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Are hackathons only beneficial for people who code?

12 Dec 2019

Brian Sankey of PwC discusses the company‘s recent hackathon, which focused on the education and mental health of homeless people.

PwC Ireland hosted its debut hackathon recently, a problem-solving event that took place over 38 hours in the company’s offices and the Convention Centre Dublin.

Focused around the education and mental health of homeless people, the #PwCHackathon “was all about making an impact”, according to Brian Sankey, one of its key drivers at PwC and a member of the company’s digital transformation team.

He added that this meant bringing minds together to match corporate social responsibility initiatives to “what is actually needed by people who are homeless and in the community”.

But aside from the potential benefits to social issues, can hackathons give businesses a boost, and do they bring value to the people taking part?

“Hackathons are a different way of tackling problems through design thinking – they involve bringing a diverse group of people together,” Sankey said.

“Rather than jumping to solutions, like our default, the onus is on groups to get a clearer and more thorough understanding of the problem.”

He added that hackathons reinforce the important message that solution design can only begin to be tackled once “the problem is properly understood and defined from a user perspective”.

Are hackathons all about coding?

The term ‘hackathon’ might bring to mind images of skilled computer scientists and coders working fastidiously in front of screens, but what do they really entail?

PwC said that a priority in holding the event was to emphasise to participants that coding knowledge wasn’t a must-have to take part. It explained that people should “just bring their curiosity and passion for solving important problems”.

Sankey added that technology and digital skills constitute an “enabler” for the solutions, but aren’t “the core focal point”.

‘Rather than jumping to solutions, like our default, the onus is on groups to get a clearer and more thorough understanding of the problem’

That clear call to action brought 80 individuals together at the hackathon event last month, making up 10 teams based on Emergenetics profiles. Groups were created based on diverse and unique skills that each member could bring to the table, and the company’s digital accelerators and PwC experts joined them to harness the available digital tools to their fullest extent.

But it wasn’t purely group work and problem-solving. Throughout the three days, experts were invited to give insight and context to the theme. These included Dr Kate Frazer, head of public health and community nursing at UCD, and Grainne McKenna, assistant professor at DCU’s Institute of Education, among others.

Pitching possible solutions

PwC organised the hackathon with UCD, working together to design 10 problem statements based on the chosen theme.

The hackathon culminated in each team delivering their pitch to a judging panel, featuring PwC Ireland head of digital Joe Tynan, and a tax alumnus of the company, Deirdre Lyons, who has a wealth of experience with start-ups. Lyons recently won her first investment for her own business idea – developing online learning tools for professional exams.

And as for the ideas put forward, they didn’t disappoint. “Given the 38 hours over which the hackathon was run, the quality of ideas was exceptional within that time frame,” Sankey said.

A big group of diverse employees are smiling into the camera in PwC offices, with their hands in the air.

The #PwCHackathon at the company’s offices. Image: PwC

‘Away from the day job’

According to Sankey, the benefits of hackathons to participants are multi-fold. Not only do they offer “exposure to emerging technology” and a chance to “reimagine existing processes” in the context of technology and the digital world, taking part also presents an “opportunity to meet other people from different backgrounds and disciplines”.

Preparing for the future of work is driving employers to engage workers in new ways, and it seems as though hackathons could be one method of achieving that. They give participants “dedicated time to explore problems and get away from the day job, which they might not otherwise have time to get involved in”, explained Sankey.

That’s something extending to all levels of staff, too, as he highlighted that many of the attendees were “only new associates in the firm”.

“Participants get experience to pitch their possible solution with support from tools and expertise they might not have used before. There is a lot of fun in the short space of time too!” he added.

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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