"Get Thee Down to a Hackathon, Young Man"

Hackathons are generally seen as being the preserve of enthusiastic developers. It’s all about the code, surely..??

I recently had the good fortune to be accepted for the Seedcamp Seedhack event – there were going to be 120 attendees, with a mix between coders and ‘business types’. My personal aim in going was to see inside the black box and understand what ‘bits’ it actually takes to build a web app/service.

As the event approached, I had a sense of great excitement at taking part but also a lot of self-doubt: what can I possibly contribute?

Shortly after arriving at LBS on a Friday evening, we were taken at breakneck pace through a raft of API presentations by companies such as Facebook and GIS Cloud. Then there was a special session highlighting the role that entrepreneur-driven innovation can play in the delivery of healthcare: Richard Stubbs, Programme Director for NHS Innovation Challenge Prizes, hailed the role of local initiatives as the antidote to the ‘one big system mentality’ behind the failed NHS core IT project. This was then nicely illustrated by the presentation that Mohammed Al-Ubaydli gave on the approach that his company, Patients Know Best, takes to healthcare data innovation.

In the days running up to the event, we had all been encouraged to post ideas on the event’s forum so that they could be commented on and voted on. The people with the highest scoring ideas then pitched them to the room – ideas included a credit scoring system based on social media data, a Facebook API-driven social dating application and an online social calendar. Teams were formed on the spot and went off to start work. Our mission was to have a minimum viable product (i.e. a working demonstration) by 4pm on Sunday.

Although I had posted my own idea which was a concept based on emerging Smart TV platforms, I chose instead to join an existing group so I could see a web app being built from the ground up. I joined up with three bright young developers from a development company in Bielsko-Biala, Poland who wanted to write a web-delivered system to integrate all the different operating and financial data sources that a small professional services company uses in order to generate easy and insightful profitability analysis metrics.

Fortunately I was able to be very useful – there was an emphasis on having an outline business rationale (which was based on the Lean Canvas framework) – so ‘business types’ like me were able to provide critical input on the customer proposition, the routes to market and the revenue models.

What was great was how much the developers valued the business input as they wanted to make something not just ‘cool’ but also with commercial potential.

By Sunday, most of the teams had a product demonstration ready. My team had a nicely designed online dashboard with a set of metrics and interactive Javascript graphs linked to dummy data on a custom-built Ruby on Rails engine. Very satisfying!

As we headed off to the nearby pub, everyone was happy but exhausted – at least one person had coded for 48 hours straight! I came out of the event with a much better sense of what it takes to build a decent web service, and having met a really good bunch of talented and motivated people (and having eaten more pizza in two days than I thought was humanly possible).

If you haven’t attended a hackathon, I would strongly recommend it!

Many thanks to Carlos Eduardo Espinal of Seedcamp and his team for putting together a fantastic event.