Here's Why Hackathons Are a Smart Move for Tech Companies
Joey McDowell is an experienced writer and editor originally from the Dallas area. A firm believer in a well-balanced lifestyle, Joey applies this forward-thinking approach as the editor-in-chief of The Idea Trader. He travels extensively to find compelling stories and insightful individuals.
Hackathons are a win-win for competitors and tech companies alike.
Hackathons, brief events where teams compete to create a tech-based product, are already popular, especially for young techies and the companies looking to hire fresh talent.
But based on what we've heard from tech leader and entrepreneur Xiaozhou "William" Du, we wouldn't be surprised if hackathons, whether in-person or remote, continue to grow in popularity in the years to come.
Why tech entrepreneur Xiaozhou "William" Du supports hackathons
William Du has proven his abilities as a leader and developer community manager in the tech industry. With Agora, a leading audio and video SDK provider, he has helped establish inroads with skilled developers, building trust and maintaining transparent communication along the way.
Du currently manages Agora's global developer community programs and activities. These include Agora Superstars, Agora Student Ambassadors, and Agora Allstars.
He has organized, sponsored, and judged more than thirty hackathons throughout his career thus far. Most recently, Du organized RTE2020 Build the future now: The Real-Time Engagement Challenge. Follow the link if you'd like to learn more.
"We saw developers from all over the world building innovative Real-Time Engagement applications using the Agora SDK. We definitely saw developers’ incredible creativity and passion during this event."
But before becoming an industry leader in developer community relations, Du participated in hackathons himself, and he even earned an impressive win with an emergency response system called OneArc.
In fact, the OneArc project affords us the perfect opportunity to break down how hackathons usually operate.
OneArc was Du's team's submission to the Agora Real-Time Communication Challenge. Like many similar hackathons, this competition presented multiple small teams with the sponsoring company's SDK, or software development kit.
SDKs offer a basic set of tools that developers can use to create software for a specific platform.
For example, Microsoft may present an SDK to a talented development team so that if the team wants to create a program for Windows, they’ll have a way easier time than starting from scratch.
SDKs can also communicate certain platform limitations to developers, so that the developers can create a program that's fully compatible with the platform in question.
With an SDK in hand, each team participating in a hackathon works to build a prototype based on a certain theme, and all work on this prototype needs to be completed within a very short timespan.
During the course of the Agora Real-Time Communication Challenge, Du and his team were able to flesh out the OneArc concept, which was centered on providing vital information to survivors of natural disasters and emergency situations, as well as to the first responders working to help them.
This competition was a win-win. Agora got to see what talented developers were able to create with their SDK. They were also presented with a viable disaster relief system, and indeed OneArc became a real company soon after the competition.
Meanwhile, the competitors had a chance to showcase their talents, and it could even be argued that their winning idea was the direct result of the competition itself. Or, rather, the competition spurred an innovative concept that otherwise might have taken much longer to develop.
So that gives you a brief flyover of hackathons, but we'd like to go into more detail about the major benefits.
We'll also speculate on the future of hackathons in a time when similar events continue to vacillate between in-person and virtual formats.
It's one thing to study leadership, its theory and techniques, but it's a very different thing to actually go out into the world and lead a team to success, especially in the face of a tight deadline.
Hackathons challenge aspiring business leaders to perform with grace under pressure.
Most hackathons last between 24 and 72 hours, which leaves virtually no room for indecision. That's why these events can act as a trial by fire for leaders. Anyone who's able to effectively manage a diverse team to create something brand new in that amount of time is worth taking a look at.
Du told us that participating in and organizing hackathons has played an important role in his journey as a leader and entrepreneur.
In particular, he noted that many of the events he's been involved with, either as a competitor or organizer, have proven that hackathons can help to foster a spirit of empathy and problem-solving.
When tech leaders truly understand the needs of a certain group of people, it becomes so much easier to come up with creative solutions to their problems.
Once again, that time limit, which may seem harsh at first, is a way of catalyzing that kind of creativity and innovation.
Hackathons also challenge aspiring tech industry leaders to seamlessly work with team members of many different specializations.
"A leader should have the ability to work and contribute closely with different teams. During these competitions, I worked side-by-side with engineers, designers, and business strategy teams. I learned about the struggles of each team and offered guidance. These experiences helped shape me into the leader I am today."
In the working world, a promising young leader may not be tested in this way for many years. But hackathons offer very real challenges, in miniature. How each leader performs under these conditions depends on their skills and composure.
But future leaders aren't the only ones who get to strut their stuff during a hackathon.
Tech talent showcases
For all the technological advances of the internet/smartphone era, professional recruitment feels like it's stuck in the past.
Certain large tech companies scout talent at major universities, but otherwise, tech companies rely heavily on rather old-fashioned means of sourcing highly-skilled young professionals.
This is especially frustrating when you consider that highly-skilled young tech professionals are actively trying to get the attention of various companies through countless job applications.
Hackathons help to close this gap substantially by connecting companies directly with motivated and talented developers who are eager to start or expand their careers.
Du even feels that hackathons may be a preferred recruitment method in the near future.
"I believe events like hackathons are going to be the new and better way for tech companies to recruit talent. Some of the general traits that tech companies are looking for are reliability, tech knowledge, teamwork ability, creativity, and leadership. Hackathons test all of these skills and more in a short time window."
In addition to learning more about specific candidates, hackathons can also help companies understand their own products even better.
Our last major point regarding the benefits of hackathons is all about how the organizing company can use these events to gather valuable feedback about their product.
If we think of a company's product, represented in a hackathon by the SDK, as a collection of ingredients, then examining what each team bakes with these ingredients can be extremely useful.
If one of the entries is horribly burnt, it may be the fault of the team who created it. But if the majority of entries go horribly wrong, it may be a sign that there's something wrong with the ingredients themselves.
However, based on what we've seen of recent hackathons, any problems revealed with a company's product likely won't be this extreme.
Let's say your company has worked hard to create a suite of development tools that devs can use to create mobile games.
You want to put these tools to the test, but everyone who's worked on this project so far is too close to it to see things objectively.
In a situation like this, a hackathon can be an excellent way to gather data. It may even substitute for expensive market testing.
Paying close attention to how devs interact with these tools during a hackathon can give real-world feedback in a very short amount of time.
If you want, you can even have participants complete detailed surveys about their experience with the tools. Include questions that focus on areas of concern and always leave room for additional comments.
You may come away from the event with insights and comments you had never even considered.
Du explained during our conversation that, as a current leader and former participant, hackathons can generate so much useful information if you carefully observe how the competition plays out.
"As a developer community professional and tech leader, I enjoy observing how fellow developers are using the product and what struggles they have during the process. A company can collect feedback on the documentation, SDK design, product design, sample applications, framework coverage, and feature requests, and more. They can then improve the overall experience based on the feedback."
While this feedback is certainly valuable, hackathons can also help to facilitate positive relations between companies and developers.
After all, the competitors aren't the only ones being judged during a hackathon; the participants are also sizing up the company behind the event, getting a taste for how they operate and assessing the overall quality of their offerings.
The future of hackathons
Despite all the compelling benefits of hackathons we've outlined here, any discussion on the topic these days has to address the elephant in the room.
It's a valid question: do hackathons have a future in a time when virtual-only events are becoming increasingly normalized?
Historically, most hackathons have been in-person events. Will they lose some of their value if they need to migrate to an online-only format?
Well, the past year has given us answers to these questions, and Du touched on some specific details that are worth keeping in mind.
Specifically, he pointed out that basically all hackathons were converted to online-only events last year.
Did this shift lead to a drop in participation? Not at all. In fact, just the opposite happened.
The virtual format made every one of these events more accessible to more people, since they no longer required participants to gather in a specific location.
"Although the format changed, something that didn't change was the developers’ passion for these events. Even if hackathons return to being in-person events, we now know just how popular these have become in recent years. Developers want to get involved, period. And many tech companies are increasing their investment in such events to attract even more participants."
If there are major problems inherent to hackathons, we haven't encountered any during our research.
But whether you're a company representative who has organized similar events in the past or a developer who has competed in hackathons through the years, we'd love to hear about your experiences.
Otherwise, don't be surprised if you start to hear stories about entrepreneurs and entire companies that got their start during a stressful weekend-long competition.