When you think of a hackathon, you probably envision a room full of technology specialists (e.g,, software engineers) surrounded by computers, typing away furiously, maybe (just maybe) downing copious amounts of energy drinks, and in the end coming up with a new, awesome product. In fact, that's the way Techopedia defines it, with the event composed of programmers.

But we might all be better off if we lose this definition for one that's more inclusive, says Andrew Sutherland, Quizlet founder and CTO. He asserts that great ideas come from everyone, and that the people who can benefit the most from hackathons actually are the nontechnical employees who don't have as much day-to-day interaction with creating products and features.

"We've found that, at Quizlet, the most successful hack events happen when employees across departments, from designers to marketers to engineers, collaborate to come up with the next great idea," Sutherland says. "In fact, a recent winning hack day project was run by our trust and safety manager. Everyone brings a different skill set to the table."

In Sutherland's view, hackathons help nontech professionals because they

  • Offer the chance to share ideas, regardless of someone's expertise area or company role
  • Provide a better idea of all the steps that go into building out a new feature or product
  • Improve understanding of how the different functions of a company come together
  • Give individuals a chance to step outside the structure and constraints they're used to

"[Structure and planned work] is the right way to do most things," Sutherland says, "but it's also valuable to release people from all the rules and see what happens. A lot of creativity results when there are basically no rules."

Setting up the hack

So, let's say you're game to go to a hack event. How do you start? Sutherland says it never hurts to tap your network to see what others have experienced at hackathons and to get ideas for what works and what doesn't. Platforms like Meetup can offer inspiration, too. And if you're really ready to bite the bullet and host a hackathon for your workers and colleagues, Sutherland provides these insightful guidelines:

  1. Open the hack events up to the entire company. By having anybody from any department or level go, you'll foster a better team environment and ensure people don't feel left out.
  2. Host the hackathon at a time when people aren't overloaded with work. By scheduling outside of your company's busy season, you up the odds people will have the energy and time to attend. Sutherland has had success scheduling his events around the holidays and during summer months before the back-to-school rush, but your frequency and schedule can be different based on your unique needs. "In advance of your event," says Sutherland, "give people ample time and notice to complete their regular work without making the hack event feel like an added assignment. If it's forced, you're less likely to get the creative ideas and collaboration that make hack events worth doing in the first place."
  3. Do more than one a year. Even if you schedule well, you'll probably still encounter some workers who are interested in going but just can't make it. Having more than one event on the company calendar gives employees some flexibility so they still have a chance to participate and know they can "catch the next one." Plus, projects shift through the year, so people who didn't need inspiration and feedback before might find that now they do.
  4. Experiment with length. The term "hackathon" implies 24-hour, round-the-clock participation, but since not all employees can accommodate this structure, you might want to design the event differently so the duration and schedule is more inclusive. "Shorter hack events, typically a day or two in length, focus more on ideation and less about fully building products," says Sutherland. "On the other hand, longer hack events, about a week in length, allow people to build things that ultimately turn out to be more shippable, though that isn't necessarily the goal."

No matter how you design your event, think beyond the short term. Yes, hackathons can give you fantastic concepts you can use right away. But the bigger picture is that, when you have everybody participating, you're fostering a long-term culture in which people recognize one another's capabilities, where they engage in a shared experience that can create the empathy needed for connection and long-lasting relationships. And if you have real relationships, you don't just have a bunch of people working for you. You have a genuine, fierce team whose members know they can achieve more together than on their own.

Isn't that worth pulling a few computers and snacks together for?