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Why You Should Start Building Your ‘Hackathon’ for Support Professionals, 5 Tips For Running Successful Hackathons

Why You Should Start Building Your 'Hackathon' for Support Professionals, 5 Tips For Running Successful Hackathons

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Running Successful Hackathons. Cybersecurity is a top focus for companies in 2021, and with good reason. Each year that goes by, we advance cybersecurity with new tools and techniques. However, cybercriminals are doing the same thing. With the advancement in computing power, the plummeting cost of tech, and the increased accessibility of the internet globally, cybercriminals are growing in numbers exponentially. This is why the global information security market is expected to reach $170.4 billion by 2022.

2020 ushered in new threats for the cybersecurity industry, with remote workers becoming a top target for bad actors. Cybercriminals sought to exploit a world of people now working from home. They had a distinct advantage they could leverage. Some companies had poor cybersecurity and were only starting their digital transformation journey. Additionally, many workers were unfamiliar with remote working and became prime targets for phishing attacks.

In 2021, the question becomes ‘how do we safeguard our systems in the changing workplace landscape?’. Or, ‘how do we innovate our systems to not only protect against cyber threats but also provide a better experience for our employees and customers?’.

With hackathons!

Cybersecurity Statistics You Need to Know For 2021

Sometimes it helps to look at the statistics to put into perspective how stark a situation is. You might think a hackathon is a fun ‘nice to have’ but not a critical event. However, these figures demonstrate why being proactive about cybersecurity is so essential in 2021.

68% of business leaders believe their cybersecurity risks are increasing

The people at the top of organizations today feel cyber threats are increasing, and action needs to be taken.

88% of organizations globally experienced a phishing attempt in 2019

Phishing attacks remain a top threat, despite ongoing education surrounding cybersecurity hygiene. Studies repeatedly show that a high proportion of cyber attacks happen due to human error, such as employees handing over critical information to the wrong people.

Data breaches exposed 36 billion records in the first half of 2020

36 billion records is a staggering number! These records can be passwords, usernames, driving license details, bank account details, email addresses, and home addresses. Armed with this information, cybercriminals can often gain access to multiple user accounts, either by successfully answering security questions or because the user reused credentials across accounts.

45% of breaches involved hacking, 22% involved phishing, and 17% involve malware

Cybercriminals use varied techniques to gain access to systems, and companies need to be aware of every one.

Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs) have identified ransomware as the top cybersecurity threat in 2021

Ransomware is essentially malware that infects your network and locks you out of your systems. To regain access, you have to pay the cybercriminals a hefty chunk of money, usually in bitcoin. Organizations are advised not to pay the ransom and to use cybersecurity firms to regain access. However, an alarming number of ransomware victims pay the ransom because any operational downtime can be very costly. The best way to protect yourself from ransomware attacks is to ensure you have robust cybersecurity protocols in place and there are no vulnerabilities cybercriminals can exploit.

What Is a Hackathon?

Hackathons are events where the tech wizards of your company come together to work on a specific problem. It usually takes place over a set time period, for example, two days. The support staff are freed of other responsibilities and can focus entirely on the problem at hand.

Hackathons have become increasingly popular over the last five years due to their success. Facebook famously invented the Like button during a hackathon session, and the messaging app GroupMe (which was later bought by Skype) was created during a hackathon.

Hackathons serve two connected purposes:

  • To increase cybersecurity: employees might be told to hack into the company’s systems to highlight weaknesses.
  • To create new products: As we discussed above, sometimes hackathons result in new software that can take the company to the next level.

These aims are connected because when you have robust security, you no longer have to fire-fight. When you’re not funneling resources into continually fighting off cyber attacks hitting your systems, you can focus more resources on inventing new products. Similarly, by creating new products, you can increase your revenues and have more money to spend protecting your systems.

Why Hackathons Are Important

Why Hackathons Are Important

They Expose Your Weaknesses

Cyber-attacks occur because you have a weakness somewhere in your network. Cybercriminals are trying to find these weaknesses before you do so they can exploit them. Don’t let them! If you find the vulnerabilities first, you can patch them up.

Think Like a Cybercriminal

You have to know how your enemy thinks if you want to beat them. By allowing your support professionals to try hacking into your systems, you’re encouraging them to think like a cybercriminal. With this mindset, they’ll be better at foreseeing future risks.

They Foster Innovation and Accelerated Learning

Want to hash out a new software product? Think of a new way to capture the market? Appeal to a new segment? Hackathons are an excellent way of doing this. Having a dedicated sprint of activity also accelerates learning because employees aren’t thinking, “I’ll look at that later” – they’re locked in. This also allows for more creative ideas to flow because they aren’t getting distracted by outside influences.

5 Tips For Running Successful Hackathons

Okay, so you’ve decided you want to run a hackathon, but what next? Where do you start?

1.  Decide What You Want to Accomplish

There’s no such thing as an aimless hackathon. You can’t just put a bunch of your support professionals together and say “go” can expect them to produce something groundbreaking for your company.

In this article, we’ve focused heavily on hackathons concerning cybersecurity because that is why they were initially invented. However, hackathons can have a variety of specific aims. For example, German online retailer Zalando runs hackathons to tackle sustainability. That Vatican runs hackathons to tackle social issues like a response to the European migrant crisis. The only real requirement is that they involve some programming since hackathons are routed in finding tech solutions to the organization’s problems.

Hackathons can often be broken down into several categories. Your hackathon can be one of these or a mixture; it’s for you to decide.

Competitive Hackathons: IBM and Amazon host competitive internal hackathons with prize money up to $10,000. Competitive hackathons work well for cybersecurity because the prize money incentivizes problem-solving. Monetary incentives can work for innovation-style hackathons, but studies repeatedly show that having money on the line doesn’t make us more creative. When we chase a goal for a specific reward (money), we narrow our focus. When we narrow our focus, we become less creative and find it more challenging to think outside of the box. This isn’t a problem for cybersecurity because a narrow focus is an advantage.

Sponsored Hackathons: These aren’t the focus of this article, but they might be something you want to consider in the future. In these events, one organization sponsors a hackathon and invites employees from other companies to participate.

Cross-team: Bringing together different teams to tackle an issue. The idea here is that employees from different teams have different perspectives and skill sets and can bring new ideas to the table.

Innovation Hackathons: These typically don’t involve prize money but will still often have winners and losers. The incentive is often to be credited with a new invention that will bring more opportunity for the company.

2.  Judging Criteria

How do you decide on a winner? And what does the winner get as a reward?

Here are some examples of prizes:

  • Cash prizes: Some companies offer tiers of cash prices where the winner gets a decent chunk, with second and third place getting less. Sometimes companies provide set cash prizes for specific goals within the hackathon, for example, $100 for the first person to break into X part of the system. Participants can accumulate their prizes in alignment with their skills this way.
  • Tech: For example, tablets, smartwatches, laptops.
  • Project confirmation: The innovative concept gets turned into a project.

In terms of judging, it’s essential that the judging is done fairly, so you need to factor this in when picking the judges. It’s a good idea to have judges from different teams. While the IT support manager will have a good understanding of the technical achievements, they could be biased when picking a winner.

3.  Build Excitement

Hackathons are fast-paced events where you aim to achieve big things in a short time period. A successful hackathon requires energized and excited participants, so it’s a good idea to drum up excitement for your event in the months and weeks leading up to it.

4.  Make it Memorable!

Ideally, you want to run hackathons every year so you can continually create great products or solve pressing problems. However, hackathons absolutely require employee buy-in. Sure, you can force your employees to participate, but they won’t feel excited about it or do their best work if they don’t feel excited. You can make your hackathon memorable by picking a fun theme, encouraging employees to dress up, offering tasty food, and so on. Make it fun!

5.  After the Hack

After the hackathon is a great time to learn some lessons and improve for next year’s event. Here’s how you create an even better hackathon next year:

  • Survey participants – Find out what they liked and didn’t like about the event.
  • Perform cost-benefit analysis – What did you achieve? Did the solutions you found potentially save you a lot of money in costly cyber attacks? Did you get a great new concept for a product with high revenue potential?
  • Drum up excitement for next year by posting photos and details of this year’s hackathon on social media.
Running Hackathons During COVID-19

Running Hackathons During COVID-19

At the time of writing, efforts to combat coronavirus through lockdowns, social distancing, and vaccination are still ongoing. For many organizations, this means employees are working from home and will be for the foreseeable future. For these companies, an in-person hackathon event isn’t feasible, but that doesn’t mean you have to abandon the idea. Virtual hackathons are a great alternative. Here are some tips on how to run your virtual hackathon:

  • Create a hackathon landing page – This is a dedicated location where participants or onlookers can find details of the hackathon. These details might be the ongoing progress, who is taking part, how long is left on the clock, and so on. It’s a good idea to have this page to prevent your participants from getting distracted by queries from other staff members.
  • Plan ahead and send placeholder invites – You need to plan hackathons well in advance of the event. You also need to ensure that the participants can get the time off and the event doesn’t fall on a holiday.
  • Do a test run – Participants will need to be connected via teleconferencing calls for an extended period, so it’s essential you iron out any technical hiccups before the event takes place. You don’t want participants getting timed out or disconnected.
  • Allow for social time – Physical hackathons typically involve social time where participants can relax and decompress. However, this time usually happens organically between set tasks. Social time can be more challenging in virtual events because you have to dedicate space for it.

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