How can you wrap your head around MarTech implementations to drive better customer experience?

If you are a marketing professional pondering that question, then consider sending yourself or your team to a hackathon. Such gatherings can be a great way to apply knowledge in developing tech as well as identify hang-ups in its deployment.

I'm talking from experience.

A few weeks ago, I participated in an AT&T Internet of Things (IoT) and Civic Hackathon. On reflection, I realized how hackathons in general offer valuable education that rivals the most expensive and comprehensive training sessions.

The IoT Hackathon Experience

AT&T partnered with the Open Indy Brigade, tech industry leaders and government partners to create the 30-hour event last month, which was held at the newly expanded headquarters of Launch Fishers in Fishers, Ind. near Indianapolis. A tech incubator, Launch Fishers has been in operation for 3 years, and expanded to larger quarters recently to accommodate more entrepreneurs and startups.

Hackathon participantsThe hackathon introduced participants to civic issues increasingly influenced by smart devices and sensors. AT&T Indiana President Bill Soards hosted a few keynote speakers who appealed to the 150 participants — a mixed group of designers, entrepreneurs, students and tech enthusiasts — to consider technological applications to help government officials, law enforcement and emergency services improve their response.

Ben Smaltz, a Republican representative to the Indiana State House, was among the speakers. He noted how his northeastern Indiana district has been hit hard by methamphetamine abuse and his belief that technology can help civil services and citizens.

Participants were free to use data from any source. The State Police Drug Lab and Marion County Emergency Services provided additional data related to the civic needs and services mentioned in the opening keynotes.

Why Hackathons Are Valuable

So what makes a hackathon so valuable?

For one thing, questions and experimentation with solutions can flourish in a hackathon environment without fear of "wrong" answers or, even worst, making a decision that ruins a marketing budget.

Web development is fraught with a lot of trial and error, just like any other engineering effort. Marketers can see up front what goes into the actual work behind the trials and errors, all without a major project budget — and their careers — at risk.

Another benefit of a hackathon is the fact that marketers can interact with people with a wide array of experiences.

For example, my hackathon team included students from various Indiana universities. Some were studying marketing and business; others were studying computer science. I even met a career-changing professional who was completing a software developer training camp.

Useful Hacks and Insights

Don't assume that you have all the answers going in. Sometimes having part of a solution can spark an educational discussion that reveals a useful hack or better work arrangement.

For example, prior to the hackathon, I was using an integrated development environment (IDE) called Cloud 9 for MeteorJS, a JavaScript app framework. Yet I was novice at the IDE tool, concerned that I had not really developed proficiency with the tool, so I did not suggest it at first.

But after discussing the choice of a language for our team, I suggested the IDE. Other developers on the team worked with me on the IDE, allowing me to gain proficiency while allowing the team to get the app development underway.

Each of us worked off of the other’s strengths to complete the project. Learning to work with cross-functional teams and leveraging professional skills within those teams go a long way to make the hackathon experience enjoyable.

Lessons for Customer Experience

From a customer experience perspective, hackathons can help marketers understand what development processes can influence app elements that impact the customer experience.

For example, we used MeteorJS to underpin to create pages that do not require a reload in the browser and to make data access easier.

This meant have features quickly load to make an app seem useful in a pinch. (For more on JavaScript, check out this CMSWire post How to Use JavaScript for App and IoT Development)

By the end of the hackathon, our team had some gaps, but we still had a relatively functioning app one that could be displayed and discussed during the presentation.

There are plenty of hackathons available for marketers to attend, many in settings different than a college or university. Many also support a specific programming language.

For example a group called ChicagoRuby hosts a weekly meetup called Chicago Ruby Hack Night for Ruby On Rails practitioners. Casual gatherings like this allow people from all skill levels to learn and improve their skills.

Chicago, Indianapolis and increasing numbers of other urban areas are open sourcing their data and APIs to encourage developers to create apps that improve the quality of life in their communities.

Opportunities like this can help marketers practice and learn what's going on in the real world, making their real efforts for enhancing customer experience through digital apps and media much better.

Title image "Show me the way of hacking" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Alexandre Dulaunoy