By Steve Kelman

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How hackathons help with more than code

Shutterstock image: light bulb with gears.

I noticed on FCW.com over the weekend a new story by FCW reporter Zach Noble called, "Outside techies clean up at Hackathon." The article is about the General Services Administration's recent foray into the world of hackathons, so common in contexts outside government. GSA brought in 60 outsiders -- many but not all individual employees of federal contractors -- to work in teams for a day developing apps to help GSA with various data problems. Each member of the two winning teams got prizes of $1000, a small reward that, as the FCW article pointed out, made the hackathon a subject of "snarky condescension" in a piece in the Washington Post.

For those of us less snarky by nature, there were a number of fascinating aspects to the story.

The big one is that people did indeed show up. Why? Most of the folks there were contractor employees. One, Booz Allen's Michael Bray, said half a dozen Booz folks came out because "we like this kind of stuff, it's a fun challenge and you get out of the office for a day."

I think it is positive all around when contractor employees (and their companies) think it's OK to engage the government in a non-traditional, more informal way, and where their organizations don't see the government solely as a source of revenue, but also as partners engaged in the crucial business of serving the public.

Second, one of the contest winners was Gene Chorba, a senior computer science major at Georgia State University. In the article, he stated that this was just one of many hackathons he was attending to make connections as he gets ready to graduate and plunge into the job market. This suggests some very not-the-usual-suspects types can be attracted to hackathons, which other agencies might want to organize.

And -- on this I am not surprised -- Chorba was the source of the most-innovative ideas to emerge from the Hackathon. He started developing apps to allow GSA's Public Buildings Service to make better use of data being generated in the buildings it manages, and also to test for connections between maintenance activities and customer satisfaction. Chorba was quoted as saying he was disappointed with how little of the GSA building data was actually complete and usable, so he prioritized creating a method to funnel more useful data into the system.

The success of an outsider in solving a problem ties in with experience in using procurement contests and prizes in the private sector, where one of the big benefits is getting participation from non-traditional, garage-type players. This can be expected from hackathons as well. "I'm going to tear up the contract that we were going to give to a contracting firm" because of the success of Chorba's effort, said Phaedra Chrousos, chief customer officer at GSA. (Hope this doesn't discourage contractors from participating in hackathons, or, even worse, motivate them to try to stop the government from using this approach elsewhere.)

I really like the idea of the government using an eclectic mixture of tools to improve IT in particular and management in general. The backbone of such efforts will of course continue to be traditional contracts and contractors. But these should be complemented by other approaches to mix things up -- whether they be the Digital Service Corps, 18F, procurement contests or hackathons such as the one GSA organized. I am for all of the above.

These varied approaches can be a source of innovative ideas that the traditional world of government agencies and government contractors are less likely to develop. They can also provide competition to the existing contractor ecosystem, which in my view is all to the good, while at the same time exposing government people to new ways of thinking that are a little less-buttoned down and conventional.

Posted by Steve Kelman on May 12, 2015 at 5:55 AM


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