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Run a hackathon event that pays off -- and draws women

IBM Watson Health's chief scientist explains how a hackathon event can pay dividends for a company, provided it's run right. Plus, advice on how to get more women to hackathons.

CIOs take note. Hackathons are more than just a chance for budding software engineers to strut their stuff.

According to Shahram Ebadollahi, vice president of innovations and chief science officer for IBM Watson Health, a hackathon event -- properly designed -- can be a prime tool for companies to introduce new people to their technology products, recruit top talent and get ideas for future projects. But making good on the business investment will take planning.

"[Companies] should go into it with a clear idea of what they want to get out of it," Ebadollahi said.

Ebadollahi was one of the driving forces behind HealthHacks, a two-day IBM-sponsored hackathon in April that was billed as an opportunity to develop hardware and software to tackle real-world problems in healthcare. The inaugural event, open to designers, students, engineers and healthcare professionals, was held at Columbia University.

Ebadollahi, who has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Columbia, said the university partnership is important, because one of HealthHacks' goals is to discover future uses for IBM Watson Health products -- and students are the users of the future.

Shahram EbadollahiShahram Ebadollahi

Plus, instead of just telling students about IBM Watson Health, the hackathon event gave the company a chance to immerse them in IBM technologies. The IBM Hacking Toolkit provided to the competitors encourages the use of IBM products, specifically IBM Bluemix and Watson APIs, and provides instructions in their use.

"They get introduced to the company, the product and the excitement that comes with it," Ebadollahi said.

Company rewards

Andy Zhang, software developer at Infor, was part of the winning team for HealthHacks 2017. He and his team planned a phone app to record somniloquy, or sleep talking, among veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and use voice recognition technology to track their emotional states so that they, and their therapists, could confront those nightmares in the light of day.

IBM Watson's predictive analytics were essential to the emotion recognition element of their plan, Zhang said. The team's work won each of them $1,500 and a chance to visit IBM headquarters.

While IBM Watson Health doesn't hire directly from its hackathon events, these forums definitely drive interest in IBM Watson Health and can lead to employment. Bringing hackathon winners like Zhang to IBM headquarters is one way to encourage interest and build identification with company. The hackathon experience also gives participants a leg up in the recruitment process.

"If you're more familiar with the tools and technology, it becomes more interesting for the recruiter," Ebadollahi said.

By doing these kinds of hackathons, we can look at the usability and what people who are not using this technology every day can do with it.
Shahram Ebadollahichief science officer, IBM Watson Health

IBM Watson Health hackathon events benefit the company beyond increasing interest and product awareness or bringing in potential recruits.

"By doing these kinds of hackathons, we can look at the usability and what people who are not using this technology every day can do with it," Ebadollahi said.

The projects themselves don't tend to be actionable, he explained. "What can people really do in a day or two?" But the projects do provide answers on ease-of-use and can be inspiration for future products.

Zhang said he sees the benefits of the short time frame. "You have a day to build something, so you have no way to build something polished or particularly well-done. So, you just have to try things. People aren't afraid to fail," he said.

He added that, over the course of the hackathons he's attended, he's seen plenty of "elements of pure genius [in] plans that don't make any sense." A company like IBM Watson Health can then separate the diamonds in the rough from the poorly made plans and keep those for future inspiration.

Elements of a successful hackathon event

So, what are the steps that go into creating a hackathon event that benefits the parent company the way HealthHacks does for IBM? Ebadollahi has a few suggestions.

First, he stressed that not every technology company has the kind of product that would work well in a hackathon.

"It has to be a very well-defined set of tools you bring to the hackathon," he said. In IBM Watson's case, the tools in question are the Watson APIs. A company thinking of running a hackathon event should make sure it has a product that can be used separately from the rest of its products.

Another key element of a successful hackathon event is providing mentors who "can sit with the people participating in the hackathon," Ebadollahi said. "That mentorship and handholding is important." It helps people new to the development business (like college students) refine their ideas.

It's important to encourage participants to consider the question "why is this product useful?" while developing their projects -- a mentality that many students haven't been exposed to before. Finally, organizers should be open to new ideas.

"Anything can come out of a hackathon," he said.

Getting women to the hackathon

Samantha ProvenzaSamantha Provenza

Samantha Provenza, product designer at Tailwind and chapter lead at Girl Develop It, has more ideas for how to improve a hackathon event. Girl Develop It is a nonprofit organization spread across 56 cities and dedicated to providing opportunities for women interested in learning about web and software development. While hackathons have proved to be a magnet for male technologists, women attend in much fewer numbers. Both Zhang and Provenza can attest to this. Provenza said, "All of the ones I've been to have been a majority-male experience."

However, Provenza added that, at least in New York City, companies are looking to change that dynamic and attract more women. Some New York City-based companies have reached out to Girl Develop It to help them make their events women-friendly or to promote their events to a female audience that may not want to attend an event that hasn't been verified first by someone they trust. "Definitely, if you're not providing an atmosphere that women want to [be in], you're missing out on having women," Provenza said.

To combat this problem, Girl Develop It put together its own all-women hackathon on Feb. 14 -- Hackentine's Day. Provenza hopes that the lessons she learned from Hackentine's Day can help other companies create hackathons that are also welcoming environments for women, who still represent a small fraction of the technology workforce. "If you're a minority coming into a majority hackathon, that's another barrier," Provenza said. Attendees of Hackentine's Day, for example, ranged across all skill levels, but 79% of them had never attended a hackathon before. "Event organizers can work on having a more level demographic."

Women coders at the Girl Develop IT Hackentine's Day event in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Women coders at the Girl Develop IT Hackentine's Day event in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Slack for team building

Another barrier to entry for women? Hackathons are a big time commitment and, with women still providing the majority of the childcare, it isn't always possible for them to take 72 hours away from home to stay up all night and code. Hackentine's Day restricted their event to one day with no overnight and provided childcare for working moms. Provenza's advice: "Be conscious of flexible schedules and people who don't want to spend all day."

Something else Girl Develop It did to foster a more comfortable environment for the Hackentine's Day event was to create a Slack channel for team building beforehand. Rather than having to enter a room full of strangers, women arrived with their teams already established and some idea of the personalities of the people around them. Mixed-gender hackathon planners should consider doing the same, Provenza said.

"For the [hackathons] I've been to, I was the only woman on my team. A lot of the girls who were attending didn't know people," she said. Anything that makes it easier to find a place and a team can improve the experience and possibly attract more women.

Provenza also suggested that providing a less "cutthroat atmosphere" could also help. Hackentine's Day ended in everyone getting a chance to present her ideas and no winner declared. She also suggested encouraging people who are not developers to attend hackathons. Provenza said that she sees many women, like herself, in product design rather than software development and, while there are lots of important nontechnical roles at hackathons, they tend not to be advertised that way. Opening hackathons to non-developers could also increase the number of women interested in attending.

Next Steps

CIO: Rock-solid HR partnership first step to solving your IT talent shortage

Dropbox CEO talks about how to recruit top tech talent

Thomson Reuters uses crowdsourcing to tap top tech talent

This was last published in June 2017

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