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The NBA is holding its first hackathon - should your company, too?

Katherine Noyes | Aug. 22, 2016
The events can be especially valuable for companies in regulated industries, one expert says

Companies large and small have already embraced the hackathon as a way to foster collaboration and innovation, and now the NBA has announced that it's jumping on board.

Scheduled to take place next month in New York, the NBA's first-ever event is open to undergraduate and graduate student statisticians, developers and engineers in the U.S. who are interested in building basketball analytics tools. Participants will present their work to a panel of expert judges and an audience of NBA League Office and team personnel. 

Prizes will be awarded to the top three teams, including a tour of the NBA League Office and a lunch with NBA staff.

Once considered a decidedly alternative approach, hackathons are becoming a mainstream corporate tool. The obvious next question is, should your company get involved?

"Hackathons can be uniquely valuable in building culture, rapport, and a sense of teamwork -- not to mention creating a sense of urgency and actually building something useful," said Dave Kerpen, founder and CEO of social media software firm Likeable Local, which holds regular internal hackathons of its own.

"The only real question in deciding whether to move forward is: Can you get enough buy-in from the team to get a great turnout?" Kerpen added. "As long as the answer to this question is yes, you should go for it."

hackworks hackathon

A hackathon organized by Hackworks.

There are actually two different kinds of hackathons: internal ones, where a company's own staff are the participants, and external ones, which are open to the public. Kerpen's company uses the former approach, while the NBA has opted for the latter.

Typically, internal hackathons are a good approach for companies that think they have all the talent they need but just need "a spark and an opportunity," said Patti Mikula, cofounder and CEO at Hackworks, which helps organize such events.

Also distinguishing the two approaches is who owns the results. With internal hackathons, the host company typically owns any resulting intellectual property. With external ones, that ownership often remains in participants' hands, though it can be structured otherwise.

"In many instances, the actual product at the end of an external hackathon is less important than the people involved, because it's often used as a recruiting tool," Mikula said.

Companies may also hold external hackathons if they're getting ready to release a new technology suite and API to the general developer community and want to build branding and awareness, said Brian Collins, chief marketing officer for AngelHack.

Alternatively, the events can be useful for companies seeking innovative ideas to help shorten their R&D cycle and rapidly prototype new ideas.

 

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