Has Switzerland been infected by the new “Hackathon Mania”?

1. Hackathons were not very popular in Switzerland in 2013…

Two years ago, I got involved with hackathons first hand in my role at Swisscom: I hosted the ETH Entrepreneurclub‘s hackathon in our P51 office building in Zurich. It was a great event and quite an experience to have over 70 hackbros and one hacksister from all over Europe come to “my” office and hack for 48 hours straight – amazing!

At that time, it was really difficult for me to get internal support from Swisscom: People were not used to dealing with „hackers“ and the format (48 hours working on a weekend) made it hard ​hard to convince employees​ to join. The benefit of coming out to the hackathon was a hard sell internally. So we had no Swisscom developers, no executive sponsors, no Swisscom recruiters there.

This year, public hacking events seems to be highly popular and also more diverse:

  • Size: With hackzurich (for which the before-mentioned ETH Entrepreneurclub hackathon was actually the precursor), the biggest hackathon in Europe took place in Zurich’s Technopark.
  • Focus: There are more corporate hackathons in Switzerland and globally. Additionally, there are more focused hackathons, e.g. on open cultural data or with a focus on HR
  • Impact: And there are even hackathons with very specific social impact objectives such as the refugee hackathon in Berlin. So they may not be a social movement in and by themselves, but they support and create new social movements

2. So, why has Swisscom started to organize hackathons lately?

In early November, Swisscom hosted an IoT hackathon in Zurich’s new Impact Hub. Again, we had about the same number of participants (70) but a much more solid engagement from Swisscom with 15 experts and organizers – they even stayed overnight! Actually, this time Swisscom was driving the whole event and put in a lot of effort. And I am quite impressed by the outcome (14 amazing projects pitching on Sunday) and really liked the atmosphere (geeky, playful and focussed).

Kickoff Friday night of Swisscom´s IoT Hackathon @ Impact Hub Zurich

For business sponsors Dawn Antle and Marco Arnold (Swisscom IoT), there was a clear business case: „We wanted to provide makers with an opportunity to work with IoT technology, in particularly the LPN, to which they normally would not have access as well as get in touch with makers that are driving innovation in the area of IoT.”

The organizing team out of Swisscom’s Pirates Hub regards hackathons as an important activity when building an open innovation community. Florian Wieser explains their staged approach: “First, we start our engagement into a new field by contributing to existing communities or initiating new topics. This is what we did when we became co-organizers of the Hardware StartUp MeetUps here in Zürich. We see hackathons as a more solid engagement to test the grounds for an even stronger commitment such as an accelerator program.“

3. And this is the expert assessment of the Swiss „Hackathon Mania“

I had the chance to interview Oleg Lavrovsky,a software developer and self-starter with a passion for hackathons. Oleg grew up in Canada, studied in Lausanne, and worked in London for Silicon Valley firms prior to setting up a data consultancy in Switzerland. He has participated in dozens of programming contests and hackathons, coigniting the make.opendata.ch series in 2011, and is even building open source platforms to help run such events – see DRIBD.AT.

Oleg, why do you personally enjoy contributing to a hackathon?

A successful project to me is one​ that makes a profound impact on each team member. I run in hackathons not for claiming prizes, but for applying my developing skills (both technical and tactical) in syncopation with my peers. In this way my experience of a hackathon is quite like a jam session: at worst, it’s a cacophony of noise, false starts and U-turns – at best, we groove in jazzy melody to the beat of inspiration! 

Being a hackathon participant means putting your skills to the test, learning from others in a very direct way, achieving something unexpected in collaboration with interesting people. I guess that this is something a lot of people around the world see as a positive way to grow and, especially in technology circles, a way to gain maturity and recognition in a community of peers.

I think central to this is a renewed awareness that technology needs to be learned and applied in a safe, unrestrained and motivation-boosting way. When done well, hackathons are an extremely positive experience of teamwork and discovery for the participants and organizers. 

Do you believe there is a longer-term impact from a hackathon?

This is something that I have been pondering for a long time, and in my experience the answer is a resounding Yes! Hackathons have a big impact. It is hard to measure the value of one particular project (unless it becomes a blockbuster hit like some projects have). We need to measure the performance of hackathons as a whole – as proving grounds for new technology or datasets, or in accelerating change within their audience.

In the long term, I believe hackathons are helping to create a better balanced information society, enabling occupations in technology domains to be more widely recognized as a creative calling which can appeal to all genders, ages and backgrounds​. 

How do you compare the US/global scene to what is happening in Switzerland right now?

​Globally, ​there are thousands of hackathons each year, ranging from 10 to 1’000s of participants. If you just look at Hackathon.io you get the impression there are multiple happenings every 4–8 days. Before starting an event series here, I took part in a lot of hackathons in Silicon Valley, in the U.K. and Germany, but there were none in Switzerland while I was a student. 

Probably the main difference today is in scale: especially in the US, serious money and time is being invested into the preparation of such events. Companies like Uber and Facebook have dedicated hackathon organizers on staff. Code for America has made its own brand of regular hackathons an impressive force for civic change across the country.

What’s in it for a corporate sponsors / organizers of a hackathon?

The trend here is in the same direction, Swisscom’s IoT Hackathon last weekend joined the NZZPostFinanceSRF in bringing hackathons together with top brands, and interest is rising. I would say that so far Swiss universities and the public sector have been getting the most value out of popular events like the Open Data and HackZurich hackathons, and I expect more professionally organised events, more interest in synchronized and virtual hackathons that cross borders.

Sometimes, they are also the source of very innovative ideas, being a great place to think outside the box, make attempts in many directions, fail the ones that do not work quickly. Without regrets: maximizing your personal and group potential within the given time and space constraints, instead of meeting arbitrary expectations, makes hackathons well suited to the 21st century knowledge workplace.

What’s your advice for a first time organizer of a hackathon?

Someone who takes it upon themselves to run an event of this type should definitely find the time to learn about the Hacker ethic that is in many ways a precursor to hackathons, and a great guiding principle to successful, socially meaningful global gatherings.

Thank you Oleg – looking forward to seeing you get involved with more hackathons here in Switzerland!
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​Here are some places to discover and keep track of hackathons: