Karbon’s first hackathon (the what, why and how)

When people hear the word ‘hackathon’, it can generate a lot of emotions. Most of the time, people see them as highly technical events involving only software engineers. But they are so much more than that.

Running a hackathon is a great way to bring together a diverse group of people and enable them to hyper-focus on providing real solutions to real problems.

When we ran our first hackathon at Karbon in December 2021, there were certainly a number of people across our global team asking questions like:

  • “What on earth is this about?”

  • “How can we do this during such a busy time?”

  • “Isn’t this just for coders?”

These are all fair questions. As the organizer, it was my job to let our team know that hackathons aren’t static—they can be planned and organized to suit any industry, team, and culture.

What is a hackathon?

Hackathons are short collaborative competition events for an organization to develop solutions to specific problems or challenges. These problems or challenges are often referred to as the theme of the hackathon.

They’re designed to last only a few days for several reasons:

  1. To allow more flexibility across team members’ schedules

  2. To minimize impact on the business

  3. To encourage teams to hyper-focus on a single issue

As such, the solutions that are developed are often more like prototypes than fully-complete outcomes. While often the outcome of a hackathon is a digital solution created by software engineers and software development teams, a lot of modern hackathons are actually starting to focus much more on highly-developed conceptual solutions, particularly where teams include non-technical members.

Hackathons are no longer just for coders. Companies far outside the tech world are using these intense brainstorming and development sessions to stir up new ideas on everything from culture change to supply chain management.

Elizabeth Spaulding and Greg Caimi, Bain & Company

I’ve been running hackathons since 2015, and each time, I have always been amazed by the fantastic ideas generated, the energy that is displayed, and the sheer quality of the end products. On top of that, participants are able to meet and work with colleagues from different departments and even countries, which is a huge boost to company culture.

Plus, many ideas and prototypes generated through the hackathons actually end up being further-developed and implemented as fully functional features.

Why did we run a hackathon at Karbon?

Our team is growing, and running a hackathon was a great opportunity to:

  • Open up new networks across a global team

  • Provide different opportunities for people in Karbon, particularly for each of the organizers (more on that later)

  • Provide many new solution options to the Karbon product team

  • Find solutions for future cross-team collaboration (particularly around various time zones)

How we ran Karbon’s first hackathon

There are many ways to run a hackathon but this is a short summary of the approach we used a Karbon:

  • We created a theme that was broad enough to apply to all departments

  • We established an organizing group. In this case, I asked for help across the entire organization and was inundated with offers from seasoned hackers to first time non-tech volunteers. I offered ongoing support and advice to the newer organizers, and am proud that every organizer—new and experienced—each led their own team.

  • We focused our teams on coming up with solutions rather than fully-developed Karbon features

  • We ran it over 2 days and ensured that none of our various geographical locations were adversely affected

  • We asked everyone at Karbon to be involved

  • We created a Slack channel where each team could submit their final product—a 3-5 minute video explaining their solution.

This approach was quite different from a lot of hackathons, because it involved global participation across all departments, not just tech-focused teams.

But ultimately, a hackathon is what you make it. If you’re considering running your own hackathon, you can adjust it to suit your firm and team however you need.


Tips for running a hackathon at your accounting firm

To best-run a hackathon at your accounting firm, there are a few things you will need:

  • An organizing team

  • A way to organize your entire company (or whoever will be participating) into even teams (it’s important to have a good mix of experience, departments, skills and seniority in each team)

  • A few days that suit the entire organization

  • Agreement on the type of solution to solve—this is essentially defining the theme of the hackathon


However, above all these, my number one tip for a successful hackathon is to gather enough people to help you organize, drive and run the event. In my experience, getting buy-in and support from that group has always been the major factor in a successful hackathon.

Happy hacking!