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Why Hackathons Lead to Breakthroughs

And are great ways to foster creativity across workplaces and campuses.

Written by Philip Baker
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two people looking at a computer

When the Master of Science in Analytics program held its first hackathon in the spring of 2020, the stakes could not have been higher.

With much of the country in the early weeks of lockdown, the hackathon participants—all students from the Master of Science in Analytics (MScA) program—were tasked with exploring COVID-19 data with the goal of producing meaningful insights into the pandemic.

“It was still very early on, and it can be hard to recall how little we knew about the virus then,” says Thomas Guardi, an MScA student with a background in finance. Guardi was part of the winning team that included fellow students Satya Pandey and Prasanth Chinta. “We used mobility data and the lockdown policies of a handful of states to assess the spread and make forecasts. That an increase in rates came with the increased travel spurred by Memorial Day was crystal clear.”

Despite circumstances requiring the hackathon’s virtual setting, the MScA event fit the hackathon mold in that it gave participants an opportunity to develop their skills across a broad range of areas, including analysis, critical thinking, time management, teamwork, stress management, and presentation. By involving a diverse group of professionals—in this case, current MScA students, alumni, and instructors—the hackathon also opened up new channels of communication between participants as teams sought innovative and potentially actionable solutions to a pressing problem.

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Dr. Greg Green Analytics Director headshot

“Hackathons are important because they create real-world value on a problem. Results might yield a publication or an industry comment. Between the time pressure and competition, coupled with the unique combination of perspectives that are brought to bear on the problem, new ideas get stimulated.”

Dr. Greg Green, Executive Director of Analytics Programs at UChicago

Creative solutions to stubborn problems

“Hackathons are important because they create real-world value on a problem,” says Greg Green, MScA executive director. “Results might yield a publication or an industry comment. Between the time pressure and competition, coupled with the unique combination of perspectives that are brought to bear on the problem, new ideas get stimulated.”

In recent years, hackathons have been used as a way to tackle some of the most intractable problems facing organizations. From thorny areas in artificial intelligence to longstanding robotics quandaries, large and well-known events have proven excellent ways to foster the sort of innovative thinking that can break new ground and yield promising prototypes.

“You can go after a controversial issue that industry might otherwise be reluctant to spend the time and money on,” Green adds. “They also encourage a more experimental and riskier approach than is typically practical in an average work setting. In that way, hackathons can be used to go after a breakthrough in an area that people are stuck on.”

Drivers of internal change

At the same time, hackathons are also used strategically within organizations as a way to shake up ingrained patterns of thinking and entrenched work habits. They can spur collaboration across units as well as speed up the early stages of the product development process.

“I conduct hackathons in my office for the engineering teams as a way to push ideas further,” says Satya Pandey, an MScA student who is also a lead data scientist at William Blair. “Teams tend to develop a kind of tunnel vision when kept to themselves, but once you cross-pollinate a bit it can break the thinking out of molds and force thought in new and innovative directions.”

“Hackathons are excellent ways to get a new perspective not just on a tough problem but also on your own work processes,” adds Prasanth Chinta, an MScA student and senior product consultant at Northern Trust Corporation. “In business today, where lean and fail-fast methodologies are encouraged, having the experience of experimenting in that sort of environment is great preparation for the pressures and expectations of the real world.”

In the end, hackathons are perhaps best seen as contexts for exploratory problem-solving. As templates for how to foster creativity and innovation across workplaces and campuses, they show how even slight disruptions to routine and typically siloed lines of communication can give rise to important new insights. 

For these reasons, Green sees hackathons becoming a staple of the MScA experience moving forward. 

“They give us a context for a lot of fruitful dialogue and collaborations,” he says. “Industry professionals can engage with students while students are able to expand their perspectives on job opportunities. Hackathons are also great ways to re-engage alumni with the program, along with their industry experience and connections. Overall, the excitement of hackathons means people really want to participate.”

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