A Hackathon Philosophy From Warren Wilbee of Microsoft

While doing the weekly hackathon roundup in September, I noticed an uptick in the number of Windows 8 hackathons that are going on. I decided to reach out to Microsoft and see if I can get more information on what they are trying to accomplish, and see what their perspective is on hackathons.

After talking to several people I was directed to a gentleman by the name of Warren Wilbee (@wwilbee), Director of ISV Evangelism at Microsoft. Wilbee is a passionate evangelist, one that isn't just externally evangelizing, he is actively working to evolve internal culture and options about the value of hackathons at Microsoft. When I got on the phone with him, he said the reason I was directed to him is because he had recently circulated an internal memo regarding the makeup and value of hackathons.

He feels strong that hackathons are very useful, you get the opportunity to get X number of people into a room, doing exactly what you want--delivering a very direct result. "Hackathons are purpose built", when you put on a hackathon for developers you get to define exactly what you, sending the desired message your company wants developers to receive, says Wilbee. By contrast, sponsoring a hackathon is a very different exercise and value proposition--proceed with caution. The hackathon organizer gets to define the purpose and drive the outcomes. The sponsor will not have access to this value, potentially excluding you from all the marketing or social "halo" produced at the event. Sometimes there are opportunities to offer a prize that will be in-line with the organizers purpose, but just flashing your logo will not deliver much value to your company.

When you do put on a hackathon, Wilbee is passionate about it being a "participatory event". Get your people to come and participate, don't just require them to show up, make it part of their responsibility to be involved. There is a social and community aspect to hackathons, "the shared experience of being in a room at 3am, committed to a common goal is a galvanizing, bonding experience." This is something you get by just showing up for a short period of time or just sponsoring an event.

In Wilbee’s opinion APIs and software platforms are here to stay, and hackathons do a great job educating people about the value they deliver. We will definitely see more organized efforts around these types of events, across many business sectors, in the future.