Why Hackathons totally pwn Conferences

Hackathons are not an efficient or effective “process” to create and launch finished commercial products nor are they as well organized or comprehensive as traditional conferences.

So what.

At a Hackathon, you don’t make small talk… you make something happen.

I think Hackathons, and more specifically Hackathons focused on healthcare, are a brilliant idea and exactly what we need to inject a shot of innovative adrenalin directly into the beating heart of our Canadian life sciences and health startup community. More importantly, I think Hackathons can help build the understanding and relationships between clinicians and techies that will be necessary to fix our antiquated healthcare system.

Here’s why:

Conferences don’t really matter anymore

If Hackathons are a fad, then conferences are a dead horse that we just keep beating and beating and beating…

What is a conference really? Well for the most part it’s a full week away from home costing an average of $3,000.00 to attend when you factor in registration, travel expenses, hotel and meals with very little real return on the investment of either time or money.

Here’s how the average one plays out:

When the attendee arrives there is a pre-defined agenda that, like the swag bag, includes a great deal of relevant material, a great deal of filler and more and more a great deal of vendor pitches thinly masked as scholarly presentations. [Full disclosure, I’m usually a vendor attendee].

The presentation format is always a traditional broadcast session where either a speaker or panel presents to a larger audience and “interaction” takes place via questions from the mics at the end of the sessions. Generally someone then hogs the entire question time making an irrelevant and rambling personal statement while the speaker(s) politely look anxious. There may also be a Twitter wall that no one on stage will ever mention.

At mealtime, the food at conferences is strategically located on the vendor trade show floor to force attendees to interact with the conference sponsors. Attendees therefore must navigate the booth labyrinth quickly, trying not to make direct eye contact with the overly enthusiastic sales folk while all they really want is to cash in their meal coupon for a chicken salad wrap and cup of soup.

Conferences are good, but not great

At best conferences are a chance to network with folks in your industry you probably already know, meet with vendors that you would like to engage with while avoiding the ones you don’t, get out for a night on the town and shift the bill to one of your bigger suppliers and collect business cards from everyone else.

There will be a few speakers that really stand out, a few ideas that push your thinking in new directions but is attending a conference a really good use of your time, money, resources?

More so, does anyone really believe a conference is a very efficient format for producing breakthroughs or innovation? I think they are great places to learn about breakthroughs and innovative things that have already happened but so is Google and it’s a lot faster and cheaper.

Conferences aren’t completely irrelevant though and do add value. I get a great deal out of attending smaller, very focused and well-run events like eHealth but for me bigger shows like HIMSS have become more of an overproduced spectacle now than a true networking and learning experience.

The problem with conferences is that I end up talking to people I already know not really meeting many new contacts. That’s because most conferences have become an absolute sea of people and have lost any chance of being the intimate gatherings of experts seeking to exchange information and ideas that they once were.

Why Hackathons are better than conferences

Hackathons are conferences where you have fun, learn, interact and network by creating real things. They are not passive events; they are active races against the clock to collaborate and achieve with an electricity and energy that you can actually feel rippling across the room.

The great thing is that anyone can attend a Hackathon. While conferences are expensive and require time off of work which either means that junior folks doing the actual work in organizations won’t be allowed to attend, or will have to do so by taking vacation days and paying out of their own pocket.

Hackathons take place over weekends allowing attendees to fit the event into their busy schedule. They are also very inexpensive. In fact, for the most part, Hackathons cost attendees a nominal fee between $20 and $50 for the entire weekend. With your ticket you generally get all meals for the weekend included as well. Why is this important? Because it allows young people such as students and those in the entry-level positions at organizations to attend, build their network and hone their tech, analyst, design, collaboration, teamwork and Red Bull drinking skills with a minimal time and financial commitment.

Hackathons are much more democratic than conferences

The best ideas and projects get worked on because the attendees decide where they will invest their time and focus. Rather than an “agenda” put together by conference organizers, the clinicians pitch their problems and /or ideas and teams form around solving the problems or pursing the ideas that interest the most individuals. There are no vendors padding the agenda, no politics being played and rank and pedigree don’t matter. What it comes down to is that if your idea isn’t good, it doesn’t go anywhere. If you’re problem is interesting or challenging enough… it will.

Hackathons develop skills, relationships and sometimes products

Who cares if the weekend produces no major breakthroughs or innovations? What it does accomplish is much more important anyway.

The interaction that takes place at a Hackathon between attendees is extremely intense. People really get to know, like, trust and understand one another quickly. This is because of the focused shared experience a Hackathon provides.

Unlike a conference where you will meet a whole lot of people briefly at a session in a hallway or over your chicken salad wrap, at a Hackathon you will get to know a small team of focussed individuals who are interested in the same things you are. And you’ll get to know them very well.

So what exactly happens at a Hackathon?

Well on Friday night you meet your team members for probably the first time. There is an initial awkward set of introductions and probably an even more awkward icebreaker game. About an hour or two into the evening teams start to mesh together, leaders emerge, roles are established and everyone gets to work.

After two days (and possibly two nights) of non-stop creative work together, eating together, helping each other solve problems together, motivating each other to keep going in a race against the clock you really get to know the other people around the table intimately. This is impossible to replicate in a tradition conference setting.

Hackathons are truly a much more efficient means of relationship building. Rather than walking away with a pocket full of business cards and trying to put names and faces together weeks later, you really do have the opportunity to develop deep relationships and even friendships due to having gone though an intense shared experience together. This is a quality over quantity argument but I find it very compelling.

The reason a Hackathon is much more effective at building relationships is that you and your team have a focus. You are creating something together. Contrast that with a conference where you are simply following an agenda from session to session with little or no cohesion or related outcomes.

Hackathons don’t deliver on creating commercialized products. Who cares?

Hackathons may not be great at developing an entire functioning product that can or will be commercialized, but that’s not the point really. Hackathons get people working together to think about problems and interact in difference ways than they would in their day-to-day roles.

Let me walk you though a typical scenario at at Hacking Health event. The room fills quickly with two of the most introverted groups of people on the planet, clinicians and techies. It more resembles a junior high school dance than a conference as the two groups stake out their positions on opposite sides of the room.

Then the organizers prod the clinicians to the front to explain their challenges, problem or ideas in a “pitch” format. They generally start off very intimidated and hesitant at first but as they get deeper into their pitch, frustration, passion, hope, despair, all sorts of energy starts to drive them and they often pour their hearts out to the crowd getting years of pent up stuff off of their chests.

Then the magic happens…

A techie pulls out a Mac Book and starts working away at something. The clinicians gather around and start to interact with the techies. Excitement builds and more and more people join in or start their own groups. Momentum and anticipation takes over and very soon clinicians are gesticulating madly, developers are coding away and an electricity sweeps the room that you can almost feel. Why? Because people are excited, engaged and feel that what they are doing is going to make a difference and help people.

What they are really doing… is learning to understand each other.

While they may not be able to produce a commercial product by the end of the weekend, perhaps that Radiologist who used to constantly criticize IT constantly for not being able to just “computerize” something will now understand the complexities of actually developing an online solution to a problem. Perhaps a developer will pick up the phone and schedule some face-to-face time with clinicians to really understand their workflow rather than develop and ship code that no one will ever use.

These are the quick wins that a Hackathon can score that will add up to big victories long after the weekend is done.

By now the objections are already forming…

“But we don’t want clinicians thinking that they can just code up a solution on their own without IT involved”

Actually most of the clinicians I’ve spoken to and interviewed during or after Hackathon events tell me that they now really understand the challenges faced by IT in developing and implementing innovative solutions. The “why can’t they just…” attitude gets a major adjustment when clinicians see first hand how difficult it can really be for IT folks.

“Hackathons are only for people with spare time on weekends”

Total BS. The type of person most likely to attend a Hackathon is an MD, Nurse or highly skilled software developer. These people have zero spare time during the week. They are frustrated with the status quo an want to make a difference. Yes it cuts into family time, yes it takes up an entire weekend but if you want to change the world, you have to prioritize your time.

“App contests are overly competitive and unhealthy ways of creating innovation”

Hackathons are not really contests where you compete against other teams. You are pushing yourself and your team to the limit to achieve something together in a short period of time. The level of personal support provided among team members is truly incredible. More importantly, the level of support between teams is even more incredible. Everyone is there to succeed and to help others succeed in creating something new and exciting. If only organizations worked this way, imagine what could be accomplished!

“The projects they produce will be incomplete, not fully baked, insecure etc…”

So What? If you think of a Hackathon as more of a training exercise to teach clinicians how to best articulate their problems to IT and for IT folks to learn how to interact with clinicians in order to create things that are useful then it is an extremely effective process.

Let’s face it, clinicians spend a great deal of time learning medical procedures and developers spend a great deal of time learning about technology. When do either group or their employers really devote time and money towards building cross-functional teams involving Doctors and developers to solve problems?

When do clinicians and techies ever really talk? Let alone spend a weekend of their free time together building something?

If anything most of roadblocks that I see to breakthroughs and innovation in healthcare are due to the inability of these two groups to work together or even meet each other.

Hackathons engage the next generation of starters and doers

The most important aspect of a Hackathon is that it engages the next generation of leaders, starters, doers and front line workers that we will need more than ever in the coming years.

Anyone under 30 is not going to attend a conference and get anything out of it. They won’t be part of the “old boys club” and get invited to the right after hour’s parties where the real business is done. They won’t find the sessions particularly intellectually stimulating as they’ve probably just spent years attending similar lectures at University.
The next generation of leaders want to jump in and actually do something. They want to roll up their sleeves and to make a difference and they want to do it now.

A brilliant Gen Y 20-something doesn’t see value in traditional networking and building relationships unless it is around a common interest or to achieve a common goal. This is a great thing! We need people who can and want to get things done and who will challenge the way things have always been done to find a better solution.

For this demographic, Hackathons create opportunities where they can learn, explore, engage, meet people from different parts of the industry, expand their world view, solve problems, demonstrate the possibilities of collaboration and technology in a safe and encouraging environment.

For them, a Hackathon is both an awesome investment of time and a lot of fun.

Hackathons are more fun

What more could I ask for out of a weekend then to make new and interesting friends, learn something incredible about other people, the healthcare system and technology, win some recognition from my peers, eat tuna sandwiches sitting on the floor coding against the clock to help the team succeed, drinking my entire entrance fee in Red Bull…

Let’s face it Hackathons are fun!

Just check out these pictures from the latest edition of Hacking Health and you’ll understand why people attend and keep coming back.

In conclusion…

Are Hackathons a fad? I don’t know. But I’ll bet anyone that traditional conferences will start to include elements of Hackathons into their programing to become more interesting and worthwhile as they attempt to re-invent themselves to remain relevant. If Hackathons accomplish nothing else, but to hack the very idea of what a conference is and can be, then I’m satisfied.

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