Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a theme and having employees attack a problem together. It not only brings in new ideas and new ways to solve problems for the company and its customers, but also has the added benefit of enabling staff to collaborate and share ideas.

Brandon Kessler, CEO and co-founder at DevPost, a company that helps customers organize and manage internal and external hackathons, says that he’s seen how hackathons help companies encourage their employees to solve big problems.

“Without question, innovation and collaboration are the two key value props when it comes to running internal hackathons, and almost everyone wants both,” Kessler told TechCrunch. He said that coming up with new ideas was the number one priority when running these events.

“Let's let everyone have some agency to come up with ideas and solve problems, become more efficient,” he said. “These days, innovation in my view is synonymous with AI. Of the 1,200 hackathons we did last year, I think maybe 10 were not about AI. I've never seen anything like what I've seen with the rise of AI hackathons.”

When you get a bunch of people in a room (or even virtually) and let them loose on a particular problem, good things usually happen. “Cross-discipline involvement, innovation, those ideas that come from people working with different stakeholders than you normally do, that’s what hackathons produce,” he said.

Neta Retter, the director of innovation programs at Okta, says that she learned about the value of internal hackathons in her previous job at Facebook, then took it to her current role.

“I think that something that Facebook realized really early was the power of hackathons to really foster a culture of innovation very broadly in terms of influencing what was built and how it was built. And I think something really amazing about Okta is the way that they've really doubled down on that as well in our hack culture,” Retter told TechCrunch.

That has manifested itself more recently in figuring out ways to use AI to improve products and services the company offers. The hackathons help bring the remote-first company together to work on these problems.

“We’ve been able to build a really strong hack culture globally, and I think that actually diving into generative AI was one of the places where they were able to showcase how hackathons are a really powerful way of bringing in new tools and giving everyone the opportunity to use them. They really influence what we build and how we build it in a bottom up kind of way, which I think is pretty amazing,” Retter said.

Chris Aidan, VP of innovation and inclusive and emerging technologies at Estée Lauder, sees these hackathons in a similar way, but because of his role, they tend to focus on more human-interest topics than those specific to the business, looking at things like ways to improve breast cancer detection, or help vision-impaired people put on makeup without assistance. But the method is still the same, no matter what the goal is.

“We do one hackathon a year where both the public and employees participate, and then we do internal hackathons based on a challenge with a particular business unit or one of our brands that are trying to solve something,” Aiden said. They also do brainstorming sessions, he calls idea-a-thons, which involve building a no-code or maybe a low-code solution.

Retter says bringing together people in a diverse range of roles, meaning technical and non-technical folks, really helps bring new ideas to life. “I think that having more diverse roles leads to better products, leads to better innovation. And I think that diversity in hackathons is really critical,” she said.

“It doesn't matter how technical the people are or how amazing the thing that you build is, unless you have diverse perspectives, different lived experiences, people pointing out different ways of using these things that you're creating, it doesn’t have the same impact,” she said.