How to organize a hackathon: A Q&A with ArcTouch CEO Eric N. Shapiro

by: | Feb 15, 2017

Hackathons are becoming increasingly popular in the tech industry. Not only do they provide the chance for participants to experiment with leading edge technology, but internal hackathons can also help companies identify new business opportunities. As ArcTouch CEO and cofounder Eric N. Shapiro says, “It’s a chance to explore the future of what you can do.”

But you don’t need to be a technology company to hold a successful hackathon. After we recently held our third annual hackathon, we sat down with Eric to ask him about why ArcTouch established this annual tradition, why more companies (and not just technology companies) ought to do them, and how to run a successful hackathon.

Three years ago you decided to run ArcTouch’s first hackathon. Why?

At the time, the main goal was just to do something fun and foster team-building, encouraging different people to work with team members they didn’t ordinarily get to work with. But as our hackathon has evolved, it’s become an event that reminds us why working in this dynamic industry is so great. The hackathon is an open forum to work on projects that we want to work on, without the constraints of customer deliverables. We of course love our client work — but it’s nice for two days to remove project boundaries and freely explore new ideas. We get to dig into emerging platforms so that we can be out in front of the market opportunities.

What are the key ingredients to organizing and running a successful internal hackathon?

First, you can’t make it seem too much like work. It should be centered on things that your staff is naturally interested in. But you also want it to be related to your work, so there’s some benefit from the things you learn.

Second, there needs to be a well-defined structure. You need to think about how different teams will be formed. This year, we were careful about creating balanced teams with people that had different yet complementary skill sets — engineering, design, strategy, sales/marketing, even finance. These groups operated like startups. And at the end of our two-day hackathon, the teams were responsible for presenting a business case for the product, sharing the go-to-market strategy, and of course, doing a live demo to a panel of judges — Shark Tank style.

So how do you strike a balance between creating an interesting event for your team and one that is useful to ArcTouch and your clients?

In our space, the definition of “mobile” has really changed in the past year. So we decided to focus all the hackathon project ideas around creating next-generation connected experiences — including augmented reality, VR, conversational apps, voice assistants, and chatbots. And to make it even more interesting, we chose a theme for all the projects: food. We all love food and experience different food-related services on a daily basis. And we definitely all have opinions about food.

Is the ArcTouch hackathon organized differently than other company hackathons? How?

One of the big differences is that we don’t have a contest. There was no prize or winner. The motivation was simply the chance to build a different kind of experience on the leading edge of technology. And we’ve found that this freedom is inherently motivating for most of our team members.

man and woman hackathon

Do non-tech companies benefit from holding hackathons?

I think every kind of company can benefit from a hackathon. Even if you think of it as purely a team-building exercise, it’s valuable to have team members get together and do something as a group. And regardless of your industry, there’s something you can learn from a hackathon format. If we choose to go to a farm that has 42 varieties of fruits and vegetables — and every team splits into teams and forages for food around the farm, and then makes a dish to serve to other teams – that’s a hackathon. There’s no technology involved, but it’s a hackathon.

What were some of the more interesting ideas from this year’s hackathon?

I was impressed by the quality of our teams’ business presentations and the live demonstrations. Some of the demos looked like products that had been in production for months. The fact that they were done in just two days is crazy. Really amazing stuff.

The team I was on built a voice bot and a video-based tablet app. The product was designed to help teach kids how to cook different recipes. But what made it remarkable was the fact we built a prototype across multiple platforms that was functionally complete — in two days!

I also liked one team’s use of augmented reality (AR) to capture information about a kitchen environment. With this app, you can use the phone’s camera to identify fruits and vegetables and give you suggestions on how to prepare a dish that included that ingredient. It’s a simple but powerful idea, and represents where AR is heading. Applications can capture information about your environment and your context, analyze it, and present a totally personalized experience based on that information. This is very different from how a lot of people think of AR, which has more to do with putting generic information over your screen based on your location, like the old Yelp Monocle.

Another team made a connected water bottle. The team had the idea of measuring how much water people consumed daily — using a sensor attached to a water bottle, and a phone app and an Alexa skill to track it. What’s fascinating about this idea is that it’s essentially a wearable, but instead of being on a person, it’s on a physical object.

internal hackathon

What have you learned from three years of hackathons that might help others?

Great question. For one, you should include everyone in the company in hackathons instead of just the engineers. It’s normal for people in a work environment to gravitate toward hanging out with people like themselves, based on roles or cultural similarities. We’ve talked a lot about how to use the hackathon to break through those groups. By building these cross-functional teams, and by grouping a finance person with a designer with an engineer with an office manager with an account services specialist, it fosters new relationships.

Interested in hosting a hackathon for your company? We’d be happy to help – feel free to contact us and we’ll set up a time to talk.