With the new year well underway, game industry leaders have likely had no shortage of discussions about improving their company’s work quality, accomplishing financial goals, and of course, advancing innovation in 2014. One strategy that many business leaders may not have considered to make strides in these performance areas is to run company-wide hackathons. A hackathon is an event in which individuals collaborate on an intensive project in a short period of time, often ranging from one to seven days. While the word “hackathon” originates in software development, the term has expanded to include innovation efforts outside technology in areas such as civic, marketing and sustainability. It’s also important to note that I’m not just talking about organizing a game jam, which is a specific type of hackathon in which games are developed. It’s time to think BIG.
Hackathons offer game companies personnel development, a cultural lift and inspiration for innovation. Our industry landscape is shifting faster than ever, and it takes bold ideas to stay ahead in such a creative-driven field. Whether you’re a CEO, studio head or an indie game developer, I encourage you to reject logistical concerns and instead focus on the tremendous benefits of organizing internal hackathons.
This is the first in a three-part series, which will outline why game companies should run hackathons, how to organize the events, and finally, how to extend the value of the hackathon. I invite you to share your thoughts and participate in the conversation along the way.
1. Hackathons develop talent into cross-functional rockstars. Work often pigeonholes people into a single specialty and defined set of responsibilities. During a hackathon, this notion is thrown out the window, revealing employees’ wide areas of interest and talent. For example, GSN Games’ Lead Artist has successfully spearheaded six game production projects in the semi-annual hackathon events, even though he has little background or training in game design and production. Through the event, employees have a chance to work outside of their day-to-day responsibilities, and are able to express their ideas in a fun and engaging way. These fresh perspectives introduce new ideas and ways to approach problems, while building valuable cross-functional relationships that allow teams to deeply understand each other’s roles.
2. Hackathons cultivate a culture of creativity, collaboration and innovation. During hackathon kickoffs, individuals “pitch” their project ideas to the entire organization and recruit other people to work on their team. Since everyone has their choice of what they’d like to work on, all of the team members are passionate about and committed to the project’s goal. This united effort brings together cross-discipline teams, often comprised of people who do not frequently work together. Hackathons can quickly integrate new staff members into the organization’s culture, while also offering more tenured employees the opportunity to deepen their relationships through meaningful work. The democratic nature of the hackathon process builds morale by asserting that everyone has a voice, plays an important role and has the full potential to create something great.
At a company-wide level, hackathons demonstrate that the organization values its employees personally and professionally. For example, in a recent hackathon, several engineering team members traded code for tool belts to construct an original Arkeg, a classic arcade game machine with a built-in kegerator, all in the name of building company culture with a startup feel. Leaders and participants alike enter the event with an open mind to be most effective and innovative, fostering a culture of trust. This accepting work environment turns the hackathon into a company perk, showing employees the paramount importance of people to the organization.
3. Hackathons inspire everyone to be even more amazing. With the importance of rapid innovation and long-term strategies in our industry, slipping into the day-to-day grind is dangerous for game companies. With all eyes on each small team, hackathons encourage participants to challenge conventional ways of thinking within the organization. Everyone wants to excite their peers with their hackathon project presentation, which motivates employees to deliver outstanding results. During the final, company-wide presentations, participants are also able to increase their visibility amongst peers and leaders, which could lead to new or more opportunities in their everyday roles.
When individuals, teams and a company overall does amazing work, other amazing people want to be involved, too. Not only is a hackathon beneficial for a business, its company culture, employee retention and more, but it’s also a great tool to recruit top talent.
Hackathons have the power to transform individuals, teams and entire companies into innovators, which positively impacts a company’s culture and potentially the bottom line. I’d like to hear your comments – does your company run internal hackathons? What’s the rationale?
Andrew Pedersen is Senior Vice President and Chief Studio Officer of GSN Games. Andrew oversees the company’s social casino game production across mobile, social and web-based platforms.