Reflections on our first hackathon

9th December, 2015
by Eddie Chapman
Policy and Advocacy Manager at UnitingCare lifeAssist

It's a good sign when a meeting begins with pulling beers out of the fridge. And it was just the first of many surprises as we found ourselves taking part in our first hackathon.

Yes, a community sector organisation getting involved in a hackathon - traditionally the domain of the tech sector. But that's precisely what the Random Hacks of Kindness was all about - Matching up non-profit, 'good purpose' organisations who need technical skills with willing, energetic techies.

So after only a quick email, a short coffee, and the forementioned beer-fuelled info session, we found ourselves turn up bright and early on a Saturday to Swinburne Uni for our first hackathon, filled with discoveries and experiences as our community sector ventured into the tech world for a while. Discoveries such as:

Never underestimate your environment

Being in the cutting-edge AMDC building at Swinburne just fueled creative thinking. It's something we neglect in the community sector as fancy buildings get seen as vain luxuries. They don't have to be expensive, but giving the flexibility and freedom for creative thinking and work should never be underestimated.

The power of the lock-in

We often expect people to do new work or foster innovation in the workplace. With the phone calls, report writing, supervisions, and management activities that are part of their normal day. It's not realistic, nor terribly productive or efficient. But let those people lock themselves away for a day or two, with all the equipment, expertise (and snacks!) that they need, and you can be amazed at the enthusiasm and results it can create. Which brings us to...

Never underestimate catering

Nothing keeps motivation going than a table loaded with snacks, drinks and coffee. And seeing the ciders cracked open at about 3pm didn't exactly hurt either. We worry too much about people abusing this, but it's money well spent...

Every industry has its own language

The funniest thing is sitting in a room hearing people speak English, use words you (mostly) know, but not have a clue what they're saying. It's fantastic, and just made me want to know more. I've learned completely new meanings to words like 'push', 'string' and (my personal favourite), 'git'. :)

Norms of one industry are revelations to another

Our business engineer team member introduced us early on to the business model canvas. Our eyes lit up as we discovered a new, groundbreaking way of doing this stuff. But to those in the room, it was a case of "Oh, that's your canvas is it? Ok....." No big deal to them. Even the use of creating a collaborative presentation on Google Drive was groundbreaking to us and showed us brilliant new ways of doing things.

A sexy idea doesn't beat good thinking

 At the beginning of the hack I completely wrote ourselves off as a chance at winning. There were just too many cool sounding ideas and organisations compared to our rather humdrum option. We were more worried about simply attracting enough team members to make the hack viable. But a mix of good planning, careful analysis of the problem, and some open sharing from all of our different perspectives allowed a great solution to emerge. And it was perhaps helped by the fact that we didn't have multiple developers, so avoided creating fancy features and instead focused on a simple, clean product with solid thinking behind it.

Through difference comes innovation

We misuse the term innovation a lot, often referring to a simple improvement as 'innovation'. Maybe it is, I'm not sure. But to me, innovation is more about the unexpected, the 'I wouldn't have thought of that'. Making a porridge recipe better? That's an improvement. Snail porridge?That's innovation. So being able to share a weekend with people from diverse sectors who we'd never normally mix with, allowing ideas to mix and create fascinating new combinations, is critical.

After two solid days of hacking, some great solutions emerged for all the teams - and sitting there listening to the presentations showed how all of us had been given a great kickstart to get the solutions to our problems up and running. And, yes, to our immense surprise we actually 'won' the hackathon, being picked by the judges as the best solution to come out of the Melbourne weekend. A great bit of recognition to the input, widsom (and plain hard work!) of our team mates.

But we've come away with far more than a trophy, or a solution to our problem - We've had our eyes opened to new worlds, been shown new ways of doing things and discovered new ways of thinking. And I don't think there's any going back.

this post originally appeared on LinkedIn