Are content professionals represented at hackathons?

My wife recently attended a weekend-long hackathon. I noticed that no one at the competition was a content strategist or content professional. Why not?

What’s a hackathon?

A hackathon is a competition where teams compete to create the best version of the concept that they can.

This particular instance was for CourtHack. The idea was to create an app to help indigent people be aware of, and how to apply for, reduced court costs. A noble effort for sure, but I suspect it could’ve been more useful had some folks from the content community been involved. Instead, a volunteer who decided to participate doubled as the team’s “content person”.

So where can content pros pitch in?

“I wouldn’t say it’s super common [having content people at hackathons]”, my wife said. “But it was invaluable having a de facto content strategist on our team this weekend. She had some light coding skills but I don’t think she did any coding — she helped with planning, writing content for the UI, structuring the database in Excel, creating sample data, and the presentation. We kept her busy and really appreciated what she brought to the table.”

What can technical writers, information architects, UX writers, and content strategists contibute?

  • Interview SMEs for insight. This is what we do almost every day.
  • Document the process so the team has something to take away, and potentially share that information with future Court Hackers.
  • The team’s designer created a custom cartoon character. Imagine if a content strategist or information architect was there to create a taxonomy to ensure legal-ese was something easily understood by the app’s audience. The use of plain language could also have made the character come alive.
  • Simplify the content that’s provided so that the widest user base can successfully use the app, and potentially aid translation.
  • Help with the User Interface (design) and User Experience. Take those interviews with SMEs and help make a better product.
  • At the end, each team has three minutes to pitch their product, and 10 minutes of Q&A with the judges. Imagine if a tech writer was there to create and structure the pitch so it was concise and easily understood.
  • Break down the silos between development and design.
  • Show the value of content creation and architecture!

Have you been to a hackathon?

I asked my Facebook friends if they’ve worked with content people at hackathons.

Dossy, who is a well-respected developer, wrote “Depends on the hackathon, but yes, I have been to a hackathon and one of the people on our team was a content person. Was great having someone with that expertise available to contribute their skills”. Dossy is also active on some technical writing forums, so he knows of what he speaks.

Ben Cochran, a Vice President of Front-End Technology, noted that “(I)f there’s a ‘presentation’ aspect to the competition, having someone like that can be super-valuable. Even having them to help ‘rubber ducky debug’ is nice.” Ben, like current STC President Alyssa Fox, noted there have been content folks included in their company’s internal hackathons. Two additional people wrote in to say they wanted to attend one, and have seen some advertising for “all skill sets”, but haven’t actually been to a hackathon.

I have a very small sample size – two hackathons and a few Facebook comments – so I’m curious, have you ever been to a hackathon? Have you ever seen content folks talk about participating in one? Let us know what you think in the comments and/or on Twitter.

2 thoughts on “Are content professionals represented at hackathons?”

  1. I’ve done several, some with my idea. I often did product architecture and design, work on data structure and mappings, figured out application flow, and manual testing – all things I do for real products too.

    In one case where my group was unable to attract a UI developer (they were somewhat scarce) I also did markups of the UI and some proposed flows for our presentation, but I didn’t do a lot of content-specific things.

    I’ve found that a lot of people work on things that aren’t in their normal job description during a hackathon – they use it as an opportunity to learn a new skill, tool, or technology. I would definitely recommend doing that if you feel you can without letting the rest of your team down.

  2. Janice, thanks so much for sharing this. It’s good to hear you’ve participated and had good experiences, and were able to expand your skillset! That’s another benefit I hadn’t considered about attending hackathons.

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