What Wikipedia can't tell you about hackathons

Published: 13 Mar 2018
Author: Tapio Mäkinen
Reading time: 5 min

Buzzword it might be, but the term “hackathon” frequently comes up in discussions. Yet, do you know what a hackathon actually is and why they are organized?

What is so great about working 24 hours straight or a whole weekend, bringing your idea to life? Participants in an Airbus Critical App Challenge – a hackathon like event – reveal things that you won’t find elsewhere.

What is a hackathon?

The mission of a hackathon is to bring people together to solve big challenges. The hackathon owner is usually a big corporation, and the participants are software developers, experts, and whoever else is needed. The people are brought together to spark off each other and come up with quick fire solutions to pressing problems.

Doctor Thomas Strang from the Intelligence On Wheels application development company puts this into words: “The key thing was that all the relevant people were available in one place. It allowed the team and its mentors to work in a ‘synchronous’ way of solving problems – as opposed to the more normal ‘asynchronous’ way.” Strang attended the Airbus Critical App Challenge in February 2018.

Welcome to Critical App Challenge hackathon!

A hackathon can also be described as accelerated learning. The format speeds up learning by networking the developers and partners as well the mentors and the jury.

Sales, marketing, R&D and partners – all meet and work together in a hackathon, bringing their respective skills and experience. Feedback from one hackathon participant who had the role of mentor, proves the point: “It is very critical because it allows both sides to understand what the other does and to share knowledge - and that takes us a long way to building an integrated solution.”

>> See on video: Recap of the Critical App Challenge


Is Hackathon a time machine?

When participants stay together overnight or for a whole weekend, they develop a type of camp-feeling, a certain bond. This builds trust and trust speeds things up – so it can be a time machine.

Critical App Challenge hackathon participants listening to briefing

At least the following testimonials from the Critical App Challenge seem to suggest that it is all about making a plausible prototype these days – and continuing from there if the customer is interested.

“It’s to demonstrate that, in three days, you can reach a level that can really excite customers, generate ideas and to go further.”
- Eric Davalo, jury member at the event and CTO from Airbus / Secure Land Communications.

“Usually, when you start with a new kind of device, you will come to a point where you have a question. Your email will be forwarded to someone who is on holiday and you get the answer when they return. What we have done here in a day and a half would typically take around half a year.”
– Doctor Thomas Strang, from Intelligence on Wheels, one of the participating application development companies.

Does a hackathon beat normal R&D and partnering?

Agile R&D programs and defined requirements from customers – this is the current way of doing things but why would it not be enough? Because many things are made with partners and not just by single companies, co-operation is vital. Large corporations co-operating with small(er) application developers is not always plain sailing. Hackathon offers a shortcut – a respite from corporate stiffness.

As Eric Davalo puts it: “The expectation of the weekend is to see what is really different from the application world. In three days, you can start, not from nothing, but from very little, and you can demonstrate things that really say something to the end users. It’s not the kind of thing that you can do in the traditional telecommunications business”.

Will it work? Professional app prototype at the Critical App Challenge 2018

A hackathon can result in innovative ideas. How those ideas are then further developed is up to participants. It can be programs inside corporates or it can be partner agreements between companies or even something else entirely.

Are you interested in the results of the Critical App Challenge? You can meet some of this hackathon's best apps at the Airbus stand at the Critical Communications World 2018!

What Hackathon is not (or at least should not be)

A hackathon is not a survival test – it should be set up to achieve the best possible results. That means food, sleep and a secure environment, as well as first class IT facilities.

It should NOT be like the experiences of one Critical App Challenge participant, who had taken part in countless hackathons: “At normal hackathons, usually there is nowhere to sleep, the food is terrible, and they tell you not to go out after dark."

Are you interested in professional mobile apps? Download the 2022 report on the survey into the state of professional apps - "Professional app trends 2022 - 37 things you wish you'd known earlier":

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