Hacked off with Hackathons


David Dunn, Chief Executive of Sunderland Software City, the organisation that runs Digital Catapult Centre NE&TV

David Dunn, Chief Executive of Sunderland Software City, shares his thoughts and discussions from speaking at our ‘Hacked off with Hackathons‘ lab, recently held as part of our ColLab Festival

For one of our sessions at Digital Catapult’s ColLab Festival, we gathered 20 people whose job it is to connect large companies with SMEs – the common terminology these days is to engender ‘open innovation’ – to understand what works, what doesn’t and to be honest about our approaches to the process.

I’ll start with the honesty – at Digital Catapult Centre North East & Tees Valley we don’t have years of experience in doing this, unlike many of those in the room.  Indeed, I introduced myself as the person who ‘will state the bleeding obvious’ and continued to suggest my job in the room is to be the lowest common denominator.

The session started with some provocations from individuals around the table and mine covered off the following points:

Point 1 – SMEs and large corporates (or public sector organisations) should work together because it provides mutual benefit.  The corporate gets new ideas and insight from SMEs to help innovate and overcome problems, at a faster speed than internal solutions could be produced.  The SMEs have a chance to create new revenue streams, either by payment from the corporate or through commercial partnerships, and can also gain insights into new sectors and verticals.

Point 2 – Participation has to have a purpose and a benefit to the SME. We’ve learnt that bringing big corporate brands into a room is not enough of a motivation to enthuse SMEs. They need to make money, solve a problem or learn new things.

It is this second point that helped us develop our ‘engagement matrix’. This simple 2×2 matrix helps corporates understand why people or companies would be motivated to get involved with their brand, and I introduced this at the Hacked off with Hackathons session.


The SME engagement matrix (click to enlarge)

The bottom left of the matrix (informal hack events) is what most people will identify with when you say “hack” – multiple days, usually overnight with obligatory energy drinks and pizza.  The purpose of these is to get like-minded people in a room and ‘play’ with data. There is no specific output required and the social element is usually as important as the end outcome.

Corporates like ‘hacks’ because they get to be seen as trendy and might get some useful ideas at the end of the session. Let me say this now – there is nothing wrong with hacks, I am not decrying them.  My point however, linked to the title of this blog, is that sometimes the purpose of an event is not a social gathering and hence we should not call everything a hack!

Take the top right corner of the matrix, the ‘Business Challenge’. Here a corporate knows the challenge they face and appreciate they cannot deliver it internally. More importantly, they appreciate they cannot specify a solution – they understand their own limitations and hence want to engage externals to help overcome these challenges. These challenges are more appropriate for teams from businesses to solve.

Why? Because teams from businesses can develop a solution, deliver it and then commercialise it. Our learning from business challenges is that they need to be succinct; long enough to understand the problem fully but short enough to make it appealing for companies to stand up teams of multiple people – people who could be making money on other things!

The final two quadrants of the matrix are showcases.  The ‘business showcase’ is simple to describe.  It is businesses taking their established products and services and showing them to verticals they don’t yet sell to. We’ve been amazed by the success of this approach and transferability of software services across sectors.

The ‘talent showcase’ is recruitment 2.0 – instead of writing job descriptions, companies articulate problems they want solving and invite individuals to showcase how they would solve the problems. If there’s a fit, employment could ensue. The benefit of this approach is it transverses technology stacks and helps understand the ‘fit’ of a person without CVs getting in the way.

I don’t think anyone at the session disagreed with my basic view of the world, indeed many such as Roland Harwood at 100% Open and Amanda Smith at the ODI thought not calling everything a hack might be useful! I’m not suggesting the matrix in this blog is the answer, but let’s be appreciative of why people work together and use a language that represents this.

David Dunn is Chief Executive at Sunderland Software City. You can follow them on Twitter @SunSoftCity and Digital Catapult Centre North East & Tees Valley @DigiCatNETV. Don’t forget to follow us too @DigiCatapult

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