employees took ownership of their solutions, and proved committed to developing useful and valuable products. After the hackathon, they had something to show and share with colleagues, an experience and story to tell, and a sense of personal and professional accomplishment they could be proud of.

“The most empowering relationships are those in which each partner lifts the other to a higher possession of their own being.” ― Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French idealist philosopher, Jesuit priest, paleontologist and geologist

  • The employees, by engaging with employees from different departments, got a better sense of the functioning of the institution as a whole. Too often, employees develop tunnel vision regarding the organization they work for, forgetting the various complex pieces needed for it to be effective.

  • The hackathon provided a space where failure and the process of improvement through iteration are celebrated. Without the pressure to create something that is perfect, with great UI/UX and fully functional, the employees were empowered to use their intuition, brainstorm and bounce ideas off each other. Under normal circumstances, especially in large organizations, this kind of opportunity is non-existent.

  • The hackathon provided employees face-time with executives and, as a result, a more tangible sense of belonging to a larger family.

  • The hackathon provided employees explicit time for reflection about work, about the processes they use everyday, about what works and what doesn’t. They were freed to use their innate analytical skills and by doing so, better understand their position within the organization, the building blocks that make it work, and the opportunities available if they act proactively.

  • The hackathon provided the bank with 15 unique, employee-driven mobile applications over the course of a 40 hour event. A single person, let alone a team, dedicated to innovating can’t deliver those kinds of results. And the costs of organizing the hackathon in comparison with having a large team dedicated to innovate is cheaper. One advantage of this approach is your innovation team can focus on modernizing the work culture and implementation of innovative ideas instead of coming up with them as well.

  • The hackathon was also an opportunity for the bank to do a bit of recruiting. They were able to gain insights about the different strengths and weaknesses of the participants. In other hackathons we’ve organized, whether internal or external, many of our clients use the hackathons as a talent identification and recruiting tool.

I could go on. Ultimately, your employees are almost always your most valuable resource. Immersing them in different activities; empowering them to prove themselves; having them establish contact with others in the organization and learning from each other are but the tip of the iceberg of what a good employee management strategy can offer.

Here’s a bit of food for thought:

The Anthropology of Experience: that identity is created as it is performed. Everyday actions and practices – like taking public transit, attending business meetings, eating meals, or posting a status update on Facebook – are actually public performances that allow us to create our identities by telling stories about ourselves, to our-selves. The Anthropology of Experience is interested in how the little rituals that make up our daily lives help define who we are and how we relate to the cultures and groups we belong to. https://miscmagazine.com/win-experience-economy/

Have you put thought in the stories your employees are telling themselves about them-selves? Do your employees have access to action and practices related to their employment that is helping them develop pro-active, motivated and dedicated identities?

If your answer to the above questions are no, we should talk.

*Quotes from participant survey following the hackathon.

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June Update

Posted by Gabriel Couture on June 23, 2016

CoolHackathon

Dream a little:

The launch is about to begin; the hackathon challenge is right up your alley; the lights drop and your favourite song is pumping up the crowd... chills run from your toes to your finger tips and your team looks at each other with excited anticipation. 3... 2... 1... GO!

Your perfect hackathon begins.

We want to organize the world's most exciting hackathons. Please, fill out this quick survey and help us organize great hackathons:

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Join the Team! Hackworks is Hiring! Do you believe in the power of hackathons to drive innovation? Do you think they're a good tool for community engagement? Do you agree they are a fun and dynamic way for companies to problem-solve and remain competitive? You might be the right candidate.

We are looking for a Full Stack Developer to maintain and expand the Hackworks.com website, as well as the platform that we use to run our hackathons. Are you the one!?

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ridi6ulous-Hackathon Just Ridi6ulous

This summer, use your brain for what's important in life; participate in the Ridi6ulous Summer Hackathon (http://ridi6ulo.us/hackathon.html) and pollinate Toronto with buzz-worthy hacks and contraptions!

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CapitalOne-HackathonAnnouncement

Save the date!

Capital One is organizing an exciting community hackathon taking place October 21st to 23rd! The theme, website and ability to register are going to be officially announced on August 9th.

Connected lab Watson tshirt

"The Internet of things is going to change everything."

On June 3rd to 5th, Hackworks partnered with Connected Lab and IBM Watson to bring you the Watson IoT Hackathon. Watch the hackathon video! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-3GKggXZ84)

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Are you looking for hackathons to participate in? Do you have a hackathon you want to promote?

Visit Hackathonsnear.me for a list of hackathons taking place around the world and the ability to promote your own.

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Shape the future instead of reacting to it.

Posted by Gabriel Couture on April 13, 2016

In our previous blog post, Innovation is not a Buzzword, we made the argument that Innovation is a necessary endeavour for an organization or company's continued relevance and success. Over the coming weeks, we have 5 planned posts that will delve deeper into why you should be innovating.

This post makes the argument that if you can frame the conversation around tech and service innovation in your favour, you will be have an advantage in the market place. To a great extent, Innovation is a important communications and branding asset.


This blog post includes the following:

Part 1: Amazon, Apple and the power of visionary thinkers on the marketplace

Part 2: Two ways hackathons help you predict and plan for future developments

Part 3: How one company organized an internal hackathon to respond to changes in the financial industry


Part 1:

In 2011, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos felt the need to write a piece for Business Insider explaining why Amazon had posted lower than expected earnings, which was primarily a result of a $3 billion increase in expenses. Mr. Bezos wrote:

“Technology infuses all of our teams, all of our processes, our decision-making, and our approach to innovation in each of our businesses. It is deeply integrated into everything we do. [...] Invention is in our DNA and technology is the fundamental tool we wield to evolve and improve every aspect of the experience we provide our customers.”Jeff Besos

Innovation is what differentiates an active company from a passive one. Organizations with a strategic approach to innovation increase their likelihood of shaping the market in ways that fit their needs.

Over a little more than two decades, Amazon has run roughshod over numerous competitors by out-investing them in developing the future of commerce and retail. They started off as a simple online bookseller after all, and over time began selling other products, producing consumer electronics (The Kindle, Fire TV), and becoming the biggest supplier of cloud infrastructure services in the world. Jeff Bezos then bought The Washington Post in 2013, which provides him the ability to better understand a struggling industry while using it as a laboratory to explore the intersection of integrated content and commerce. Now that Amazon has surpassed Walmart as the world’s most valuable retailer in the United States by market capitalization, it is clear that Jeff Bezos was right to invest heavily in changing the market in his favour.

Apple’s current competitive advantage over Microsoft is based on the same visionary principles. Steve Jobs’ user-centric focus revolutionized the way personal computers were marketed and sold to consumers. Central to that experience was his focus on design, usability, and intuitive products and interfaces. This approach helped Steve Jobs and Apple develop whole new industries and impose their vision of the future on the rest of the world.

At their respective peaks, Amazon and Apple controlled the market, forced competitors to adapt to their technological innovations, processes and products, and permanently altered their respective industries.

Steve Jobs once quoted Wayne Gretzky:

"I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been." Wayne Gretzky

Knowing this, how can a hackathon help you best predict where the puck is going to be?


Part 2:

Here are two ways a hackathon will help you evaluate the direction your company should take:

Tapping into different communities.

Every type of hackathon allows you to crowdsource insights and solutions from a community of your choosing. By mingling software developers, product managers, designers, curious citizens and professionals with diverse backgrounds, you ensure the ideas that result from the hackathon are dreamed up by a wide array of makers, users and customers with different perspectives.

Hackathons are an opportunity for “talent engagement;” a means of entering a conversation with idea generators that could help open new growth possibilities. Hackathons are a great way of keep your finger on the pulse of what is happening culturally, technologically and even politically.

Predicting and understanding the future is best accomplished by understanding people, their concerns, anxieties, ambitions and dreams. In order to frame and manipulate a market or industry in your favour, you need to understand your consumers. Hackathons provide crowdsourced answers that help you accomplish that while engaging with people at the same time.

Development of Intellectual Property

IP is a tricky subject to manage when it comes to hackathons. The volunteer-driven and collaborative nature of hackathons generally means you need to be sensitive about not giving the impression you are using crowdsourcing as free labour. Therefore, when it comes to determining who owns the IP that is developed during a hackathon, it is important you consider the repercussions of your choice on the matter. Make sure that the rules regarding IP are clearly articulated. That being said, it is remarkable how successful well-organized hackathons are at delivering creative solutions and insights. In the right context, participant submissions may open up additional markets, customer bases, and spawn new product lines or entire companies.


Part 3:

Hackathon Example:

One of our clients (who prefers to remain anonymous) was proactive in responding to the changes in the financial industry. Part of their strategic blueprint was an internal hackathon with the objective of re-imagining the way their customers experienced their services using new emerging technologies. They were concerned about the threat of disruptive technologies in their industry and wanted to prepare for the changes.

Beyond organizing the actual hackathon, Hackworks helped them coordinate pre-hackathon workshops in order to brief the participants on the challenges affecting the financial industry and introduce them to new technologies. The workshops provided the participants with ample time to become acquainted with the technologies and brainstorm on the potential impacts they may have on their own lives, that of their customers, and their industry as a whole. Participants were also encouraged to play and experiment with other tools and technologies that might be disruptive.

From a pool of over 4000 employees, a group of 150 were selected as participants and provided new tools, an opportunity to work with colleagues from other departments and a unique learning experience. Even with less than 5% of its workforce participating, the benefits of such an activity for the company are enormous. Each of those participants returned to their teams with ideas and knowledge to share.

Hackathon outcomes:

The ultimate focus of the hackathon was on finding solutions that would enhance digital customer experiences. By doing so, the company created an engaging platform for their employees to do something unique and share their own ideas with company leaders and executives. The participants felt empowered and included in decision-making they don't normally get involved in. The company was able to crowdsource ideas from employees working in a variety of different departments and mine the expertise of employees that connect with customers on a daily basis.

Processes were put in place in order for the ideas generated during the hackathon to be immediately evaluated. Work began right away on weaving together the ideas, insights and technologies that surfaced into the company’s innovation roadmap. With the solutions and insights developed during the event, the client was able to better prepare for future and avoid reactionary innovation.


Conclusion:

It is not always the best innovation that succeeds, it is the one that manages to achieve a successful market-fit, because ultimately, an innovation is more than an invention or discovery, which increases knowledge but doesn’t necessarily impact the market. By continuously exploring possible product and process innovations, you increase the likelihood your solutions gain traction, answer market needs and create new revenue streams. Involving employees and outsiders from different backgrounds when assessing future developments is a simple but effective way of covering your bases.

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Innovation is not a Buzzword

Posted by Gabriel Couture on March 31, 2016

In March of 2013, The Onion, a satire news organization, published a mock article with the title, “Word ‘Innovate’ Said 650,000 Times at SXSW So Far.” It was a comical and apt observation of what can be described as an era obsessed with innovation. It was true in 2013 and is more-so in 2016.

With the advent of tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist celebrities; the introduction of terms like startup, incubator and accelerator to our general vernacular; and the disruption of traditional industries like banking, transportation and hospitality among others, the emphasis on innovation and technology is revealing deeper socio-economic anxieties. The world is complex, competitive and evolving at exponential rates, and individuals and organizations need to deal with it.


The innovation race

The pace of change and ability of new businesses to completely alter the marketplace has led to our current state of affairs: an innovation race where the prize is nothing less than organizational survival. In response to the “disruptors,” older established companies have also joined the fray and are actively engaging in innovation. The problem is that not all of them are doing it well.

Dilbert comic

Many organizations are innovating for innovation’s sake; with no vision or clear objective in mind. It is a result of the pressure companies and their industries face. If everyone’s doing it, so should they! Ill-prepared, mismanaged and uninformed organizations often make awkward and sweeping decisions about investing in innovation based on the pressure they face instead of an internal desire to do so. In most cases, the consequence is a limited top-down approach seeking to produce something noteworthy or remarkable, which is not how successful innovation is accomplished.


Successful innovation

Companies like Apple and Google have successfully differentiated themselves from others by making innovation fundamental to their brand identity. Neither has an innovation department; instead, the promotion of problem-solving skills, creativity, and employee empowerment is celebrated across their workforces and innovation is embedded in their DNA. Both companies currently play an extensive role in shaping the current socio-economic discourse. They inspire us with their innovations and please us with their technologies and services. Today, stakeholders, users and customers value companies and services that anticipate and exceed their needs and expectations. Given a difficult and competitive marketplace, it is not surprising to see organizations of all kinds flock to the ‘fertile shores of innovation’.

Let it be known, innovation is hip, it is happening, and everyone is talking about it!

But innovation is not a buzzword, or a fad; it is not an empty shell of a term that means something different for everyone. Innovation is a necessary endeavour for continued success and relevance.

“IF YOU DEFER INVESTING YOUR TIME AND ENERGY UNTIL YOU SEE THAT YOU NEED TO, CHANCES ARE IT WILL ALREADY BE TOO LATE.” Clayton M. Christensen

At Hackworks, we meet with many individuals and organizations looking for solutions that will help them drive positive innovation in their workplaces. Some come prepared, but many are looking for answers, facing this world of exponential technologies and unsure about what needs to be done to successfully adjust to this new environment. Over the coming weeks, we will flesh out the reasons why you should be doing innovation in your workplace, how you should be doing so, and the various ways hackathons improve the likelihood you will successfully drive innovation and entrepreneurial thinking in your workplace.


The posts in our series will explore the following topics:

1. Controlling the conversation is controlling the marketplace: Innovation as a sculptor of socio-economic discourse.

2. Making use of underused capital: Why engaging your employees is a surefire way of improving your business.

3. How to avoid having the rug pulled from under your feet: Innovation as a means to remain relevant and agile in times of rapid change.

4. Why understanding your customer is the best way to effectively innovate: Successfully introducing your ideas to the marketplace is true innovation.

5. Innovating for a competitive advantage. The financial and professional benefits of creative problem solving and innovation.


Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn for updates on future content and the posts outlined above.

Credit for the banner photo goes to Jessica Pankratz.

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Hacking civic engagement: a Code Across Toronto challenge

Posted by Gabriel Couture on March 11, 2016

I recently joined Hackworks as a Hackathon Manager, and moved from Montreal to Toronto. In order to familiarize myself with the Toronto hackathon community, I decided to participate in as many local hackathons as I could attend.

Participating in local hackathons is always a good way to meet new people, and having experience as a participant in a hackathon can be incredibly valuable when organizing one. With that in mind, I participated in Code Across Toronto 2016, an event organized by Civic Tech Toronto, in conjunction with Open Data Day, which gathers “citizens in cities around the world to write applications, liberate data, create visualizations and publish analyses using open public data to show support for and encourage the adoption of open data policies by the world's local, regional and national governments.”

Code Across Toronto 2016:

Civic Tech Toronto is “a community of Torontonians interested in better understanding and finding solutions to civic challenges through technology, design or other means.” Participating in Code Across was a great way for me to engage with the local tech and civic-conscious community. The hackathon consisted of 9 challenges that were presented by different individuals and/or organizations in the city (“Challenge owners”).

I joined a challenge that wants to build a digital tool for Toronto citizens to track and understand what takes place in their city council:

  • the legislation introduced and passed
  • its committees and the meetings they hold
  • the councillors
  • And more

Shamefully, I must admit to barely following municipal politics. This seemed like a way for me to join in creating something that would help me address this situation.

The “Challenge Owners,” David J Hains, editor at Torontoist, and Patrick Connoly, introduced two platforms that are currently serving the needs of citizens who want to stay informed about municipal politics: TMMIS for Toronto, and Councilmatic, which services New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. I was unaware such services existed. It turns out there are tons of available openly accessible public data on what is taking place in our governments, and citizens are free to mine it, track it and organize it.

Currently, according to David and Patrick, Chicago is the best example of what the Councilmatic platform offers: a clean and relatively intuitive tool that grants access to diverse public datasets. The Toronto platform, TMMIS, is older and, despite still providing important information, somewhat more convoluted.

As I researched the Chicago site, I became excited about creating something new for Toronto that would increase my appetite for municipal politics. Our challenge was clear: how do you organize city data in such a way that it is efficiently organized and fun to browse through; that you can navigate easily even if you’re a political layperson; and perhaps most importantly, that encourages you to get involved in municipal matters? Admittedly, this is not an easy task.

I am not a developer, designer or a tech wiz. Neither am I particularly politically engaged. What surprised me most about my experience at Code Across Toronto 2016 was that neither were most of the other participants. It was a diverse group of curious Torontonians willing to try new things, meet and learn from others, and looking for opportunities to innovate.

The positive outcome from participating was more than I anticipated. From a professional perspective, identifying what I liked and disliked about the event and building my network of contacts was clearly beneficial. What’s most surprising to me is that I am now hooked. I am eagerly awaiting my next hackathon. I did not expect it. I was surprised by how diverse, sociable and fun the participants were. Most importantly, during the hacking, I felt good about how I participated and that increased confidence is directly translatable to my personal and professional life.

As Jim Stovall, a blind writer and motivational speaker, wrote:

“If we are not allowed to deal with small problems, we will be destroyed by slightly larger ones. When we come to understand this, we live our lives not avoiding problems, but welcoming them them as challenges that will strengthen us so that we can be victorious in the future.”

Hackathons might be the perfect way to accustom yourself with facing small problems!

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Hackworks partners with CIX

Posted by Patti Mikula on October 15, 2015

The Canadian Innovation Exchange is a leading technology innovation destination where investors, innovative companies, entrepreneurs and facilitators converge to drive economic growth and accelerate the development and implementation of new ideas.

This forum attracts the key players behind Canadian’s innovative technology products and services in order to learn from each other, meet and pursue customer partnerships and investment relationships, and encourage the development of innovative technology that will be an integral part of Canada’s economic growth. It also features the CIX Top 20, an exclusive showcase that celebrates Canada’s best innovations and the people behind them. Register today.

Hackworks members looking to attend the event are eligible to receive an exclusive discounted pass to Canadian Innovation Exchange 2015. Buy Yours today.

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Hackworks Launch

Posted by Patti Mikula on April 1, 2015

Today we are officially launching Hackworks. And while this may be the company’s public debut, Hackworks has actually been germinating and growing for over four years inside XMG Studio, and we didn’t even realize it.

Back in 2011, XMG was already reaping the benefits of running internal hackathons. In fact, XMG’s Cows vs Aliens game was a hackathon success story. Born out of a 48-hour hackathon, it went on to be downloaded millions of times and get one of Apple’s prized features. A quick search of the App Store to see how many “Cows vs…” games exist today should give you an indication of its impact on the market.

So when the XMG team was faced with the challenge of growing the studio in a hugely competitive recruiting environment, we created the Great Canadian Appathon (GCA), a 48-hour game development competition open to Canadian college and university students from coast-to-coast. It gave us the opportunity to meet talented developers, designers and artists from across the country, and also allowed us to give back to the gaming community we admired. The first GCA was a huge success with almost 100 teams competing for the $25,000 grand prize.

By 2013, the GCA had built quite a name for itself having been hosted on more than 45 College and University campuses across 10 provinces with over 1200 students participating making more than 250 games. It was at that point that the Honorable Tony Clement, who had been one of the GCA’s celebrity judges, approached the XMG team about running a national hackathon similar to the GCA, to encourage Canadian programmers, innovators and entrepreneurs to develop apps and websites based on Canada’s vast open data resources available through the federal Open Data portal.

This represented the turning point and, in my mind, marks the birth of Hackworks. In 2014, and then again in 2015, a team made up of both technically and marketing-minded individuals from across XMG planned and executed the company’s first non-gaming hackathon, in partnership with an external partner -- the Canadian Open Data Experience (CODE).

CODE was the first hackathon supported by the Government of Canada and the original objective was to recruit 300 participants. CODE 2014 wrapped up with over 900 registrants, and CODE 2015 had over 1300. Apps and websites created by CODE participants helped Canadians find jobs, choose careers, find new places to settle, live healthier lives and create new business opportunities.

After our first CODE was over our phones started to ring. More and more companies were approaching XMG with the question “Can you host a hackathon for us too?” With that momentum driving us, we made the decision to take our team of hackathon experts from inside XMG and create a new, standalone company focused entirely on driving innovation through hackathons.

That takes us to today. Hackworks currently sits in a unique position. We are a brand new company, with years of experiencing in running hackathons. We evolved out of a tech startup, so we have a fundamental understanding of the development process and agile environments. But our team also has deep roots in marketing, public relations and event planning. We are driven by client needs and objectives, but at the core of all of our events is a focus on participant experience.

Most importantly we are excited by what the future holds and the role we can play in driving innovation, and helping launch new ideas, businesses and careers.

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Hackworks