Deconstructing the Hackathon - 1

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Deconstructing the Hackathon - 1
The concept of a hackathon is not new. It's sort of new for me, as my coding days ended long before it became cool to put all the geeks in a room for a couple days and let them go apeshit. In my day, a hackathon was networking together enough computers to play Quake.

But I get the vibe. After all, I'm building with a team of me. If I want to include automated links for companies we mention in the articles to their websites or profile pages we create on the fly, it pretty much requires a hackathon.

Yeah. Scroll down. It's there.

Today, the spirit of the hackathon is embraced from the smallest startups where, let's face it, every day is a hackathon, to giant corporations, even those where technology is not the reason for being. It keeps the IT guys happy and every once in a while innovation happens.

The idea is kind of like Startup Weekend. Everyone contributes ideas and pitches them to the team. Those ideas are then voted on in the form of people volunteering to work on them. Then you spend the next 36 hours straight bringing those ideas to reality or at least a demo.

So when Automated Insights started talking up the concept of a hackathon a few weeks back, I was all in. Sports, stats, robots that write, and total creative freedom. It's a wonder we didn't accidentally create SkyNet. Or maybe we did. You wouldn't know until the uprising.

But as is the style of the management team at AI, we went a couple extra miles. Shirts were made, for one, super-cool, so-geeky-it-reversed-itself-into-hip shirts designed by our visual designer and printed by professionals.

We bought beer and dinner and lunch the next day.

We threw an inter-office ping-pong tournament into the middle of it, you know, to keep everyone fresh.

We set some ground rules so that there was a mix of product architects, techies, and creatives on each team.

We allowed any idea that was even remotely related to the company or one of our missions. We ended up with over 40 ideas, and they ran the gamut:

  • Research, selection, configuration, and incorporation of a third-party product to make company communication easier.
  • A very cool app that would, at a minimum, track our inter-office gamery (a ping pong tournament, for example)
  • Devotion of time to some improvements and enhancements to our products that, thanks to stupid priorities like customers and revenue, we had never found the time to complete.
  • Brand new products we could get into beta or at least alpha by the end of the 36 hours.
  • Brand new game-changing products we could get into at least a plain english description by the end of the 36 hours.

We invited judges, VCs and advisors both internal and outside of the company, to listen to five-minute professional pitches of the final output, of which there were 14.

We gave out prizes in several categories ranging from best-in-show to biggest idea to most helpful resource.

At the end of the 36 hours we had five winners, but more importantly, we had 14 new things to potentially work on. Of those, around 10 were viable projects that we could take on immediately or at least within the year. And of those, at least two have made it into production.

Automated Insights is a big idea -- taking big data and creating human sounding narratives loaded with, as the name suggests, automated analysis and conclusions. These kinds of things take time, some projects can take months when you're talking millions of records coming in and millions of pages of content going out.

It's nice to know that in a day and a half, we can reset our brains, tweak our processes, and even find new paths for our mission.