We may have reached peak hackathon — here’s how enterprise innovation gatherings must evolve

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As a means to foster innovation by giving developers and other smart people a creative challenge, there has arguably been nothing as popular as a hackathon — in fact, research suggests they may almost have become too popular.

In its most recent Developer Marketing survey report, Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Evans Data showed a 13 per cent slump in attendance in those who took part in at least one hackathon last year. The survey did not ask developers what influenced their decision to join a hackathon or not, but Evans Data said there was a “marked decrease” in those who attended several over the course of the year. Those hosting such events varied: close to half, or 43 per cent, were run by a company and nearly as many, or 42 per cent, were run by some kind of developer-oriented association. The remainder were organized through an educational institution.

Evans Data CEO Janel Garvin said the research reflected that what was once a near sure-fire way for organizations to attract talented technology professionals to work on difficult problems may be reaching a saturation point.

“One has to wonder how long the hackathon phenomenon will go on in its current state,” Garvin said in a statement accompanying the research. “Hackathons have become key for many developer marketing professionals but while they are good for getting grass roots support for platforms or tools, they are also labor intensive for marketers, they involve cost, and by their very nature are extremely parochial and thus limited in reach.”

The Evans Data statistics come not long after the publication of an academic investigation into the sociological aspects of being involved in a hackathon. This is what researchers from Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center say in the abstract for “Hackathons As Co-optation Ritual: Socializing Workers and Institutionalizing Innovation in the ‘New’ Economy:” 

Hackathons (are) a popular means of socializing tech students and workers to produce “innovation” despite little promise of material reward. Although they offer participants opportunities for learning new skills and face-to-face networking and set up interaction rituals that create an emotional “high,” potential advantage is even greater for the events’ corporate sponsors, who use them to outsource work, crowdsource innovation, and enhance their reputation. 

When Wired reached out to Major League Hacking founder Mike Swift about the research, he argued that having enterprise companies involved in such events

“demonstrates that the companies understand developers, care about their interest and goals, and are investing in this community.”

One way to reinvigorate hackathons might be to seek opportunities to cultivate more diversity and inclusion. IEEE Spectrum recently profiled Superposition II, a San Francisco-based hackathon which drew female middle, high school and college-age students.

Another idea is to look beyond the developer community. Human Capital looked at how those in HR roles, for instance, could bring the same concept and methodology to other areas of business.

“They’re not just for coding, they can be used to hack any kind of problem,” one expert told the publication. “It could be anything from railway maintenance, to convincing men to use more cosmetics to creating a more innovative shopping experience for customers. You can apply hackathons to any kind of issue in any kind of industry.”

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Shane Schick

Shane Schick

Shane Schick is the Editor-in-Chief of B2B News Network. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and was the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.