Bringing together developers, designers, entrepreneurs and Data Scientists for a weekend to get them to work on applications or online service – that’s the idea behind hackathons. Invented in the late nineties by a community of American developers, the concept is becoming increasingly popular with companies looking to shake up conventional innovation processes.
Elise Fraisse is head of the partnership division of Simplon.co, an organisation that provides free training courses for computer coding to job-seekers and people undergoing professional retraining. It organises regular hackathons attended by a mixture of students, startups and companies. We found out more…
opening up to the ecosystem with Hackathons
The hackathon, a contraction of “hack” and “marathon,” is becoming increasingly popular with companies. After Facebook, pioneers in the field, a number of large French groups have been experimenting with it, including SNCF, Orange, Axa, Danone and Société Générale.
The aim is to address an internal issue and familiarise the teams with the digital transformation, agile methodologies, fast prototyping and prototyping applications with limited functionalities but which can be subsequently incremented.
What Simplon.co aims to do is put its budding developers in touch with companies, with the hope that it will eventually result in a job for them. Hackathons also have considerable educational value as students have to be creative and productive in a very short time period. Indeed, time is the main constraint: hackathons typically last two and a half days, which is actually fairly long given the intense concentration required.
Participants are always coached, by the school’s co-founders, technical directors or guest experts brought in to encourage and facilitate R&D efforts.
Most of the time, the events are held on the school’s premises.
“For companies, it’s important to get out of the office to learn how to think differently,” explains Elise Fraisse. “It’s harder to bring about change when you’re at your desk!”
Team-building AND LEARNING agile methods
A hackathon is also a team-building opportunity for companies, where multi-disciplinary teams can work together on innovative ideas. Cosmetics group Yves Rocher, for example, organised one to think about how to improve its mobile app. The idea was to get employees to break out of their silos and meet colleagues from other departments.
“After the hackathon, the group was able to use some of the ideas that had come up during the event,” says Fraisse. “But more than anything, it was an opportunity to create team synergies. Employees who barely knew each other now have lunch together regularly!”
The themes of the workshops are, unsurprisingly, to do with the digital transformation and other digitally-related issues. The main thing is to get participants to look at web production from a different angle and learn how to communicate with developers. It also depends on the needs of the department in question (business line, innovation, Communications, IT, etc.), explains Elise Fraisse:
“It’s very broad, because when a hackathon is organised by a company, it’s to address a cross-disciplinary issue. The teams typically include a developer, a designer, someone from marketing. The cross-disciplinary aspect of hackathons is very important.”
“For example, we’ve worked with the French national railways, SNCF, on network and weather data available as open data,” continues Fraisse. “A number of projects were developed, including a ‘lightning conductor’ application that predicts lightning risks.” The hackathon also had another positive outcome: one of the SNCF’s partner startups attending the event hired one of the Simplon.co students from the winning team.
The school also organised a datathon avec Orange: for 48 hours, developers, designers and Data Scientists worked on solutions exploiting the data provided by Orange via its Senegalese subsidiary Sonatel. The challenge was to design solutions to improve the wellbeing of local people. Organised simultaneously at MIT, Boston, Dakar and Paris, it resulted in the development of a tool that simulates the spread of diseases caused by drinking stagnant water, which won first prize.
Another example is French publishing group Bayard, which was looking to breathe new life into some of its publications. To do so, it set up a partnership with Simplon.co to work on updating its employees’ working methods.
“It’s a long-term project,” explains Fraisse. “We started with design-thinking workshops to try and determine which digital products could be useful.”
After a day’s introduction to digital technology and various workshops, a hackathon was organised, attended by students from the school and members of the editorial teams of La Croix, Okapi and Dossiers de l’actualité, three of Bayard’s flagship publications, to think about creating digital tools.
methods before results
Whilst the hackathon will enable Bayard to develop some of the projects presented, the main purpose was to familiarise employees with new ways of working. Despite the fact that most of them had never heard of the concept, they’ve now all adopted the “hackathon method.” Phosphore magazine repeated the exercise for a day, to which it invited Erwan Kezzar, co-founder of Simplon.com and teams from different departments. “Often, a hackathon is the catalyst that enables companies to change their working methods,” says Elise Fraisse.
It was a slightly different story for cosmetics chain Yves Rocher, whose hackathon was organised in order to develop a new version of its mobile app.
“It really depends on the company’s needs and context,” says Fraisse. “Some do it with an open innovation rationale, to familiarise their employees with these working methods, whilst for others, it’s because they need to create a prototype fast.”
So what leads companies to organise hackathons? Elise Fraisse sums it up:
“Organising a hackathon means you can make time stand still: for two and a half days, you drop everything to work in project mode, combining different teams. The idea is also to get out of the office and shake things up, to get people together and implement different production methods.”
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