Go ahead, stage a hackathon. But pray it doesn't work too well

Are you ready for an idea from the playground to challenge your organisation?

OPINION Fidget spinners may be the biggest thing since the yo-yo, but they can’t hold a candle to the latest fad to sweep the business world: hackathons.

As is the case with any fad, lots of people jump in overnight and some end up looking a bit ridiculous.

Hackathons have their uses because they give people permission to solve problems they find interesting. That's more appealing than working through priorities generated by ever-more-distant corporate leaders. It also gives hackathons the allure of the illicit: “look at what we can get away with when no one’s looking!"

But I recently attended an event at which hackathons went half a step too far. The event was flavoured with ‘regtech’ – a nearly religious faith in our abilities to innovate our way out of garden variety bureaucracy, and into more agile bureaucracy – and it showed how permission to rebel can too easily tip over into something much uglier.

At this event one team had quite a good idea, with a well-developed business model and marketing strategy. All good, you’d think, until it became clear that their idea flagrantly flouted all of the relevant commercial law. For a hackathon team, that’s a perfect opportunity to “pivot" and change the essence of the idea to conform with the existing legal frameworks.

This team thought they knew better, changed nothing and hurtled towards a brick wall of regulation at full speed. They wanted to crash through, and pointed toward the stellar, shining example of startup disruption – Uber – as the category-defining example of how that should work. Their attitude was that if you don't like a law, why not ignore it and force regulators to catch up.

A year ago we might have smiled at that kind of cheek, but today – amidst a rising sea of troubles, it’s become clear that although Uber fought the law, the law won. All of those paeans to “disruption" now look like window dressing for a long grift.

On the other side of that – chastened and wiser – there’s less tolerance for rebels who seek to disrupt by kicking over the traces of the law. This hackathon team didn’t crash through. They crashed, never really understanding why the wheels had come off. They should have listened to advice – but, given the nature of their error, perhaps they could not.

Large organisations entertain other sorts of fantasies about hackathons, reckoning them a good way for mid-career employees to blow off some steam and in a playground that yields results without demanding any follow-through. Have the hackathon, have some fun – then leave it all behind to continue with the important task of keeping the big org keeping on.

It doesn’t always work out that way. On rare occasions it all works out too well – when a hackathon project succeeds beyond any expectation. Then you’ve got real trouble on your hands, because suddenly an organisation has been midwife to something that can’t simply be ignored or put aside for a more opportune moment.

A really good idea immediately takes on a life of its own, drawing people and resources to it – so the organisation can’t starve it. And should the organisation refuse to take it up, the bright folks who developed the idea – often highly prized in the business – will walk out the door, taking the idea and their talent with them.

Businesses want their hackathons to be fun – but contained. The last thing they want is a breakout success, upsetting neatly-laid plans, making demands, dividing focus, fighting for resources, and drawing attention. This new, wildly good idea isn’t in anyone’s growth plan, or on any list of KPIs. No one gets a pat on the head for making this much trouble.

Many businesses have forgotten their glory days of rapid growth, preferring ‘strong and stable’ over an explosion of new life that would transform every aspect of the business. It’s feared as an end, but it’s actually a whole new beginning: uncertain, anxious, but full of promise. Play with matches, and you might set the whole business ablaze. ®

Other stories you might like

  • Lonestar plans to put datacenters in the Moon's lava tubes
    How? Founder tells The Register 'Robots… lots of robots'

    Imagine a future where racks of computer servers hum quietly in darkness below the surface of the Moon.

    Here is where some of the most important data is stored, to be left untouched for as long as can be. The idea sounds like something from science-fiction, but one startup that recently emerged from stealth is trying to turn it into a reality. Lonestar Data Holdings has a unique mission unlike any other cloud provider: to build datacenters on the Moon backing up the world's data.

    "It's inconceivable to me that we are keeping our most precious assets, our knowledge and our data, on Earth, where we're setting off bombs and burning things," Christopher Stott, founder and CEO of Lonestar, told The Register. "We need to put our assets in place off our planet, where we can keep it safe."

    Continue reading
  • Conti: Russian-backed rulers of Costa Rican hacktocracy?
    Also, Chinese IT admin jailed for deleting database, and the NSA promises no more backdoors

    In brief The notorious Russian-aligned Conti ransomware gang has upped the ante in its attack against Costa Rica, threatening to overthrow the government if it doesn't pay a $20 million ransom. 

    Costa Rican president Rodrigo Chaves said that the country is effectively at war with the gang, who in April infiltrated the government's computer systems, gaining a foothold in 27 agencies at various government levels. The US State Department has offered a $15 million reward leading to the capture of Conti's leaders, who it said have made more than $150 million from 1,000+ victims.

    Conti claimed this week that it has insiders in the Costa Rican government, the AP reported, warning that "We are determined to overthrow the government by means of a cyber attack, we have already shown you all the strength and power, you have introduced an emergency." 

    Continue reading
  • China-linked Twisted Panda caught spying on Russian defense R&D
    Because Beijing isn't above covert ops to accomplish its five-year goals

    Chinese cyberspies targeted two Russian defense institutes and possibly another research facility in Belarus, according to Check Point Research.

    The new campaign, dubbed Twisted Panda, is part of a larger, state-sponsored espionage operation that has been ongoing for several months, if not nearly a year, according to the security shop.

    In a technical analysis, the researchers detail the various malicious stages and payloads of the campaign that used sanctions-related phishing emails to attack Russian entities, which are part of the state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec Corporation.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022