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Why CEOs should get theirs hands dirty with hackathons

Jun 24, 2018 by John Karp

Edenred top managers gathering for an internal hackathon (organized by BeMyApp)

There’s one type of hackathon I really like to organise. It’s what we at BeMyApp call the “Top 200” hackathon, whereby the upper management from a large company come together from around the world to develop a digital solution and, in doing so, gain a digital mindset. Let me explain how it works.

Within each company, you have the top managers or what’s called the “top 200” (or top 50, top 100, etc.). Basically, these comprise people such as the CEO, communication executives, sales directors of each country, CTO, CFO, the VPs. Executives such as these in bigger companies usually only convene once or twice a year.

When they do meet in one place, the company board will often define the new objectives for the year, ensuring all the heads align, and employees across the globe finally get to meet. The whole event is a combination of a strategic alignment of top management, sharing of best practices, and team building.


So, how does the hackathon work?

Here’s a basic rundown of a three-day event: let’s say you have 200 people, on the first day, separate everyone into 15 teams. To each team, add one external developer and one designer. This is what makes the concepts and projects particularly interesting, because you have the VP or top managers suddenly working alongside a young, unknown developer.

Explain the concept of a hackathon, all the while highlighting the benefits of fast innovation. As you do so, the teams will begin to form an idea for their project, and then start working on it.

To break up the work, they will often separate for an activity; meanwhile the devs and designers continue work on the project. This continues into Day 2. By Day 3 – AKA final demo day – they have three more hours to work on their pitch and finalise their presentation. They then pitch it onstage to judges who’ll vote for the winning project.

Why is it great? Because it’s wonderful to see the CEO of a billion-dollar company hunched over a laptop with a young designer, deliberating over the pixels in a banner. It’s safe to say that execs are certainly not used to this. These decisions are happening every day within their company, yet they’re not exposed to it. This process, of going behind the curtain to see what’s really going on, is hugely beneficial to a company head. They suddenly see what’s involved at every level; at the “factory” level. At La Poste, for example, I was told that every winter, in the week leading up to Christmas, the boss takes to personally delivering boxes to the public.


Get your CEO playing with pixels alongside a young-gun designer

It’s important for managers to understand the reality of where they work, at every level. Because we’re living in a digital world, these people – designers, developers, community managers – this is the modern-day “factory”. If you take the principle that every company must have the digital embedded in its DNA, to become a digital company, you have to consider these employees highly valuable. This is why it’s good to have the top 200 participate in a hackathon; to stay attuned to what’s going on at every level.

Plant the CEO of a company, or some other high-positioned employee, in the land of a hackathon, where for the first time in their career they’re making decisions about colours and banners, or fiddling with a prototyping tool. Very quickly will he or she understand the digital world. They will be inspired to take these new learnings and mindset home. When they return, they’ll have the confidence to want to solve problems digitally. They’ve learnt what’s possible.

A lot of managers might say, “We don’t launch new disruptive digital services because the gap is too wide between where we are and what we want to do. And we won’t make cash with it.” However, after a hackathon their tune changes to, “When can we do something? I want to do something.” They might choose to go ahead with the project developed at the hackathon, or start something else entirely. What kinds of projects might result from a hackathon? Apps, mostly. But remember, the main objective is not necessarily to launch new products, but to change company mindset and inspire people to think digitally.


John Karp

If you're ready to host a hackathon or have any questions related to this post, please contact us.