Hackathons Motivate Metaswitch and Drive Innovation

We’ve hosted eight hackathons over the last five years at Metaswitch, and I’m often asked why. What is the point of having hackathons? It’s not just an excuse for having a party with lots of pizza and beer (although beer and pizza do have a vital role in hackathons). Actually, the main reason for hosting hackathons might sound a bit surprising because it has more to do with people than it does with software and products. The biggest benefit of hackathons by far is the positive effect they have on our staff.

So, what is a hackathon? Essentially, it is an event where teams collaborate intensively to create things. And they have only 24 hours in which to do it. Those things could be software, processes, tools or even business models. So it’s not just about software, and the hackers (that is, those taking part in the hackathon) are not all software developers, but many of them are.

The main reason why we do hackathons is because they are great at motivating and retaining people at Metaswitch. They are the most popular events that we run for our engineering staff, and have proven to be a great way to keep our engineers happy.

Hackathons also change the way people approach their regular jobs when they are back at their desks. When you’ve got 24 hours to build something, that really means you have to focus. You concentrate on the essentials, you push past obstacles and you get things done. Once someone has been exposed to that sort of culture in a hackathon, he or she will take that can-do attitude back to their jobs. The spirit of hacking is not about knocking together some code to ship to customers. It’s about building a mindset among people that champions are ambitious, take risks, cut through problems and get things done.

Hackathons encourage people to take risks without having any fear of failure.

They are also good for getting people to cooperate across the company. We make an effort to get staff involved from many different departments, including support, product management, software development and IT. Hackathons are a great way to spot fresh talent.

Of course, hackathons also drive innovation. In our eight hackathons, we’ve had about 200 hacks. Not one of the hacks was complete in the sense that it could be released to the code base and shipped to customers on Monday morning. But the goal of a hackathon is not to create brand-new products in 24 hours, but to discover the way to do it and get most of the way there.

It’s not about solving specific problems. And we’ve found that setting precise goals for the teams of hackers does not work very well. That’s because innovation is not a top-down directive, but something that bubbles up from the ground.

What really drives hackathons is the sense of freedom that the hackers have to come up with ideas and drive them forward. When we give people freedom to decide what they want to build or what problem they want to solve, that’s when we really see the benefits. And we’ve never had a shortage of ideas. That just doesn’t happen.

Hackathons give people the freedom to experiment and fail. They are fantastic ways to motivate people and drive innovation. But most of all, they are seriously a lot of fun!  View the photo album.