The glory and the power of the hackathon

The hackathon is a powerful tool for disruption and reimagination.


My first ever hackathon took place around the middle of last year. A team from my office banded together to compete against teams from some of the international offices of our company. It was a fairly classic hackathon: 24 hours to deliver, a single meeting room, a bucket of drinks and a pile of pizzas. Tempers fluctuated dramatically and the room became increasingly stuffy as we successfully blasted out designs, a pitch video and an intermittently-functional prototype. It may have been the lack of sleep and oxygen, or just the elation of producing a tech product in such a short time, but the feeling of euphoric achievement at the end of it was unlike anything I’d felt before. I was hooked.

I enthusiastically squashed three more hackathons in before the end of the year, taking home some variety of prize in each. They were all very different, and all extremely rewarding. Whilst each was a very high-pressure event, there is undoubtedly some special allure about hacking that has kept me coming back for more. Each hackathon not only enabled enormous levels of personal development on my part, but introduced me to a world of other people proactively driving initiatives for innovation and collaboration.

My first visit to SheHacks, which is run each year by Girl Geek Academy, was spread out over a whole weekend. It brings together groups of talented and highly-skilled women from the tech, design and entrepreneurship spaces. Over terrific catering, we built and pitched products that were geared towards helping women in some way. It was an excellent opportunity for women to be involved in and actively drive the discussion around what could benefit women, in an industry from which we are so often excluded. SheHacks 2015 provided my first big win in the hackathon circuit. Whilst the nerves and stress in the buildup to the pitch were almost overwhelming, the feeling of pride in myself, my team, the app that we’d built in two days and everyone who’d taken part in the weekend as a competitor, mentor or organiser was even more meaningful (and brought me back again this year).

Winning the Creativity Award at SheHacks 2016. All photos: Bri Hammond

My next hack was internal to my workplace at the time, open to staff from all areas of the business in Australia and Papua New Guinea – not just from technology or digital. This 24-hour event gave me valuable insights into the ways in which non-technical people view and solve problems. Whilst there were perhaps fewer functional prototypes floating around for people to play with at the end, one could really appreciate that the event was so inclusive of people with diverse skill sets who put forward some useful and out-of-the-box ideas. Hackathons are quite often very tech-focused, and can consequently be intimidating to people from non-tech backgrounds who wish to take part in such an event.

I rounded out the year by taking part in the Telstra IoT Challenge, in which the City of Melbourne paired with Telstra and challenged participants to help make Melbourne into a smarter city. This hack ran for over a week – teams were provided with an IoT sensor kit, full access to Telstra’s innovation space, Gurrowa, and some crucial soldering lessons so we could transform our sensor kits into working hardware products using Telstra’s low-power network. Teams had come together across Australia from interstate universities and workplaces to congregate in Melbourne and think creatively to provide feasible solutions to issues of waste, urban heating and traffic congestion, amongst others. I was driven by a strong feeling of social contribution; I was being given an opportunity to really enact positive social and environmental change in my home city. Despite some very hasty hacking, working around our regular job schedules, my team proudly took home the Innovation Award for our simple product designed to reduce the effects of the urban heat map in Melbourne. I’d never really thought of myself as an innovator before, yet here we were receiving an Innovation Award. Being able to create something in the IoT space, which myself and my teammates hadn’t really previously explored, really changed my perception of what I and others were capable of when we really focused and worked towards a common goal.

The hackathon is a powerful tool for disruption and reimagination. It provides an excellent opportunity to network with talented individuals. A hack can be geared at anything – tackling specific problems, empowering certain groups of people, improving a particular business or driving positive social change, or simply providing an opportunity for people from different walks of life to come together to work and achieve. Girl Geek Academy recently held their MissMakesCode event for girls aged 5-8, teaching them to solve problems through code and fostering an early interest in development and technology. These events for young people are so crucial for ensuring a future with diverse and empowered technologists. Universities and businesses are increasingly recognising the power of the hackathon to refresh and reframe thinking; at my current workplace, hack events are held several times a year, where staff are encouraged to work on something new with their colleagues that benefits the business or the community and to realise it further after the event is over.

Participants at MissMakesCode 2016.

Giving people a common goal, some time pressures and a sense of excitement about trying something different and meaningful can do wonders for producing rapid ideation and practical outcomes. A quick google of Hackathons just around Australia brings up several in the next month focusing on a range of issues, including the global tech community responding to the needs of refugees (Techfugees); university students working on early detection for disease (ZikaHACK); collaboration between makers and people with disabilities to create open source assistive technology (TOM MedTech Makeathon); and people designing for two of the WWF’s Sustainable Development Goals: Sustainable Food and Clean Energy (WWF Designathon). There are so many more around the world available for participants from different backgrounds and skill sets.

I don’t have the words to describe how much passion and determination goes into making a hackathon a success. Facilitators and participants invest themselves wholeheartedly in these events, giving up their time and effort to create an environment that encourages creativity. And they produce results – whilst I know how hard it can be to continue to develop an idea once a hackathon is over, I also know of several ideas that became pitches that became real and useful products. We are living in an exciting time of change and upheaval – the growing prominence of hackathons shows that people are taking the initiative to embrace and drive this change. Many hacks are free to join, and all offer an amazing opportunity to meet new and inspiring people, challenge your thinking, learn about or positively contribute to an issue or cause, and work on something that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to – and maybe even take home a prize or two.

Danya Azzopardi

About the Author Danya Azzopardi

Danya made her way into UX design from a communications background, via a brief stint as a software engineer. She’s a strong advocate for diversity and inclusion and tweets intermittently @dlazzopardi.