Erin Klem  | October 5, 2015

How Hackathons Are Flipping R&D On Its Head

The word “hacker” to many still evokes some vaguely defined but surely transgressive subculture comprising hoodie-draped delinquents hell bent on breaking into your email. It’s the image popularized in the seminal 90s film Hackers starring a young Angelina Jolie as the devil-may-care antihero who’ll stop at nothing to hijack computer networks and access private servers, albeit to save the day.

Today, “hacker” has two definitions according to Wikipedia: A) somebody who circumvents computer security, whether maliciously or for research, or B) someone who’s simply an adherent of the programming subculture. And while cybersecurity is no doubt becoming increasingly important, it’s the latter camp of techies who are truly changing the world.

Hackers include Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. But while “Woz” singlehandedly assembled the Apple I in a Silicon Valley garage in the 70s, today’s hackers have the benefit of an engaged and diverse community of makers and dreamers with whom to collaborate on the next big thing. When a few dozen or even several hundred of these digital pioneers congregate for 12-72 hours to build something new, it’s called a hackathon.

Hackathons take place in a multitude of settings, from high schools and universities to multinational corporations. Companies like Facebook, Netflix and VMware routinely roll out new features developed over the span of a day or two by employees participating in a corporate hackathon.

“Right now, hackathons are a tool that many different organizations in a lot of different sectors are utilizing for a variety reasons, including recruitment, innovation, and research and development,” said Sabeen Ali, founder and CEO of AngleHack, a company that organizes hackathons for clients that range from Hasbro to UNICEF. “Hackathons are proving to be kind of that silver bullet, which is really interesting because they’re cost effective and people can create prototypes without too much time loss or too much commitment to a particular solution.”

A few minutes at a hackathon are enough to dispel most misconceptions about hacker culture. Attendees are typically just software developers with zero interest in compromising Gmail accounts or leaking credit card information onto the Internet. Instead, they’re captivated by problems in need of technological solutions.

By nature, a hacker or team of hackers can address a need with far more agility and greater creativity than an institution. And the time crunch imposed by most organizers often results in unique, if not the most elegant solutions.

“I’m a very action-oriented person, so I like to just kind of bang it out and see what can be created, which I think a lot of people wish that organizations would do a little bit more often,” Ali said. “Hackathons are proving to be the model that’s able to take ideas and put them into action without too much skin in the game.”

Conventional R&D is far from dead, but it’s increasingly complemented by innovation born at hackathons, thanks in large part to the efforts of organizations like AngelHack and Major League Hacking.

If history is cyclical, it seems the history of technology is no exception. Like Wozniak and the Apple I, we’re arriving back in a time where disruption can begin with the individual as readily as the institution. And that’s truly an exciting development.