Kyle Riordan | Research Analyst
June 30, 2015

Unlocking Innovation: The Benefits of Internal Hackathons


A couple of weeks ago Mashery had it’s own little internal innovation day called #MashHack.  The idea of the event was to get the whole company involved to try to come up with some new and interesting ideas.  The ideas were great but the event also saw some great benefits in terms of morale.  The team building and camaraderie that came from people working across different parts of the organization was a great way to strengthen communication and foster that sense of community that comes with being a part of the Mashery family.

The objective of the day was pretty simple; pitch something that is new and exciting that we can do as a company.  The idea could be anything; it could be product related, business objective related or even something process oriented.  Basically we were given carte blanche.  That freedom allowed us to think outside the box and come up with some great new ideas.

In preparation for these pitches we paired off into small teams, brainstormed, refined ideas, thought about messaging, even built some prototypes in some instances.  Then we got together as a company (at least as together as disparate geographies would allow) to review submissions and have our ideas judged, selecting winners for a number of categories.  For the record, my team didn’t win anything but I’ve never really been much of an “idea guy” so at some level I think that result was to be expected.  It was a fun project, a great day,  it exposed a lot of good ideas and I think people walked away from it with a newfound enthusiasm for everything we do here at Mashery.

By now, you’re probably wondering what the point of all this singing the praises of Mashery in a blog post is for, “We get it Kyle…you like where you work, la-dee-dah!”  Well, what we did as a company on our innovation day is pretty similar (and in some cases precisely the same thing) to what is done at an internal hackathon. This can be an incredibly valuable tool to any API program at virtually any stage of its lifecycle.  Let’s cover a few of the reasons why:

Internal Hackathons Get People Excited About The API

Now that might not sound all that important but we have seen time and time again API programs being pulled back or completely shuddered due to a lack of internal support.  And that, by the way refers to company wide support, not just from C-Level executives or support from some of the technical teams that are too tied up with other projects. 

Sure the actual competition of the internal hackathon is mostly going to involve those folks on the technical side of the house but there are a lot of other teams that can and should be leveraged to help make the overall event a success.  Engage your marketing team to do the event planning, create some messaging leading up to the day and then the follow up to show the company who won, what was created and other event highlights.  Following up on the event to show the company some of the cool new things that were built in such a short period of time is great way to get people excited about the prospect of an API program.  And if people are excited about the program, more often than not they are going to be willing to contribute to it when needed.

You’re Walking Away With Something Tangible

Sure, you may not be getting a fully fleshed out product from the event itself but what you will have is the start of some potential new products.  These could be ideas completely out of left field you had previously never considered.  Give your developers the freedom to step outside the constraints of their usual day-to-day requirements and see what they can come up with when the ball is in their court.  They’ll be working on projects they’re excited about, not building or refining something because that’s what they have been told to do. 

This can be a shot in the arm for engineering teams that have been dragged down by the burden of prioritized projects.  If what those folks create looks like it has some real value for the business, get it on the roadmap, let them continue to work on and refine it.  You can expect to see maximum effort on these products knowing that these are projects your developers truly want to work on.

You Can Vet Your APIs

Doing an internal hackathon is a great way to start getting an idea for how useful and easy it is to work with your APIs.  Sure there are some caveats to this - the people participating in the event are more often than not going to be the same people that did the actual build of the API but this forces them to look at their creation from a new perspective.  It’s the difference between theory and practice; they had some use cases and design features in mind with their own thoughts on how those would play out in the wild when they built the API, now is their chance to put those assumptions to the test.  Is the API really as easy to work with as they thought it would be?  Is the data it is serving up actually useful when it comes to building applications? 

Giving your employees a chance to dive in and build can start to give you an answer to these questions.  Ideally, you will also plan to do some beta testing with some trusted friendly partners to get completely unbiased feedback, but the internal hackathon and subsequent feedback derived from it is a good start.

Practice Makes Perfect

Lastly, it is important to keep in mind that hackathons are a lot of fun but they are also a lot of work.  A significant amount of time, effort and planning goes into not only setting up your event, but also making sure it runs smoothly.  If you are thinking about hosting a hackathon or participating in one as a sponsor, give yourself the benefit of a dry run.  Use your internal event day to work out the kinks.  Get an idea as to what is going to be expected and the number of resources you need to devote to it.  Are there going to be some snags?  Probably, but when they happen it’ll be with the people you know and work with on a daily basis - people that are more likely to want to work through the issues with you and give you good honest feedback rather than just panning you on social media.

Most important to remember is that internal hackathons can do a lot of good for your business and the health of your API program.  If you are thinking about participation in an open hackathon or just looking for a way to kick-start some internal momentum, put an internal hackathon on your roadmap.  The value of internal support cannot be overstated and nobody wants their first external developer experience to be a flop.  Take a first step to avoiding those pitfalls by doing an internal hackathon and have some fun in the process.