Monday, April 22, 2024

The Deep Tech revolution — Part 5: Hackathons

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More often than not, hackers tend to get a bad reputation or, at the very least, a controversial one. In pop culture especially, they are usually portrayed either as cyber-criminals attacking organizations for personal gain or, at the very opposite end of the spectrum, using their skills for something positive. In either case, we are usually presented with the image of someone furiously typing instructions and commands on a keyboard, zoning out in front of a screen while a group of people who may or may not understand what is going on stand behind holding their breath.

Regardless of the representation, there is something that these stereotypical depictions do get right: hackers are highly skilled individuals who use technology, along with the support and knowledge of a like-minded community, to solve technical problems and challenges.

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Thanks to the nature of their core business, companies within the Deep Tech space have successfully found a way to channel the very particular set of skills hackers possess: hackathons are an invaluable resource that can unlock the true potential of a technology, whilst boosting the company’s profile and business.

Meet, hack, create

From the first time a handful of developers spontaneously met to join forces and tackle a problem they were facing, the definition of ‘hackathon’ became easily recognizable. A hackathon is an in-person gathering of experts in programming, research and engineering, working together in a collaborative event aiming to solve a particular challenge or simply explore the potential of a new technology through concrete tools.

Over a few intense days, participants have the opportunity to access a new technology and play around with it, testing what it can do while also looking for different applications and ideas. These events are usually designed to bring experts together in one place, taking them out of their daily environment and comfort zone, enhancing the collaborative nature of the task and fostering constructive confrontation.

At first glance, hackathons might present some similarities with bounty programs. However, they don’t necessarily have a competitive component and are instead more focused on the collective effort and result: where bounty programs are more structured and provide participants with specific frameworks to work with, hackathons center on creativity at a product level.

Organizing a hackathon is all about creating the right conditions for participants to be productive and make the most of the experience. From a technical standpoint, when planning a hackathon, make sure that what you plan to achieve makes sense within your domain and keeps things relevant to your industry. The technology should be presented in an easy-to-use way, developers friendly as much as possible and fully accessible.

The physical space hosting the event should be fit for purpose, designed to make people feel comfortable: it should be quiet and reasonably equipped, as well as providing food, drinks and refreshments throughout the duration of the event. Make sure there is enough room for participants, a big shared space as well as rooms where smaller groups can work: in some cases people come as teams, others might meet there on the day and decide to work together so it’s useful to have separate areas. An environment that encourages people to express themselves technically and socially is crucial, especially for a community more used to virtual gatherings.

A community to learn

Because of some of its organizational components, it might seem that hosting a hackathon requires a lot of work and resources; but as we’ve seen in the previous installments of this series, these are easily compensated by the many benefits the event and its ramifications can bring to your company.

By showcasing your technology and its applications, the hackathon gives people the chance to dive deeper into what the company does and, hopefully, get excited about it. There is clearly an advantage in opening the event to the public, and doing so in a fun and engaging way that speaks to a community always eager to come and play: hackers will like the opportunity to try something new, to create something with it and to network and collaborate with like-minded individuals. Putting the creation of new tools based on your tech on the spotlight is a way to legitimize your work.

During a web3 hackathon hosted by Zama and Fhenix, participating developers were the first to apply a new fhEVM protocol for private smart contracts in blockchain with Fully Homomorphic Encryption (FHE). The event produced 11 projects, all showcasing FHE as a reliable privacy-preserving technology for blockchain in a wide range of use cases, from private voting for DAOs, to confidential prediction markets and privacy-preserving surveys.

A hackathon is also extremely suitable as a tool for growth and development within your organization. The event can be tailored or open as well to employees, developers working for the company but also people in more corporate roles who normally don’t work directly with or on the tech. Participants know something about the technology but not everything: the nature of the hackathon is designed to help people learn, inviting them to work together outside of their usual space, whether this is physical or mental. For example, members of the sales and marketing teams might not know too much about the more technical aspects, but because of their roles they still have to be able to communicate around it effectively; trying their hands directly will give them great insights and detailed knowledge that they can pass on to the external audience for a more complete understanding.

Working with technology and seeing what it can really do is also a great way to explore new ideas for specific products to build around it, find the best approach to promote the tech and the solutions it provides, and identify marketing opportunities that you’ve been missing out on. Not to mention the endless possibilities that will open up after the event: once the hackathon is concluded you will have on your hands a number of projects, ideas and applications, all of which can become success stories to present to media and journalists relevant to your trade and industry.

Advancing tech & growing business

With the emphasis on community, collaboration and engagement, modern hackathons can easily be thought of as social coding events: they are all about motivation, about challenging people with a sensible balance of pressure and incentive, creating a state of rush but with a purpose. People easily buy into the social dimension along with the technical one and reveal themselves in a hackathon, finding a nurturing environment to refine their skills and acquire new ones.

In the Deep Tech space, most companies are still in a startup phase, still finding their footing with regards to the business and management aspects alongside the advancement of their technologies. For organizations in this landscape, hackathons are an incredible tool to balance these different elements and connect them in a productive way: they can help you discover new talents and, more importantly, explore and exploit the full potential of the technology to generate more business.

Image Credit: Edgars Sermulis/Dreamstime.com

Pascal Paillier is a researcher and entrepreneur in cryptography, and the CTO at Zama. He has spent the past 25 years inventing new cryptographic techniques for critical industries.

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