If you’re a geek, then you probably know what a hackathon is. If you’re a geek and you don’t know, then you make us sad. Just so we’re on the same page, when use the term, I am referring to an organized gathering of business and technology startup enthusiasts with the purpose of building a minimally working technology that can form the basis of a sustainable technology business. Hackathons can be varying lengths, though in my experience they are usually take place over the course of a weekend.
If you’ve ever attended a hackathon or hosted one yourself, you know that customer validation is likely key to winning along with product development. The business guys take care of customer validation and crafting a sustainable business model, while the developers crank out a working prototype. Some of the better hackathons have support in the form of sponsorships from various tech companies, where those companies provide tech support for whichever team is trying to integrate the company’s technology into their weekend projects. All of this makes hackathons a great opportunity to test out ideas and validate them, usually in the span of a weekend.
But here’s the thing: I think hackathons could be even better. As a former co-organizer of Startup Weekend and someone who has attended many hackathons and Startup Weekend events, my experience is that they lack one thing that I would really love to see:
there is no formal education for the business folks and the developers that gives each group a working knowledge of the other group’s expertise.
I know what you might be thinking. The business guys can learn a little about the technology while working over the weekend and vice versa for the developers. This is true but I think it’s not at an optimal level.
I think developers would benefit from a session on customer validation and business models. This would enable developers and business folks to come to the hackathon with at least a common base of understanding. Conversely, I think business folks would benefit from a session on various technologies, their limitations, and which technology might make sense for various product ideas. I’ve seen way too many business guys get intimidated because they can’t describe their idea beyond “I want a website that does XYZ…”
What kinds of sessions do I have in mind? I think the minimum should be a presentation by a speaker. I think the better option is a brief presentation following by a lot of Q&A and a working session. For example, the developers could get an introduction to the basics of customer development and then break out into groups and brainstorm different ways to validate.
Personally, I would love this. The biggest hurdle to doing this, I think, is logistical. Hackathons usually start on a Friday night and last anywhere from one night to an entire weekend. Holding these sessions on a “working day” (meaning anytime from the start of the hackathon to the end) would take away too much time from actually creating something. Then, there is the option of holding these sessions on Friday afternoon but that would probably not work for those who have jobs.
My suggestion is holding these sessions the Friday night before the hackathon starts. Business folks and developers would have at least a week to digest the content of the sessions and could be much better prepared to work with their counterparts at the hackathon. Another alternative, though I favor this less, is to email participants a cheat sheet with the relevant information. Though better than doing nothing, I would still prefer an in-person working session or presentation because that allows for interaction.
Is this more work on hackathon organizers? Of course. In some cases, it could be a lot more work. But do I think it is worth it? In most cases, absolutely yes. Over time, I think this will result in more educated hackathon participants. You’ll have developers who also think about customer and business validation issues. You’ll have business folks who can more effectively brainstorm with their development team. The future startup may see the lines between marketing, business, and tech blur. If and when that happens, doesn’t it make sense to have people speaking a common language?