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

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

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 Hackworks

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.

"It allows for people outside of the company to bring an outside influence and an outsider's perspective to boost innovation and create liquid R&D force," Collins said.

Such events are intense, often spanning 24 continuous hours, and "the projects that come out at the end of the hackathon are actual viable products, not simply ideas on a chalkboard," he added.

As for internal hackathons, one of the big benefits there is that they can have a liberating effect on employees, opening the doors to new creativity. "It allows you to take employees outside both their comfort zone and their physical environment, and that frees them up in a variety of ways," Mikula said.

A financial institution, for example, might take employees offsite, outside the corporate firewall, and invite them to brainstorm and explore to their hearts' content using their own devices.

In fact, Mikula says internal hackathons can be particularly useful for companies in highly regulated industries such as healthcare, insurance, and banking.

"For very good reasons, those employees are steeped in a culture of things you can't do," she said. "A hackathon says, 'forget all the reasons to say no, and think of all the reasons to say yes.'"

Internal hackathons can also provide an opportunity to mash up teams of people who might ordinarily have few occasions to interact, she added.

Deciding whether to hold an internal or an external hackathon is really a matter of thinking carefully about the company's goals, Mikula said.

It's also important to be clear about what participants will get from the experience. With an internal event that's often fairly clear, but companies opting to hold an external hackathon have to tread a little more carefully.

"Companies can't use hackathons as a way of getting free labor," Mikula stressed. "You don't hold a hackathon because you need a new website -- do an RFP and hire a vendor. It has to be more than that, and you have to look at who's going to own those products at the end."

In the case of the NBA's event, IP rights will go to the NBA, she noted, but for many participants, the experience and the exposure to the high-profile league could more than make up for that. "If it were a less flashy brand, some [participants] may weigh things differently."

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