Adopt the Hackathon mindset

Adopt the Hackathon mindset

Why design and hacker thinking is key to solving problems like a 21st - century pro

The “Make in India” initiative was introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a way to promote domestic entrepreneurship and economic problem solving. He explained that the country needs to trust Indians to spur their own economic growth.

“In a democracy like India, we cannot leave the citizens to officialdom. We need to trust 1.25 billion Indians,” he said in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the nation’s parliament.

Billionaire entrepreneur Gururaj Deshpande echoes those sentiments, telling press that two skills are key for today’s professionals. “You can either solve a problem or you can make things,” he says. As he puts it, the key is to get people “within the sandbox excited about solving problems.” Make in India is not just about manufacturing, he says: “we also need design capabilities, coming up with products, new entrepreneurship.” Put simply, everyone can create something new and solve problems smarter, not just macro-industries.

So how can the country promote this mindset? In a broader sense, it’s about empowering Indians to realise that you don’t have to do things the old way, and that creativity is a key tool in any endeavour. More specifically, hackathons and innovative design thinking are two facets that can foster such a new approach.

1. What is a Hackathon?

A hackathon is an intensive event in which computer programmers come together to collaborate on programming projects and goals over the span of one or more days. Skills honed in a hackathon give people the confidence to approach problem-solving from a new, more efficient angle, often as a team.

Such is the success of hackathons that they’re now popular in the non-programming world, too. Even the UK’s National Health Service touts their value, as they are geared towards “a tangible outcome”, they bring together a varied group of participants that can generate new ideas, and the time-pressure “forces you to focus on what really matters.”

It’s not easy, but that’s the point. Indian entrepreneurs such as Ashray Malhotra are excited about how events like this are challenging people to level up. Malhotra’s first encounter with a hackathon was at the MIT Media Lab ReDx workshop conducted in IIT Bombay.

“At the end of the workshop, I was really happy about what I was able to build in a matter of days. After this, I went to Delhi to participate in a ‘Code for India’ hackathon, which I won.” Created to solve big problems in quick ways, Code for India aims to help non-profits overcome technical challenges, from developing better public signage in multi-lingual India, to an app that triggers a distress call for people in dangerous situations.

So how can you think like a hacker without attending a hackathon?

2. The Hackathon Mindset

Adopting a hacker mindset is about getting things done, says Malhotra. Just as a cake is made up of simple ingredients, a complex project can be broken down to simple actions. “Stop thinking that you can’t achieve your goal,” he advises. “Any task may seem daunting at first. Keep breaking it down into smaller chunks until all of the tasks seem simple enough to do. Then get to work and get it done.”

Still flustered? Try changing the rules, like Arunachalam Muruganantham did.

A school dropout from Coimbatore, Muruganantham does not fit the stereotypical image of an innovator. Yet he has won several accolades for his innovative machine that makes low-cost sanitary pads. He is also famous for saying that one should look for a simple solution to a complex problem, instead of approaching innovation the other way around.

“Everyone,” says Malhotra, “is capable of being a designer or a hacker who can solve problems.”

So how can you think like a designer and hacker?

3. Design Thinking: Be Hands-on

As Malhotra says, it is important “to realise that, to actually make a difference to the world, you need to be a doer and learn how things actually work.”

And designers are doers. A process known as “design thinking” has become popular in the coding and programming world, and it is something entrepreneurs and CEOs alike are beginning to adopt. Using human-centric logic to solve problems, this process is what drives innovation in PepsiCo, reveals its CEO Indra Nooyi.

The reason design thinking is effective — and difficult — is that it seems so counterintuitive. SAP’s Kaan Turnali points out that you have to embrace failing early and failing often, and be open to negative emotions. “Empathy opens up nerve endings so we can feel what it is like to be in another’s shoes — a prerequisite for customer-centric design. We need to get as frustrated as the users/customers so we can better understand the pain points,” he wrote in the article “What is Design Thinking.”

Once you understand pain points, you just need to work out how to hack your way out of them.

4. Think Like a Hacker: Be Weird, Be Fearless

Thinking like a hacker involves searching for out-of-left-field but achievable solutions to your problem.

In Smartcuts: The Breakthrough Power of Lateral Thinking, the author sites a classic thought problem as an example: You’re driving on a rainy night when you see three people thumbing a lift — your best friend, a frail old woman and the love of your life. Your car can only take one passenger. Who do you pick up? Answer: You give the keys to your friend, he drives the old lady, and you stay with your loved one, of course!

Want to think like a hacker, too? Follow these tenets outlined on a blog at the London School of Economics:

  1. Challenge accepted! (Barriers are welcome)
  2. Blow away the box. Look for unexpected ways to make something better.
  3. Bring your friends. Unique perspectives create more robust solutions.
  4. Give it away now. Information and knowledge should be shared openly, freely.
  5. Pay it forward. Teach the next generation to think like a hacker.